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The Anti-Catholic Origins of Halloween The Anti-Catholic Origins of Halloween
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-10-31 11:10:41
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Every year, on the last day of October, millions of people celebrate Halloween. Children  look forward to dressing out in their favorite costumes and then go around the neighborhood for a night of fun and the gathering of succulent candies. Some of those costumes are scary, representing ghosts, goblins and monsters, which only adds to the fun and the excitement.

Actually, the celebrations begin the Sunday before with parents taking their children to a so called pumpkin patch, or a super-farm where one can buy pumpkins and other vegetable and take a hay ride on a train through the farm. In a way it becomes a foreshadowing of Thanksgiving a month later; almost a harvest festival, which Thanksgiving really is. In fact, Halloween is chronologically closer to the harvest than Thanksgiving.

From time immemorial harvest festivals have been around in many parts of the globe, some of them pagan or secular, others tied to religious customs such as Thanksgiving. So the question arises: is Halloween a Christian or a pagan event, or perhaps a combination of the two; a pagan religious event of sort? Few bother to ask and answer such a question. It’s enough for them to have innocent fun. And yet the etymology of the word Halloween already hints at the answer to the conundrum. Let’s explore it etymologically and historically.

The celebration actually goes back 1,300 years. The word Halloween itself is nothing else but a contraction of “all hallows eve” which designated the vigil of All Hallows Day, more generally known as All Saints Day.

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Hallow is an old English noun for saint. It can also be a verb; in that case it means to make something holy or to honor it as holy. Undoubtedly this is a religious connotation, be it pagan or Christian. Actually, in the Catholic liturgy, November 1 marks All Saints Day, considered a holiday of obligation. Both the day itself and its vigil have been celebrated since the early eight century, as instituted by Pope Gregory III in Rome and later extended to the Church as a whole by Pope Gregroy IV.

So, it is obvious that the forgotten roots of the celebration are Christian. Nevertheless, there have been various attempts to demonstrate a connection between the vigil of All Saints and the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. They began a thousand years later within Celtic peasant culture where the memory of the harvest festival had survived. This is similar to the Christmas tree which owes it origins to pre-Christian Germanic traditions without being a purely pagan ritual.

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Which were those Celtic elements? They included lighting bonfires, carving turnips (in America pumpkins), and, most telling, going from house to house to collect treats, almost as carolers do at Christmas. What about the occult aspects, such as ghosts and demons? Those too may at first sight appear pagan, but in fact they can be traced to Catholic beliefs. They believed that at certain times of the year the veil separating earth and purgatory, heaven and hell becomes more transparent so that the souls in purgatory (the ghosts) or the demons in hell can be more readily seen. So the tradition of Halloween costume owes much more to Christian belief than to Celtic tradition.

The more modern aspects of Halloween can be traced to post-Reformation England when All Saints Day and its vigil were suppressed while the Celtic peasant customs associated with Halloween were outlawed, just as Christmas and all the traditions around it were also outlawed. In fact, Christmas itself was banned in 1647. In America, the Puritans followed suit and outlawed both Christmas and Halloween. They were only revived later by German immigrants (for Christmas) and Irish immigrants (for Halloween) in the 19th century.

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The opposition to Halloween continued however, as an expression of anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish prejudice. But, by the time we reach the 20th century both Christmas and Halloween had been commercialized. Perhaps this train of events is what the Puritans had in mind when they banned those celebrations. Be that as it may, what became very popular were the pre-made costumes, the decorations, the special candies, while the Christian origins were widely downplayed. In the late 70s and 80s horror films enter the stage and Satanists create a whole mythology with Halloween at its center complete with witches, demons, and monsters of all kinds.

By the late 80s there is a new anti-Catholic backlash against Halloween by some non-Catholic Protestants. They literally demonized the celebration by branding it as the “Devil’s Night.” The likes of Jack Chick, a rabid anti-Catholic fundamentalist, were in charge of this anti-Catholic frontal assault. Since then Halloween has acquired a bad reputation albeit it seems to have remained popular with children. That being the case, what, if anything, are the alternatives? One could be to celebrate the day simply as a “harvest festival.” What happens then to the original all saints day? It is corrupted and ultimately decoupled from Halloween and the liturgical calendar (Ember days for instance), which I suppose it’s perfectly fine within a secularized society inimical to religion in general. Another alternative, which would preserve the Catholic origins of the celebration is to substitutes ghouls, goblins, demons,  witches and monsters, with costumes of saints as the best exemplars of what Socrates called “a life worth living” something positive that children would remember later on in their adult life. After all the feast is at its origins already a Christian holiday; why not keep it that way?


     
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