Author’s Note: This is a slightly updated Halloween reprint and I hope to finish an extra article on exorcism before Halloween itself, but you just know that these gems are going to be circulating again. Previous Halloween-ish articles are: demons, vampires, Frankenstein, witchcraft, magic, D&D, and Lucifer himself.
Just like every other big Catholic thing, it’s supposedly pagan to have a party during the vigil before All Saint’s day. There is a long history of having a sort of harvest festival in pretty much any culture that can produce more than they can store (frequently it’s when you harvest fruits or slaughter the animals before winter). In fact, there was one called Samhain in Ireland. There’s another one coming up in the U.S., called Thanksgiving. Since becoming Catholic didn’t suddenly make it so, they had modern means of storing food that spoils quickly and so the parties would have kept happening, and it had been centuries after the pagan practices were gone before the feast of All Saints was instituted. Very hard to ‘steal’ in that situation.
Trick-or-treating is believed to have grown out of gathering food for the vigil feast, plus hospitality, sort of like carolers traditionally get figgy pudding and something to drink. There is no specific support for this theory, but it does have more support than claims of pagan origins for the vigil of All Saint’s. Parties on feast days are traditional, priests (and their helpers, which at feast time would likely be small children) would likely be in charge of setting them up. There’s also the tradition of soul cakes, which were a food donation in exchange for a promise to pay for the dead. Amusingly enough, a lot of Catholic customs have been taken by pagan groups from the UK area– if it’s not Protestant, it must be pagan! [sarcasm]
Many American Halloween customs are most likely taken from Guy Fawkes’ day, November 5th– it’s entirely possible that they shifted over from the prior All Hallow’s Eve celebrations of the English, just as the harvest feast got hooked to the Feast and its vigil. People are very good at finding a reason to have a party and have fun, and fire is fun, food is fun, candy and costumes are fun.
Black Cats and Jack of the Lantern
You’ve probably heard something about black cats– or cats in general– being condemned by the Vatican and thus killed as associates of witches. Specifically, by Gregory IX, in the Papal Bull Vox in Rama? I’m sure you’ll be just shocked – shocked to find out that no, he didn’t. That claim can be traced to a book from the ’70s that was supposedly about witchcraft in the Middle Ages. There’s only one Papal Bull we’ve got record of from that Pope, canonizing St. Francis of Assisi, and it’s after records are rather good.
Startlingly enough, Gregory the IX did actually write a letter which started with the supposed title of the Bull, which does mention black cats, but that’s because it describes the supposed rituals of witches in Germany. (Kissing the cat’s posterior; I can’t read Latin, or even enough German to find the Latin text of the letter, but those snippets of translation I’ve seen suggest it was not a natural cat.) There is no claim before the ’70s that it was a Bull, nor does the letter say something to the effect of “hey, wipe out (black) cats, they’re satanic.” If there was actually such a strong connection, especially with official documents, it should have shown up frequently during the witch craze; as it was not, I’d theorize that any connection was exactly the other way around. Tthere was already a superstition about cats being witchy in various ways, which makes sense the same way fire is mysterious. And about fire, especially when it’s in an unusual place and not acting like wildfire. . .
Jack-o-lanterns have a traditional sort of legend with many variations that can be summed up as ‘once there was a man who the devil couldn’t take and Heaven would not, who now wanders the world with a light in a carved container’ (the first part should sound familiar–it’s very popular for everything from fairies to the Wandering Jew). I know that swamplights, witchfires, will’o’wisps or foxfires are often associated with walking spirits, probably because a strange light from a non-human source at night is scary. The Irish carved turnips, the English carved beets, and here in America we carve squash. Each year I’m startled that nobody has made some really impressive bottle gourds— that’s the hard, dryable variety of gourds; pumpkins are the soft type.
Random Bits For You Consideration:
The Vatican Condemns Halloween! This assertion was several years ago, but it is probably still floating around. Here is a great summary of where that came from: A quote from a priest in Spain, reported in an Italian newspaper, read by an Englishman, who then reported it as fact that the Vatican condemns Halloween.
Basically, some Spanish youth thought that the rather gruesome, dark, “magic” soaked American Halloween they’d seen on TV looked like fun and were being poorly behaved in newsworthy in rather bad ways; Father Joan Maria Canals of the Spanish Bishop’s conference said that’s bad. Shocking, you know, a Catholic official saying that he thinks people shouldn’t glorify death and doesn’t like a Church Holiday (even if it’s just an Eve) being hijacked for occult purposes. (sarcasm . . . again)
A lot of information can be found at this Catholic Answers podcast; it has a bit of everything, but it’s very hard to link to specific bits. This pdf is also a good source, with so much meaty detail that I’d suggest it over this silly little article, if you think someone would sit still to read it!
None of this should be taken to mean that you must celebrate Halloween in any way, shape or form, and in fact my family doesn’t do costumes that glorify evil, or even that are gruesome. We just never have, and it wasn’t a big deal.
Last year we (unintentionally) embarrassed a young couple that thought it would be a hoot to dress themselves and their infant boy up as zombies for the Mall’s trick-or-treat. Our three year old daughter had to be reassured that they were alright. She then went up and asked them if they were okay. Twice. It was pretty obvious from the parents’ expression that they hadn’t really thought through the whole “dressing in photo-realistic car accident injury makeup” for an event aimed at small children, and were very gracious about reassuring “the Duchess” they were fine.
We just have fun, and the adults are more likely to cosplay, or have an outfit that complements the kids’. My husband made a very dashing Harry Dresden, Wizard Detective; I tend more towards bad puns– like one another mother of small children came up with, where you wear a vaguely cowboy looking outfit accented with cat toys, and a name tag that identifies you as a cat herder. Children in cat suits optional.
Joy, laughter, and fun. If it makes you feel good enough to enjoy it, dress up like saints– there are more than enough to cover a wide range of interests, and some people will be genuinely interested.
How about Saint Boot To The Head?
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Editor’s Note: Foxfier has been a faithful contributor with Catholic Stand for some time. She is moving on from Catholic Stand to establish her own website in hopes of providing her readers with further explorations of Catholic issues from her distinctive viewpoint. You can find Foxfier at foxfier.wordpress.com.