Our reference desk takes a look at the origins of All Hallows Eve (Halloween).
Each year at this time students throng to the library looking for Halloween stories or biographies of Catholic saints for book reports. Few holidays presents as much confusion as Halloween and its relationship to All Saints Day (November 1st). Many schools, families, and communities have done away with Halloween celebrations altogether. Some have replaced Halloween with “Harvest Festivals” or “All Saints Day Parties.”
Halloween is a combination of holidays, some “pagan,” some Christian. The Romans celebrated the occasion as the festival of Pomona, goddess of gardens. The ancient Celts called the holiday “Samhain,” or “end of summer,” and observed the day as the end of the food-growing season. The Celts believed that ghosts of people visited the earth on Samhain (October 31st), and they lit bonfires atop hills to scare the ghosts away.
When the Celts became Christians, they, and other Christian groups, appropriated the holiday as a festive prelude to the day on which to remember those Christians who have left this world and live with Jesus. According to the New Testament these people are referred to as saints. All Saints Day was known then as All Hallows Day (All Holy Day), so inevitably the evening before was called All Hallows E’en, or All Holy Evening. Eventually the term was shortened to Halloween.
The customs of Halloween are throwbacks to this early festival. It became customary to begin festival days by inviting guests and by being a guest. Such hospitality is the original intent of “trick-or-treat.” In some countries Catholics wear scary masks and travel door to door—and then grave to grave—all the while serenading those they visit. The purpose is to help the dead feel more comfortable in the company of the living.
Among some central European countries on All Hallows Eve, fat, white turnips are hollowed out and carved into the shape of grinning skulls. Candles illuminate them from within. These customs serve as reminders that Christians do not fear physical death because they have eternal life.
The feast of All Saints Day is focused on those that are deceased “brothers and sisters in the Lord.” They are remembered as beacons that help light the path in this world. As St. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1).
Whether you celebrate Halloween, The Day of the Dead, or All Saints Day have a wonderful, happy day.