A Brief History of The Origins of Halloween, or more properly Hallowmas
Hallowmas as the more or less Christian tradition is definitively traced to May 13th, 609 A.D. when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. According to Wikipedia there is evidence that May 13th was celebrated as such back to the fifth century but it isn’t certain.
The date was moved to November 1st some time later between 731 and 741 A.D. by Pope Gregory III, or some time between 827 and 844 by Gregory IV. The sources are a bit confusing, probably because it was two Gregories. From what I can gather Gregory III changed the date of the celebration in Rome itself. Gregory IV actually made the change official for the entire church during his Papacy. Either way it seems most people were already celebrating Hallowmas in November by the time Gregory IV took over, he just made it official. This is an important distinction for reasons I’ll bring up in the following articles.
This is where things get a bit fuzzy in the details. I was pretty sure I had the basic idea right, just as I was pretty sure I know about the pagan origins of Easter too. The traditional view of Halloween is that it arose to replace or give Christians a substitute for pagan harvest and death festivals, most notably a replacement for the Celtic Samhain. The idea being that as these Celtic peoples were converted, a lot of their traditions were absorbed and assimilated, which invariably helped ease their conversion.
I was surprised to find that there is some scholarship that points out that this might not be the case, and that All Saints Day traditions might have arisen independently of Celtic/pagan traditions. The other view is that there might not have been any sort of universal Celtic religious festival at all. This is interesting to say the least.
So there are three days of Hallowmas, and if you are a practicing Catholic you probably already know all this, if you are a Protestant like you probably know just about Halloween and that it comes before All Saints Day. So I’ll try to break down what the three days mean, and add the fourth more modern-day that’s been added just for fun.
Halloween/All Hallow’s Eve/Witch’s Night – This is the night before All Saints Day. It is October 31st and the holiday most everyone is familiar with. If you live in the U.S. you probably went Trick or Treating as a kid, dress up in costumes, and go to parties. You might have been taught that the pagans believed that the veil between the world of the living and the dead was thinnest on this night. This is actually traditional Christian belief. In many Catholic countries there would be a vigil for the dead in preparation for All Saints Day, often including a fast. In the U.S. this was a night for parties, feasting and divination games.
All Saints Day – This is November 1st. For Catholics the idea is to memorialize those saints who are being purified in Purgatory or who have already gone on to heaven. They call this the ‘church penitent’ and the ‘church triumphant’ respectively. Various traditionally Catholic countries have different traditions surrounding the day. One typical tradition many cultures share is to go to the graves of relatives and refresh the flowers, light candles and re-paint anything that needs painting at the cemetery. There’s also a Mass and feast that is held on the Sunday of November 1st, or the one following it. It’s a holy day of obligation and a national holiday in most traditional Catholic countries.
All Souls Day – In the U.S. we probably are more familiar with the Dia De Los Muertos celebrations which take place on November 1st and 2nd due to our neighbors to the south. It’s not exactly the same thing. The day is when those dead in purgatory are commemorated especially. The tradition goes back to St. Odilo of Cluny in roughly 998 as a special day of intercession for those souls in purgatory so they could go on to heaven quicker. In some countries you go to church on this day and pray for the dead souls and others this is the day you go to the cemetery.
A Few Notable Variations
Dia De Los Muertos – As I mentioned Dia De Los Muertos is what we in the US are more properly familiar with. Some places say “Dia De Muertos”, I’m not sure what the proper way to say it is, but the former is how I’ve always heard it said. This is a primarily Mexican Holiday celebrated in place of Hallowmas. It’s properly the 1st and 2nd of November. The 1st is remembering dead children specifically, and is called something like “Day of the Little Angels” or “Day of the Innocents”, and the 2nd of November is properly “The Day of the Dead” which is when remembering your adult ancestors takes place. If you’ve seen the candy skulls, parades with skeletons, and sometimes literal moving ancestors through the streets, that’s November 2nd in Mexico. This is an Aztec celebration that was absorbed and Christianized when the Spanish colonized North America. Honestly, I don’t know why Halloween/Dia De Los Muertos isn’t a three-day celebration that puts Carnivale and Mardi Gras to shame in the southwestern U.S and Mexico. Make it happen people!
Devil’s Night – This is the night before Halloween and is specifically called this in Detroit, although it’s called that here too. In Detroit it’s called that because on October 30th all the inner city youth go out and burn the city to the ground every year for some reason. I thought this was made up for the movie “The Crow” but apparently not. Anyway, in the U.S, Canada, and UK this is when older kids, teenagers and adults who are still basically kids go out and egg your house, throw toilet paper in your trees and generally do random acts of petty vandalism and practical jokes.