From The Brandsma Review, Issue 74, Vol. 13, No 5, September-October 2004
Sancta ergo, et salubris est cogitatio pro defunctis exorare, ut a peccatis solvantur
(2 Macchabees, 12:46)
WHEN I was ten, I had to write an essay on Hallowe’en. I went home from school, researched the customs and background of the festival and was commended for my work by the vice-principal. Which was ironic as he had imposed this on us as a punishment. Much later I graduated in Celtic Studies and with the passage of time observed the changing nature of Hallowe’en.
Hallowe’en is a phenomenon. In the United States, it is second in commercial value only to Christmas. It surpasses Easter, the distinctly American feasts of Thanksgiving and Independence Day and all the other holidays and commemoration days in the calendar. This explains how Hallowe’en is encroaching rapidly upon countries and cultures where it is not traditional. It is no exaggeration to say it has taken the German-speaking world by storm. From being almost unknown in Germany in the mid-1990s, it is now marked even in small towns and villages all over the country.
Powers of Darkness
It is also the case that Hallowe’en is changing. Traditionally, Hallowe’en was primarily focussed on children and, in Ireland at least, adults indulged in some innocent amusements. But in recent years, Hallowe’en has taken a distinctly adult character. This stems from the United States and is mainly an exploitation of the festival’s market value. And this has become a very successful export, as the profitable new Hallowe’en becomes universal.
It is more than fair to say Hallowe’en presents a threat. Hallowe’en, as currently understood, gives us every reason for concern. This does not relate to Hallowe’en in itself or any of the folk customs I understood to be part of Hallowe’en when I wrote my fifth-class penalty essay. Hallowe’en is almost exclusively associated with the powers of darkness. The post-Christian West denies these powers’ existence, but increasingly pays annual tribute to them on October 31. The witch movement keeps this date as its most important sabbath.
New Ageism in general appeals to the four principal Celtic festivals. These festivals, which the witch movement has more or less taken as “sabbaths”, mark the turning of the seasons in the British Isles. Samain, on 1 November, was the most important of these; and all feature in so-called Celtic spirituality. For its part, the Satanist/Luciferian movement also keeps Hallowe’en as a feast. Though this is very much a fringe movement, this is the direction in which the ubiquitous shop window displays point.
How much do we know about the original Hallowe’en? The Celtic feast of Samain was kept around the beginning of November. This was a new year celebration, which also represented a harvest thanksgiving. This new year differed from ours. We are accustomed to go immediately from the old year to the new. Samain was a three-day feast between the end of one year and the beginning of the next. This “out of time” quality of Samain led the Celts to believe the dead were free to walk the earth again and that they would visit their old homes. For this reason, the Celts were particularly mindful of dead relatives and friends around this time.
But there is really very little evidence in source material as to how Samain was celebrated. I have read many secondary accounts about some gruesome practices the Celts indulged in at Samain. While I have no trouble believing the Celts to have been thoroughly barbarous as heathens (despite what Celtic Spirituality devotees may believe), I have seen no evidence for most of the claims made by occultists about Samain. Much of this is the product of overactive imaginations.
The Celts dominated Europe before the Roman Empire took shape. It is impossible to reckon the extent to which Samain was observed in Europe, but it is certain it was still strong among the Gauls when they were evangelized. The Church recognised the significance of Samain. So two great feasts were initiated at the time – All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1 and All Souls on November 2.
Samain was providential
So was the Church culturally imperialistic or opportunistic? Did the Church attempt to suppress Samain or use it as an instrument for conversion? Let us say Samain, whatever it might have been in heathendom, was providential. It served two purposes; for the Celts in helping them assimilate Christianity and for the Church, in compelling her to clarify the doctrine of the Communion of Saints.
After the institution of the two feasts, Samain became Hallowe’en, taking the name Eve of All Hallows or Halloweven, later Hallowe’en. Thus the three day festival of Samain was maintained in the Celtic world, but with a distinctly Christian ethos. It may well be that many of the Hallowe’en practices have their origins in pagan times. Or it may not. Folk traditions only last as long as they are supported by the prevailing culture and they rarely survive indefinitely without alteration.
