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History of All Hallows' Eve

The Solemnity of All Saints (Overview - Calendar) is celebrated on November 1. It is a holyday of obligation, and it is the day that the Church honors all of God's saints, even those who have not been canonized by the Church. It is a family day of celebration — we celebrate the memory of our family members (members of the Mystical Body, the communion of saints) now sharing eternal happiness in the presence of God. We rejoice that they have reached their eternal goal and ask their prayers on our behalf so that we, too, may join them in heaven and praise God through all eternity.

The honoring of all Christian martyrs of the Faith was originally celebrated on May 13, the date established by the fourth century. Pope Boniface IV in 615 established it as the "Feast of All Martyrs" commemorating the dedication of the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple, into a Christian church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. In 844, Pope Gregory IV transferred the feast to November 1st. Some scholars believe this was to substitute a feast for the pagan celebrations during that time of year.

By 741, the feast included not only martyrs, but all the saints in heaven as well, with the title changing to "Feast of All Saints" by 840. Pope Sixtus IV in 1484 established November 1 as a holyday of obligation and gave it both a vigil (known today as "All Hallows' Eve" or "Hallowe'en") and an eight-day period or octave to celebrate the feast. By 1955, the octave of All Saints was removed.

Since Vatican II, some liturgical observances have been altered, one example being "fast before the feast" is no longer required. Originally, the days preceding great solemnities, like Christmas and All Saints Day, had a penitential nature, requiring abstinence from meat and fasting and prayer. Although not required by the Church, it is a good practice to prepare before great feast days, spiritually and physically.

Feastday Customs

In England, saints or holy people are called "hallowed", hence the name "All Hallow's Day" or "Hallowmas". The evening, or "e'en" before the feast became popularly known as "All Hallows' Eve," or even shorter, "Hallowe'en."

Since the night before All Saints Day, "All Hallows Eve" (now known as Hallowe'en or Halloween), was the vigil and required fasting, many recipes and traditions have come down for this evening, such as pancakes, boxty bread and boxty pancakes (the boxty made from potatoes), barmbrack (Irish fruit bread with hidden charms), and colcannon (combination of cabbage and boiled potatoes). This was also known as "Nutcrack Night" in England, where the family gathered around the hearth to enjoy cider and nuts and apples. In England "soul cakes" are another traditional food. People would go begging for a "soul cake" and promise to pray for the donor's departed friends and family in exchange for the treat, an early version of today's "Trick or Treat."

November 2 was the date designated to pray for all the departed souls in Purgatory, the Feast of All Souls. In many countries this is an important day. Families cook special foods and make a special day's outing to cemeteries to tend to the graves, pray for the family dead.

The feasts of All Saints and All Souls fall back to back to express the Christian belief of the "Communion of Saints." The Communion of Saints is the union of all the faithful on earth (the Church Militant), the saints in Heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the Poor Souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering), with Christ as the Head. They are bound together by a supernatural bond, and can help one another. The Church Militant (those on earth still engaged in the struggle to save their souls) can venerate the Church Triumphant, and those saints can intercede with God for those still on earth. Both the faithful on earth and the saints in heaven can pray for the souls in Purgatory.

On All Souls Day and throughout November, especially November 1-8, one can gain plenary indulgences for the Poor Souls. See Praying for the Dead and Gaining Indulgences for more details.

Exploring the Christian Roots of Halloween

Throughout the centuries man has struggled to keep his focus on the one true Faith and its practices. So many times, though, the pagan superstitions creep back into practice. Although now with a holier purpose, when preparing for the huge feast of All Saints some pagan "cult of the dead" practices seeped into the mainstream.

In our modern times it is getting harder to be "in" the world but not "of" the world. How are we to explain to our children about the top money-making over-commercialized "holiday" of the year after Christmas? We have an onslaught of Halloween witches, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, vampires, etc. everywhere we turn. How do we bring a message to our children to say that being a Christian does not mean that we cannot have fun? How do we convey that we must not constantly be negative and condemn everything?

To answer this, we must put on the mind of the Church. All through the centuries the Church has taken secular feasts and tried to "sanctify" or "Christianize" them. The feastday of All Saints itself came from the dedication of the Pantheon, a pagan temple, into a Christian church. This is undoubtedly another way of sanctifying the secular and pagan. Missionaries have to get to know the culture and religion of the country before they can convert the native people of that country. The missionaries have to be able to find some elements in their culture that can help these people identify and understand Christianity at their level. St. Paul tried it with the Greeks. Seeing their altar to the Unknown God, he saw that through their own pagan altar, he was going to bring them to Christianity!

Instead of just suppressing the whole celebration of Halloween and leaving a gaping hole, the Church gives a replacement focus. The Church has the mindset of "How can this be turned into good, with the focus on the one true God and His Church?" Since All Saints and All Souls feasts are together, we can shift the focus of Halloween to a focus on the Communion of Saints in action. We combine honoring the saints in heaven, remembering our loved ones and then directing the destiny of our own souls by prayer and actions. Through this we see the Mystical Body all in action.

There are many writings to help one explore the Christian roots of the Halloween festivities. In the activities section there are ideas for an All Hallows' Eve Party to present a fun atmosphere for children living a "Catholic culture." See also other ideas from Florence Berger's Cooking for Christ and Mary Reed Newland's The Year and Our Children. These ideas help use every opportunity as a moment of grace, and a teaching lesson, not a spirit of avoidance because of the pagan background of Halloween. To return to the "sanctified" traditions of Hallowe'en, one can use the opportunity to honor the saints, pray for the Poor Souls and prepare oneself spiritually for two great feastdays of the Catholic Church, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

By Jennifer Gregory Miller, ©2003.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.

October 31

Dies Irae

That day of wrath, that dreadful day, shall heaven and earth in ashes lay, as David and the Sybil say.

What horror must invade the mind when the approaching Judge shall find and sift the deeds of all mankind!

The mighty trumpet's wondrous tone shall rend each tomb's sepulchral stone and summon all before the Throne.

Now death and nature with surprise behold the trembling sinners rise to meet the Judge's searching eyes.

Then shall with universal dread the Book of Consciences be read to judge the lives of all the dead.

For now before the Judge severe all hidden things must plain appear; no crime can pass unpunished here.

O what shall I, so guilty plead? and who for me will intercede? when even Saints shall comfort need?

O King of dreadful majesty! grace and mercy You grant free; as Fount of Kindness, save me!

Recall, dear Jesus, for my sake you did our suffering nature take then do not now my soul forsake!

In weariness You sought for me, and suffering upon the tree! let not in vain such labor be.

O Judge of justice, hear, I pray, for pity take my sins away before the dreadful reckoning day.

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O God, Lord of mercies, grant to the souls of Your servants and handmaids, the place of refreshment, the bliss of etrnal rest and the splendor of Your Light.