The question often arises about the celebration of Halloween by Catholics. Is it, for instance, "pagan" to dress up and go about as ghosts and goblins? The question often comes up because many modern Christians (mostly non-Catholic ones) believe Halloween has something to do with worshipping the devil and participating in witchcraft. The truth is, the origins of Halloween are rooted deeply in the theology and popular customs of Catholics. It is a revision of actual history to say that our modern celebration of Halloween has origins in Druid customs. It is true that the ancient Celts celebrated a major feast (Celtic New Year) on October 31st, but the fact is that they celebrated a festival on the last day of almost every month.
First of all, the celebration of Halloween, i.e., people dressing up in costumes, going to parties, and "begging" for candy, is not un-Catholic.
Halloween falls on October 31st because the Feast of All Saints or "All Hallows" falls on November 1st. The feast in honor of all the Saints used to be celebrated on May 13th, but Pope Gregory III, in 731, moved it to November 1st, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter's in Rome. This feast spread throughout the world.
In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in France, added a celebration on November 2nd. This was a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. Therefore, the Church had a feast of the Saints and those in Purgatory.
It was the Irish Catholics who came up with the idea to remember somehow those souls who did not live by the Faith in this life. It became customary for these Irish to bang on pots and pans on All Hallow's Eve to let the damned know that they were not forgotten. In Ireland, then, ALL the dead came to be remembered. This, however, is still not exactly like our celebration of Halloween. On Halloween we also dress up in costumes.
This practice arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. During the horrible bubonic plague, the Black Death, Europe lost half of her population. Artists depicted this on walls to remind us of our own mortality. These pictures and representations are known as the "Dance of Death" or "Dance Macabre." These figures were commonly painted on cemetary walls and showed the devil leading a daisy chain of people into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was re-enacted on All Soul's Day as a living tableau, with people dressed up as the dead. But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween, and the Irish, who celebrated Halloween, did not dress up.
The two were brought together in the colonies of North America during the 18th century, when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. Thus the two celebrations became mingled, and we began dressing up on Halloween. It is, as we can see, a very "American" holiday, but Catholic as well.
"Trick-or-Treating" is a very odd addition to Halloween. It is the most American aspect of the holiday, and is the (unwilling) contribution of English Catholics.
Guy Fawkes Day became a great celebration against Catholics in England. It celebrated the day the plot to blow up Parliament and King James I was discovered. This was on November 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes was the rather reckless man guarding the gunpowder. He was arrested and hanged. During these times of persecution of the Catholic Church, bands of revelers would wear masks and visit Catholics in the night demanding they be given cakes and beer.
Guy Fawkes Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. Old King James had long been forgotten, but "Trick-or-Treating" was too much fun to give up. Eventually, it moved to the Irish/French Catholic masquerade. This practice of "Trick-or-Treating" was simply moved to coincide with the Catholic celebration involving dressing up. Also, among the Druids, candy was used to welcome the good spirits, and masks (jack o'lanterns) were used to scare away the evilspirits. I believe Halloween can still serve the purpose of reminding us about Hell and how to avoid it. Halloween is also a day to prepare us to remember those who have gone before us in Faith, those already in Heaven, and those still suffering in Purgatory. The next time someone claims Halloween is a cruel trick to lure our children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of Halloween and let them know about its Catholic roots and significance.
(By Fr. Scott Archer)