Christian Origins of Halloween

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I have heard a lot in the press recently about the evil of Halloween and how the practice of dressing up and begging for sweets is encouraging devil worship. I think much of this is just the press trying to find something controversial to write about and as I think back to my childhood day I can’t see much wrong in the fun I used to have carving out turnips, dressing up and getting a few extra sweets from the few houses of friends my mum let me trick or treat at.

The one problem I do have with Halloween is that its Christian meaning is getting lost, much like Christmas and Easter with all the commercialism that goes with those holidays. Halloween is just the vigil of All Saints Day, All Hallows Eve. All Saints Day in the Catholic Church is a solemnity and a day of obligation, a day when we celebrate with all the Saints, a day when the church remembers and celebrates all those who are now in heaven. While the celebration often concentrates on known Saints, saint simply means someone who has made it to heaven and now resides with God. This is what all Christian aspire towards.

Looking back to the origin of All Saints Day, the first solemnity similar to All Saints was one to the Virgin Mary and All Martyrs and was originally establish in Rome on the 13th of May by Pope Boniface IV in 609 when he consecrated the Parthenon in Rome. This celebration was moved to November the 1st and changed to All Saints by Pope Gregory III (731-741) in the 8th century. Pope Gregory IV (795-844) made it a day of obligation throughout the whole church, not just Rome.

Following All Saints we have All Souls Day on November 2nd., and I think it is from All Souls that we can find some of the Chistian origins of Halloween. All Souls is a day of prayer for those who have died and not yet made it to heaven. The church prays to God for the souls of the departed that the may be united with God in heaven. This action of praying for the dead is linked to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory is a temporary place of preparation, a place where Christian can prepare to meet God face to face, while God has forgiven the sins, the person still need to take responsibility for them, or show remorse and accept the consequences. Purgatory is often described as punishment for sin, but it’s also worth considering it as an opportunity to prepare to meet God. A chance to shower and change into our best clothes, a chance to make sure our souls are ready to meet God. During All Souls and throughout the month of November we pray for all souls who are on their way to heaven.

If we go back 5-6 hundred years we can maybe find one of the origins of dressing up. At the time the Gospel and homily would have been spoken in Latin a language most of the congregation didn’t understand. Their Christian knowledge would have come from images and from passion plays and dance performed at certain times of the year. One such event was the Danse Macabre. History record examples of the Danse Macabre carved in cemetery’s, on walls of churches, and in the famous Hans Holbein's woodcuts from the 16th century.

The Danse Macarbe is most likely a visual homily. A reminder in stones, woods, glass and in performance processions and dances of the fleeting nature of life. That anyone, from Pope, Emperor, king, child and labourer can be taken at any time, and that Christ told us to be ready. During Novemver or particularly on All Soul people would dress as skeletons and lead others dressed as an Emperor, a Kings, the Pope, a child and a labourer into the cemetery, demonstrating that death could call anyone at any time and therefore you must be ready to face God. A have found two references the the word Macarbe the first saying the word maybe linked to the Arabic for Cemetary, the second saying that the Danse Macarbe may be Dance of the Maccabees.

Another Halloween tradition is Trick or Treating, and that too has strong Christian origins in the tradition of Souling. People used to bake Soul Cakes, a small round cake flavoured with Nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and allspice. They were traditionally marked with a cross to symbolise that they were alms (for giving as charity). They were made for Halloween or All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Children and the poor would go from house to house begging soul cakes in return for prayers for the souls of the deceased of that household. Practice common across England, Ireland and other parts of Europe, for example Portugal where it was called Pão-por-Deus (Translated Bread of God).

I was particularly fascinated when I stumbled across this Souling Song which was written down almost 200 years ago. The last verse can now be found in the Christmas Carol “Christmas is Coming”, funny how time can mix up everything up.
The Souling Song

A soul! A soul! A soul-cake!
Please good missis a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry:
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

God bless the master of this house,
the misteress also;
And all the little children,
that round your table go.
The cattle in your stable.
the dog at your front door;
And all that dwells within your gates,
we wish you ten times more.

Goi down into the cellar,
and see what you can find;
If the barrels are not empty,
we hope you will be kind.
We hope you will be kind,
with your apples and your beer;
And we'll come no more a-souling,
until this time next year.

The lanes are very dirty,
my shoes are very thin;
I've got a little pocket
to put a penny in.
If you haven't got a penny,
a ha'penny will do;
If you haven't got a ha'penny,
it's God bless you.

So in summary, next Halloween, before you get dressed up and send the kids out to fill themselves on sweets and treats. Remind yourself and them that in dressing up you are telling the world that life is fleeting and eternal life is with God and wouldn’t it be good to prepare, and the deal on asking for sweets is to pray for the family how have live and died in that house.

May God Bless your Halloween,
May the Saints remember us all to God,
And may the souls of the departed rest in peace.