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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On the Level w/ HandyGramps - Hallowe'en

It's been a while since I've posted any of HandyGramps' articles. I figure w/ Halloween coming up this week, it would be the perfect time to share this one he wrote in 2004 & updated a bit this year. It's a longer than a normal blog post, so I will split it in two parts...one today & one on Thursday. I will include the Bibliography w/ each post, to cover legal aspects! Please share your thoughts...he'd love to hear them!

The Facts in the Matter of Hallowe’en

By "HandyGramps"

“Witchcraft!  Satanic!  Devil worship!  Evil!  Pagan!  Corrupts children!”

Every October we hear the same litany, proclaiming that Hallowe’en is a bad influence on our children, and we must do away with it.  And every October we miss a wonderful opportunity to express our Christian faith in ways that would help our youngsters understand more fully the sacred wonder of death and resurrection.  It all boils down to a better understanding of what Hallowe’en is all about.  Have we as parents and educators dropped the ball in fostering the true meaning of the holiday?  Most of us – and, mea culpa, include me in that number – probably have.  What can we do to remedy our failure?  Well, that’s what we’re here for now.

Hallowe’en – a contraction for “hallowed evening” – All Hallow’s Eve: the very name itself should evoke a sense of the holy.  It is the Eve of All Saints.  The original purpose of the Christian celebration was to introduce and focus on the following day, the Feast of All Saints, just as Christmas Eve draws us into the celebration of Christ’s birth on Christmas Day.  It is a vigil, not unlike the Easter Vigil, a time to rejoice at yet another wonder our God has done for us.  Its celebration is just one of many occasions (Christmas and Easter included!) in which the Church took a pagan holiday and re-formed it into a Christian purpose.  As we shall see, the beginnings of Hallowe’en are found in the dim reaches of history before the coming of Christ.

Over two thousand years ago, Celtic holy men – priests – known as Druids observed nature and the annual cycles of life.  Through their primitive understanding they came to recognize certain patterns, including the transitions between seasons.  Seeing these patterns as the workings of their gods, the Druids began to form rituals for the purpose of honoring the gods – or perhaps to appease the deities whom they saw as having such control over their lives.  One such ritual was the festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-WHEN), a word meaning “end of summer” and which eventually became the name of that particular god – their god of the dead.  The holiday was observed on what we now call October 31 (remember, the calendar as we know it hadn’t been devised yet).  It was a time when life seemed to ebb, what with plants dying and animals disappearing thanks to hibernation or migration.  As the days grew shorter, the Celts feared that Samhain would slay the sun god, leaving their world in darkness, setting free to roam the earth all the fearsome creatures of darkness.  They eventually came to believe that in the long nights spirits of the dead returned to be with their families.  But, along with these good spirits came myriad other creatures – demons, hobgoblins, fairies, witches, and the like.  It was truly a frightful time of the year as these denizens of the dark world prowled about, stealing babies and young children and committing sundry other acts of mischief and terror.

To counter the effects of these creatures, all fires were extinguished and new fires – bonfires (“bone” fires, from the dried skeletons of sacrificed animals) – were kindled by the Druids on outdoor altars.  Everyone gathered around these fires for safety as sacrifices were offered to Samhain in an attempt to change his mind about slaying the sun god.  (And, of course, this always worked, since the days began to get longer on December 21.)  The Celts would set out lanterns to guide their family spirits, and food to make them feel welcome.  The head of each household would carry a burning coal from the bonfire to enkindle a new fire in the home to ward off the evil spirits; and everyone would wear masks and costumes on their way home to fool the spirits, reasoning that the evil ones would not bother their own kind.

Some centuries later, when the Roman Empire extended its reach into the British Isles, the Romans took the Festival of Samhain and associated it with their own god, Pomona, god of the harvest.  In doing so, they also continued the sense of death along with the costumes and darkness.  Even after Christianity had found its way into the Celtic-Roman culture the people continued to cling to the old ways as much as possible.  Over time, well into the Middle Ages, the custom gradually fell to prankishness – usually playful, but too often destructive and frightening (such as stuffing a chunk of sod in someone’s chimney and causing the house to fill with smoke).  By the late nineteenth century, immigrants from England and Ireland were bringing these customs to America where they became firmly entrenched in our holiday culture.  In truth, there is much more to the story, including many variations.  However, for all practical purposes, this is at least a reasonable compendium of the multi-faceted history of Hallowe’en.


“The (Columbus Diocese) Catholic Times”; reprint of article published October 28, 1988.

Hallowe’en; [?] “Enquirer”; Charles Durrett; no date.

Is Hallowe’en a Christian Feast?; “Religion Teachers’ Journal”; October 1980, pp. 4-5.

All Souls Day; “New Catholic Encyclopedia”; 1961 (1981 edition); Vol. 1, p. 39.

The Story of Hallowe’en;  “St. Anthony Messenger”; October 1996; pp. 54-55.

November 4, 2004
October 23, 2014


Colleen said...

Thank you! I knew very little of this. I knew there was "more to the story."