It is once again that time of year that the late Ray Bradbury famously dubbed “the October Country.” The waning of the year brings to more temperate regions the closure of harvest, the falling leaves, and the preparation for the succession of holidays that close and open each year in every country. Just as regularly as the winter brings the annual Christmas vs. Holiday conflict, so does the Autumn give us the just as annual Halloween war.
On the one side of the latter struggle are ranged an unlikely coalition of combatants: Wiccans, occultists, Protestant fundamentalists, and Catholic would-be Traditionalists, who see in the mysterious revel that ends October a deeply anti-Christian celebration of all that is dark, pagan, or even Satanic. While their opinions of whether this is a good or bad thing differ wildly, their methodology does not. Opposed to them are those who see in the annual ritual of Jack O’Lanterns, costumes, trick-or-treating, apple bobbing and the rest innocent fun – the chance to combine the touch of the scary that most people enjoy with the chance to party and consume some sweets. This side see in their opponents a mere tribe of kill-joys out to ruin whatever fun (a continually diminishing commodity in to-day’s world) they can. While my sympathies lies in large part with this group, I must say that their view puts far too little into the observance, even as their antagonists put far too much.
Part of the problem is that the Halloween is pagan/evil crowd tend to put too much stock into the erroneous history peddled by Neo-Pagans. It is based upon the notion, first advanced by Margaret Murray in the 1920s (building on Fraser’s Golden Bough), that the witches of Medieval and early modern Europe were not in fact followers of Satan, as asserted by Christians, but practitioners of an age-old pre-Christian faith that was subsequently persecuted by the Church and driven underground. When, two decades later, attempts were made to recreate the rituals of this supposed religion, efforts were made to “re-paganise” Halloween and the other Christian festivals. Given that many of those involved were talented writers – and that the media and academia were growing slowly but increasingly anti-Christian – said efforts were injected into the popular consciousness.
It is extremely important to remember that Halloween was and is far from the only victim in this campaign. Old Christmas’ holly and mistletoe were really Druid; its Christmas trees were remnants of Thor Worship; Santa Claus himself and his innumerable fellow gift-givers were shamans; and the Son whose birth is being celebrated is really Sol Invictus. Easter “really” commemorates the resurrection of Nature after Winter and the fertility famously signified by bunnies, while the bonfires of the eves of May and the Feast of St. John were really in honour of various pagan deities. On and on it went around the Church Year. Halloween was a particularly choice target, because of its traditional association with the dead, with fairies, and with witches. In all of this farrago of small historical facts, there emerged a tremendous lie.
Certainly many of the folk customs that surround our holy days have pre-Christian roots; but there is an important reason for this. Mankind has a limited number of ways available to them to honour anything. The fact that dead languages, incense, candles, fire, and water – and often enough, bread and wine – are used in any number of pre- and non-Christian cults led innumerable anti-Catholic writers after the Protestant revolt to label our various liturgies as “pagan.” The early Church saw use of these things as well as the appropriations of various pagan holy sites to Christian worship as the taking of natural goods away from the worship of demons and turning them to their rightful Supernatural end. This spirit is summed up admirably in the 19th century indulgenced prayer to Our Lady, Queen of the Rosary of Pompeii:
O august Queen of victories, Virgin who reignest in paradise, whose mighty name causes heaven to rejoice and hell to tremble, glorious Queen of the most holy Rosary, we, thy happy children chosen by thy goodness in this century to build thee a temple at Pompeii, kneeling at thy feet on this solemn day to commemorate thy latest triumphs on the spot where idols and demons were formerly worshipped…
Indeed, commenting in this vein on the customs of Epiphany Eve, Dom Guéranger makes an important point:
For the last three hundred years, a puritanical zeal has decried these simple customs, wherein the seriousness of religion and the home enjoyments of certain Festivals were blended together. The traditions of Christian family rejoicings have been blamed under pretexts of abuse; as though a recreation, in which religion had no share and no influence, were less open to intemperance and sin. Others have pretended, (though with little or no foundation,) that the Twelfth Cake and the custom of choosing a King, are mere imitations of the ancient pagan Saturnalia. Granting this to be correct, (which it is not,) we would answer, that many of the old pagan customs have undergone a Christian transformation, and no one thinks of refusing to accept them thus purified. All this mistaken zeal has produced the sad effect of divorcing the Church from family life and customs, of excluding every religious manifestation from our traditions, and of bringing about what is so pompously called, (though the word is expressive enough,) the secularisation of society. [Emphasis his].
Having made a similar point about St. John’s fires, the learned Benedictine closes his considerations of that observance by saying:
Blessed are those populations amongst whom is still preserved something of such customs, whence the old simplicity of our forefathers drew a gladness assuredly more true and more pure than their descendants seek in festivities wherein the soul has no part!
A more modern writer, folklorist Ronald Hutton, has pointed out in his The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700, with exhaustive documentation, that the English folk customs that Wiccans point to as remnants of paganry were indeed bits of the “Old Religion.” That Old Religion was not some imaginary pre-Christian cult, however, but Catholicism pure and simple. It is a mark of just how secularized – in Dom Guéranger’s sense – that we have all become that even many faithful Catholics have come to believe the Wiccan arguments.
