Can Catholics participate in Halloween? Or is it actually descended from an evil pagan holiday?
Neo-pagans and fundamentalists alike claim that Halloween has its roots in the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain. Because of this persistent idea, some Christians are hesitant to participate in anything associated with Halloween. But, like most claims that Catholicism adopted pagan practices and beliefs, this myth is based on bad research and propaganda that developed post-Reformation. Given the reformers’ contempt for the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and prayers for the dead, this isn’t surprising.
The word “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening,” the vigil for the Christian holy day All Saints Day, which falls on November 1. Part of the confusion over this holiday arises because many people no longer know what the word “hallows” means.
“Hallows” refers to something consecrated to a special purpose. November 1 is celebrated as the Feast of All Saints, or the Feast of All Hallows, because those who are honored are all those in heaven—the holy ones of God. Evening vigils on the day before a feast or solemnity are customary in the Catholic Faith, and so Halloween falls on October 31 because it is the vigil before All Saints Day, and not because the Church wanted to “baptize” Samhain or any other pagan celebration.
As with many Christian holidays, the secular world has attached its own traditions to Halloween (costumes, trick or-treating, parties) that aren’t inherently bad but can be problematic when the religious meaning of the holiday is set aside, forgotten, or ignored. At its best, Halloween reminds us of our own mortality and our own need to prepare ourselves one day to face God. The festivities can prepare us for All Saints and All Souls, and for the month of November, which the Church sets aside for remembrance of the souls in purgatory.
Christian parents have a variety of options for celebrating Halloween in a Christian spirit and should feel free to pick among those options what works best for helping their families learn the “reason for the season.”
So why is there a common misconception that Halloween is a pagan holiday?
Pagan Celts celebrated a change-of-season feast called Samhain (pronounced SOW-win) in honor of the Celtic “lord of the dead” of the same name. Their preparations for survival during the coming winter season culminated with celebrations marking a time believed open to a special closeness between the natural and the supernatural—and, to the extent of the their pre-Christian understanding, the preternatural—worlds.
Although there’s no evidence that the Church chose All Saints Day to fall on November 1 in order to “baptize” the pagan feast (the date for which was originally in May, coinciding with the pagan Roman Lemuria festival), there was a certain fittingness to the replacement of Samhain with All Saints Day when the Celts converted. At Samhain, they honored deceased ancestors & believed that the “veil” between the living and the dead was lifted. A day honoring Christian saints and martyrs likely seemed appropriate to the newly Christian Celts.
When modern witchcraft was revived in the mid-20th century, modern witches appropriated Samhain as a holy day. At the same time, Halloween had fallen out of favor with many Christians, who criticized the focus of the celebrations on costuming, parties, and pranks. Perhaps because Samhain was revived about the same time that Halloween’s stock as a Christian holiday plummeted, in many people’s minds the two became conflated.
While pagans may not see any conflict between Halloween and Samhain, Christians shouldn’t make that mistake. Halloween is first and foremost the vigil of All Saints Day. There are certain folk rituals associated with the holiday in which Christians are free to participate, but there is no participation in witchcraft involved. The celebratory aspect of the holiday is what might be called “holy mockery” of the devil. And, as St. Thomas More observed of the devil, “the proud spirit cannot endure being mocked.”