Halloween is a curious phenomenon, isn’t it? An annual holiday, sanctioned by local governments all over the country, that celebrates death with a rather creepy display of ghosts, corpses, headstones, and skeletons. What’s going on with this celebration? Where does such a “festival” come from in the human psyche? Many fundamental Christians will declare that Halloween is a pagan holiday, or in some respects a satanic holiday and should not be celebrated at all.
While today celebrating Halloween might seem like you’re participating in some satanic commemoration, the original origin of Halloween is, in fact, Catholic.
To fully see this we have to first clarify that the idea that Halloween originated as a pagan ceremony is a myth. Many neo-pagan websites claim that Halloween was an attempt by early Christians to “baptize” the Gaelic harvest festival in Ireland called Samhain. Because of this persistent myth, some people are hesitant to participate in anything associated with Halloween. It turns out, that Samhain was not a pagan celebration of death. Samhain was merely a festival that marked the beginning of winter in Ireland. And while the beginning of winter in Ireland might seem “scary” the historical evidence simply does not support the idea that Samhain involved jack-o-lanterns, witches, ghosts, or anything that resembled a pagan ceremony. In his book Stations of the Sun, historian Ronald Hutton explains: “The medieval records furnish no evidence that 1 November and Samhain was a major pan-Celtic festival, and none of religious ceremonies, even where it was observed (p. 362).
Virtually all of the customs associated with the modern secular celebration of Halloween developed only in the past 500 years. In fact, the origins of Halloween is rooted in the Catholic faith. The problem is that this holiday has become so water-down by modern secularism that it is difficult for anyone to see Halloween’s Catholic roots. So, let’s zoom in to see the Catholic soil from which Halloween came about.
The word “holiday” actually means holy-day. And Halloween means the “eve of all hallows” or “all hallows eve” indicating it’s the eve of honoring those that are hallowed (or the holy ones). Thus, “eve of the hallows” (hallow-een) is the evening before one of the holiest days of the Church’s liturgical year – All Saints Day. Evening vigils on the day before a feast or solemnity are customary in the Catholic Faith. Halloween falls on October 31 because it is the vigil before All Saints Day (Nov. 1). All Saints is the Church’s annual celebration of the saints – those men and women whose souls are in a perfected state in heaven and who overcame death through the power of God. Although millions of people may already be saints, All Saints’ Day observances focus on the canonized saints –those whose souls on earth became near perfection because they gave their entire life to God. This giving their life to God was so much so that many of the canonized saints became martyrs.
So, Halloween is the day we celebrate the saints martyrdom. And we celebrate this death precisely because the next day – All Saints Day the martyr’s death makes that person a saint. There is a dramatic link between Halloween (death) and All Saints Day – that martyrdom bringing forth eternal life of the soul.
(Note: All Saints day – Nov. 1st is not to be confused with All Souls day – Nov. 2nd, see here. All Saints day celebrates those souls in heaven while All Souls day prays for those souls in purgatory awaiting heaven)
The Halloween – All Saints day link showcases the paradox of how Jesus uses death to defeat death in order to set people free from the fear of death. As the author of Hebrews says, “He too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (see Hebrews 2:14-15).
Overcome death? Yes, overcome death by enduring it in union with Jesus who died and rose again. In short, Halloween & All Saints day linked together is the celebration of the power of Baptism to conquer death. As Saint Paul indicates, those who have been baptized in Christ have been baptized into his death. And if we have died with Christ, we will also live with him, as Paul assures us (see Rom 6:3, 8). In short, the saints are those who have allowed the power of their baptisms to hold full sway in their lives, transforming their mortality (death) into immortality – life (see 1 Cor 15:54).
Halloween proclaims death, mortality, decay. All Saints Day proclaims life, immortality, resurrection.
So, if you want to be true to the real meaning of Halloween you focus on the saints lives and the victory overcoming death – not monsters that bring about death. Just like if you want to focus on the real meaning of Christmas you focus on Jesus’ birth – not how many presents you need to buy.
To fully see the saint – martyr connection, is to understand the word “martyr” means to give witness. This is precisely what the saints did as their entire life was to give a complete witness to Jesus – whether by dying physically or dying mentality from themselves. Jesus said this plainly when He said, “If any man would come with me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me . . . whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16: 24-25). So, the idea in the origins of Halloween is to celebrate those who died to fulfill this verse – the saints. This would include martyrs like Ignatius of Antioch who was thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum. Others would include Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome, Saint Stephen, etc. In fact, the first 21 popes (Peter, Linus, Cletus, Clement, etc.) died a martyr’s death. Indeed, the book of Revelation indicates the martyr’s death has the power to transform the lives of others (see Revelation 6:9-11). In the 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” implying that the martyrs’ willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others. This fact illuminates the idea that the death of the martyrs have immense power just like Jesus death has immense power.