So just where does that leave us in regard to Halloween? It is certainly true that many pre- and modern day non-Christian peoples have “uncanny” festivals dedicated to the dead, from the Japanese Obon and the Chinese “Hungry Ghosts” observances to the Arab “Thursday of the Dead.” It is also true that – pace modern Neo-Pagans – every culture has had a belief in witches, in the sense of people who give themselves up to whatever they saw as spiritual evil in return for supposed preternatural powers. So far from being the creation of the Church, even the Catholic prohibition against witchcraft is rooted not in the Church Fathers but in the Jewish Old Testament; even to-day, in pagan parts of China and Africa those suspected of witchcraft are routinely put to death by their outraged neighbours (although these accusations may well be as false as the religions followed by those neighbours). The same is also true with the universal belief in fairies, elves, menehunes, or whatever other odd race or races of beings the locals believe they share their particular landscape with. Erroneous or not, such notions are as old as Mankind, and to be found wherever Men dwell.
So it was with the ancient Celts, who are considered to be, in the main, the originators of Samhain, an observance that plays the same ambiguous role with the origins of Halloween as the Saturnalia does with those of Christmas. Occurring in late October, it was indeed seen as a time when “the veil between the worlds is very thin,” in the phrase now endlessly repeated in this season of the year. The Celtic “Otherworld” was the place where both the dead and the fairies dwelt, and from the malign aspects of which witches drew their power. When Catholicism came to the Celtic lands – as it does to all other places – it brought two important gifts no Druid could offer: Eternal Salvation, thanks to her dogmas and Sacraments, and strong protection against the Dark, the forces of Preternatural Evil – which, however, by definition could not and would not cease their struggle against the forces of Light. When on November 1, 731, Pope Gregory III consecrated an Oratory at St. Peter’s to All the Saints, the feast of All Saints found its origin. By 800, it was being celebrated in Ireland, and as it happened, Samhain fell on that very day. All the dead were liturgically prayed for on various days in the different Catholic Rites – as they are to-day on the Souls’ Saturdays of the Byzantine Churches. But two centuries after All Saints Day made its appearance, Bl. Odilo of Cluny began the observance of All Souls on November 2 – a date which was soon observed throughout the West. Many customs coalesced around these two feasts, differing from culture to culture. But the liturgical expression tied them all together: surely there is nothing so expressive as the transition in the traditional Latin Liturgy on the night of All Saints, when the festive Second Vespers of the feast immediately makes way for the sombre Vespers of the Dead. Thus arose the custom in many places of visiting the cemeteries that night and lighting candles – an eerie but truly beautiful scene.
So where does all of this put us to-day as far as Halloween is concerned? On one level, I would retain most of what is customary – though definitely no Ouija Boards or summoning of the Dead! Enjoy the costumes, candy, and Jack O’Lanterns – indeed, all the fun of the spooky night, “Monster Mash” and all. But bear in mind that the remote origins of Trick or Treating are in the old custom of “Souling” – once done throughout the British Isles and elsewhere, and still popular in Portugal. People would go from door to door offering to pray for the dead of the house in return for goodies. It is a simple trick of Halloween magic to return it to its roots by having your children pray for the dead of those who gave them candy before they start eating it – and to put small notes asking for prayers for your own dead in the bags of candy you in turn distribute. I do this myself, and often enough returning trick-or-treaters assure me the following year that they did so.
Beyond that, put Halloween back into its proper place in your house as simply the beginning of the “Hallowtide” Triduum (including All Saints and All Souls) and the Month of the Holy Souls. Go to Mass the following two days, and if you are near or attend a parish that does the Vespers earlier described, attend them. Visit the cemetery on either or both the following days – your own family plot if nearby; you can also visit cemeteries during the Octave of All Saints (November 1-8), pray for the Holy Souls, and gain a Plenary Indulgence for them.
Further, the Month of the Holy Souls is a wonderful time to teach your children and educate yourself on what the Church teaches on the one hand about the Communion of Saints and Purgatory, and on the other about the Sacramentals that protect us from the dark – holy water, St. Benedict medals, and the rest. Read the work of exorcists such as Frs. Amorth and Ripperger, and truly Catholic writers on preternatural topics, such as Dom Alois Wiesinger and Sir Shane Leslie.
The Month of the Holy Souls, the dying of the year, certainly is a magical and to a degree frightening time, bringing with itself reminders not only of the strange but our own mortality. But as the darkness comes earlier and earlier, we begin to see Christmas afar off, wherein truly the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it.
Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor for OnePeterFive. He is the author of many books, most recently Blessed Charles of Austria: a Holy Emperor and His Legacy, as well as Puritan’s Empire: A Catholic Perspective on American History, Vicars of Christ: a History of the Popes, with A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail. His writings have appeared at the Catholic Herald, Crisis, The European Conservative and he also has his own podcast with Mr. Vincent Frankini.