When most people think of Halloween, the first images that come to mind are children dressed up in scary costumes going door-to-door to collect candy from as many houses as possible. At the end of the night delighted kids empty their “loot” on the floor and begin the feasting that often ends up with a stomachache and a trip to the dentist not long after.
What it evolved into in the United States, however, is now how Halloween began.
The word “Halloween” is a Scottish shortening of the phrase “Allhallow-even,” literally meaning “All Holy Evening” and dates to the 18th century. The English have a similar phrase, “All Hallows’ Eve,” with the same meaning. Both words denote the night before All Saints Day, November 1, and refer to the celebration of the holy men and women who are recognized in the Catholic Church as residing in Heaven.
Pope Gregory III established the feast during the 8th century after consecrating a chapel named in honor of “All Saints” in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The feast was then extended to the universal Church by Pope Gregory IV and made into a holy day of obligation for all Catholics.
Along with its celebration, All Saints Day was given a special vigil Mass the night before (October 31), which led to that date being regarded by Catholics as a “holy evening.”
In addition to All Saints Day, the Church established November 2 as All Souls Day, dedicated to praying for the souls in purgatory. On this day Catholics pray for their deceased relatives and friends, visiting cemeteries to remember those who are no longer on this earth. It is with this celebration that many local traditions were created and became mingled with the festivities of All Hallows’ Eve when immigrants started establishing themselves in the United States.
In various cultures in Europe there developed a tradition of “souling” and baking “soul cakes” in honor of the faithful departed. These cakes were baked on All Hallows’ Eve and children would go out on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, begging door-to-door for these cakes in exchange for praying for deceased relatives and friends.
It is believed that in some places there was a tradition of wearing disguises while souling that represented the various souls in purgatory who were seeking these prayers. And of course, the processional candles were carried sheltered from the wind in hollowed-out gourds or turnips, call Jack O’Lanterns.
In France, the faithful created a danse macabre or “dance of the dead” that consisted of a representation of Death (typically a skeleton) leading a chain of individuals to the afterlife. The scene would often be brought to life on All Souls Day, where actors would put on costumes representing the different people in the chain.
According to some accounts, Irish peasants developed an “All Damned Day” on October 31 to complement the All Saints and All Souls Day. The theory is that “if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble.” The Irish then banged pots and pans on October 31 to make sure those in Hell knew they were not forgotten.
All of these different traditions revolving around All Saints and All Souls were mixed together in the United States when immigrants started to intermarry and combine customs. The celebration of Halloween spread throughout the country during the early 20th century and quickly become a secular community activity that was devoid of its Christian origins.
Businesses then recognized the profitability of the holiday and started to promote it in their advertisements, taking over the day in a similar way to the celebration of Christmas.
In the end, while the current activities of Halloween appear to have no Christian significance, they have deep Catholic roots and are meant to remind people of their own mortality and the need to pray for souls in purgatory.