So, Halloween is about celebrating the martyr’s death and this death is glorious precisely because it allows that person to become a saint. And once someone is a canonized saint in heaven, their prayers have the ability to help others overcome this death (see Revelation 8:3-4) Therefore, Halloween and All Saints Day are both linked as a celebration about overcoming death.
Besides focusing on the martyrs death, Halloween is a kind of victory march over death. The holiday is meant to poke fun at death – kind of like saying we’re not afraid of you death! We get this directly from St. Paul. Paul knew that Jesus defeated death. That is why Paul mocked death – “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15: 54-55). In this passage, Paul is basically trash talking death. This idea to mock your enemy was a common practice in ancient times. In Paul’s day the victorious army (often Rome) would bring their conquered opponent into town and parade them around beaten and tied up to chains so as to humiliate them in front of everyone. This image was meant to showcase to people that this army is not some grand entity you need to fear. Rather, they are a sad defeated group you don’t need to pay any attention to. Well, based on Paul’s words, Halloween is a kind of mockery to the devil’s army of death. Halloween is our way to show that we don’t fear death. This is why we dress up as death – not to celebrate it, but to ridicule it. And the reason you mock death is to free people from the strong vice grip of death. If people see death for what it really is – the devil’s sad, humiliated army that received a crushing defeat, then people won’t fear death. No one fears something that has been destroyed. Death has been destroyed, so no need to fear it. And if you don’t fear death, you more willing to embrace Jesus’ message to endure death.
The demonic holds the fear of death over people. So, the demonic uses death sort of like a club to scare all humanity. However, because Jesus defeated death on death’s own terms, Christians can now look at death and not be intimidated by it. It’s kind of like the devil holds the bat of death in front of people to scare them. However, because of what Jesus and the saints did, we can respond to the devil’s “weapon” with a kind of a yawn of indifference.
Where Halloween goes from Biblical to Satanic is when you focus not on the mocking of death or the saints victory over death, but when you fixate on glorifying those things that bring about death. This is a huge distinction. In the sports analogy this would be like going from rooting for the home team and taunting the evil visiting team to now cheering for the visiting team and mocking the home team. So, in Halloween the question one must contemplate is are you dressing up as a vampire or witch to mock them or celebrate them? The mocking is done because receiving death as a martyr is celebrated – and this is celebrated precisely because it brings us into the eternal life. What is not celebrated is those that deliver death – like the Romans did to the martyrs. So, when approaching Halloween we root for the martyrs; not the Roman soldiers. You root for the ones who received death – the saints, not the one’s who delivered death.
Death comes to us all. And that fact, at first, is horrific; it causes a horror that gnaws at us at the deepest unconscious levels of our psyche. By putting ghosts, corpses, headstones, and skeletons right in our face on the eve of the Church’s celebration of all those who have overcome death, it seems the horrors of Halloween are basically saying: “Really? Has Jesus really overcome death? Has he really allowed us to stare death in the face without fear of returning to nothingness?” Yes, he has. So, Halloween is your time to show that you’re not afraid of death. You dress it up, prance it around and mock it. Once you humiliate death, you won’t be afraid of it. Humanity is trained to run and hide away from death like a frightened child. But, the whole point of Christianity is to reverse this notion and, instead of curling up in the corner shivering away from death, to now stare death in the face, taunt it as no big deal, and finally embrace it. And this is exactly what the saints did.
Rarely are people consciously thinking of these ultimate questions when they decorate their front lawns with ghosts, goblins, and fake spider webs. But our existential angst is never far below the surface. Is life a cosmic “trick” in which we’re granted a short span of years only to be snuffed out by death? Or can we truly hope in the divine “treat” of an ultimate fulfillment that never ends? Jesus and the saints tell us its the latter not the former.
Yes, Halloween has become secular just like Christmas has become secular. Christmas is celebrated for the birth of Jesus. However, today most people don’t concentrate on celebrating Christmas for Jesus. Today, most people rather celebrate Christmas as some sort of vague “winter holiday” in which we engage in materialistic consumerism – the idea to buy and get things. Of course, the consumerism idea of Christmas is as counter to Jesus just like the honoring of monsters that bring about death is counter the idea of celebrating the saints lives. Other holidays have fallen into this consumer trap. Today, Easter is seen less as a day of Jesus’ resurrection and is seen more as a day of bunnies and chocolate. St. Patrick’s Day today has nothing to do with the life and teaching of St. Patrick and has become more about drinking green beer. St. Valentine’s Day has become less about the life and teaching of St. Valentine of Rome, and has become more about chocolate, roses, and going out on a nice date.
It’s rather sad that all these holidays that are rooted in Catholicism have fallen to the water down secular re-making of them.
Celebrate Halloween with the death of the Christian martyrs. Celebrate All Saints Day with the lives of the saints.
As Catholics, the most important thing we need to remember is that Halloween is the vigil before a very important feast day where we honor the saints in heaven who dedicated their lives (and in many cases gave them up) to advance the cause of Jesus and his Church.