In the case of the Irish Hallowe’en, the public practice of All Saints and All Souls was suppressed in Penal Times, but Hallowe’en continued. Over time, the celebration apparently lost its intimate connection with the Church feasts. It is difficult to say. For a few generations, wake practices in Ireland were held to be in direct continuity with pagan practices. Then some scholar suggested some were invented in Penal Times to conceal the presence of a priest illegally performing the necessary ministrations.
If I apply Occam’s Razor to Hallowe’en – unbroken continuity with pagan Samain or an attempt to keep a suppressed feast alive – which is the more probable? I am mindful of the coincidence of Hallowe’en/All Saints and Guy Fawkes’ Night on November 5. That a distinctly anti-Catholic holiday should be instituted in England to commemorate the foiling of one of the many highly dubious Catholic conspiracies in Tudor and Stuart times is very interesting indeed. I don’t believe Guy Fawkes’ Night would have emerged had All Hallows not been strong in previously Catholic England.
Distorted notion of fun
So I believe that instead of reconstructing a lost heathen new year, one should compare Hallowe’en with the outlandish folk festivals associated with Catholic feasts in Mediterranean Europe. Such festivals are even more bizzare in the Orthodox world and anyone steeped in a Calvinist anthropology would shout “paganism”.
Hallowe’en was brought to the United States by Irish immigrants in the 1800s. This Hallowe’en had long lost its close ties with All Saints and All Souls. Any older significance was long forgotten. But it took many generations to take its present horrific form. It is easy to see how an apparently non-religious festival could be so attractive in a society in the process of advanced secularization. It is also easy to see how Hallowe’en could become a horror Fest once the Catholic understanding of the next world has been extracted. Following that, it is not too difficult to see how competing groups – New Ageists, Occultists, Luciferians – could impose their own meaning on Hallowe’en. And in the process, the commercial value increases. Especially in a world in which adults have a distorted notion of what constitutes fun. The terrifying new Hallowe’en is now a successful American export – even to countries in which Hallowe’en is traditional.
Television is to blame. When I was a child, we used to go from house to house asking for apples and nuts. More advanced children would ask for help for the Hallowe’en party. Now it is almost universal for children to say “trick or treat” in the American manner. One wonders about the educational value of allowing impressionable children to get what they want by threatening people with tricks.
It is a long established custom in Ireland to tell ghost stories around Hallowe’en. These stories are told as true stories and are of a local nature the audience will identify with. Though many may be scary, the purpose is not to frighten people. In fact, some reflect the Catholic belief that the souls in Purgatory need our prayers and the ghosts are there to alert our attention to this fact. Film and television does not present us with this type of ghost story. Instead, it transmits plain and simple horror, just for the sake of shocking the viewers. But this is all part of the Hallowe’en industry and it builds up the Hallowe’en various neo-pagan and satanist elements wish to impose upon the general public. They have made great strides in this direction.
The Mystical Body
So what do we do about Hallowe’en? There is very little we can do in the short term, as it is impossible to immunize oneself from the dominants culturee. So Hallowe’en has to be put back in the context of All Saints/All Souls. If there are to be fruit and nut collections and fun and games, this should be done as a harvest thanksgiving and in preparation for the great feasts. In Ireland, a minor fast is kept in November to assist the souls in Purgatory. The celebration of Hallowe’en may point in this direction.
The first step towar a new understanding of Hallowe’en is a new understanding of the relationship between the Church Militant, the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering. The Church – in Heaven, on Earth and in Purgatory – is the Mystical Body of Christ. Hallowe’en should ultimately mark the launch of a festival to restate our belief in these realities and especially for charitable works towards the relief of the sould in Purgatory. And those who think Hallowe’en too flamboyant to precede a fast ought to recall Mardi Gras and Fasching are very colourful ways of marking the beginning of Lent.
Yes, Hallowe’en is a threat; it is a battleground upon which the forces of darkness appear invincible. Our Lord Himself reminds us the children of this world are wiser than the children of light. But Hallowe’en is also an opportunity – for the children of light to prepare for a reaffirmation of the Communion of Saints and to do something for the souls in Purgatory. In the early years of the Church, Samain was taken from real pagans to become All Saints and All Souls, upon which Hallowe’en depended. Taking Hallowe’en back from neo-pagans should be less of a challenge.