Halloween and All Saints Day

Published by DonDavidson on

Happy Halloween!

Today is Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day. To tell the story of Halloween and All Saints Day, we need to begin in the 4th century A.D., during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian was not a nice fellow—at least, he wasn’t nice to Christians. He instituted the 10th and most severe Roman persecution of Christianity, commonly known as the Great Persecution, in 303 A.D. Unlike many of the earlier Roman persecutions, this one was both Empire-wide and very severe. By order of the Emperor, Christian churches were destroyed, Christian scriptures were publicly burned, and being a Christian could subject you to torture and death. As many as 3,500 Christians suffered martyrdom during the Great Persecution, and many more endured persecution through loss of jobs, property, and freedom.

This Great Persecution lasted eight years in the western half of the Roman Empire (until 311 A.D.), and twenty years in the east (until 323 A.D.). Persecution of Christianity in the western portion of the Roman Empire was ended by the Emperor Constantine, who promulgated the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., recognizing Christianity as a tolerated religion. Persecution of Christianity in the east ended when Constantine was able to bring the eastern Roman Empire under his control in 323 A.D.

With the end of the Great Persecution, Christians began honoring the lives of those who had been martyred. But there were far too many martyrs to give each one a separate day, so churches set aside a day to celebrate all martyrs and to pray for them. These celebrations were uniformly held in the Spring, but churches disagreed about exactly which day to use. For example, in the east some celebrated it on May 13th, some on the first Sunday after Pentecost, and some on the first Friday after Easter. In the western Roman Empire—where there were far fewer Christians, by the way—people generally celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

In the eastern churches, the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI “The Wise” (866-911) is credited with changing the day from a commemoration of All Martyrs to a celebration of the lives of All Saints. The story is that upon the death of his devout Christian wife, Theophano, in 893 A.D., Leo built a church in her honor, which he wished to dedicate to her. But when told he could not do so, Leo decided to dedicate it to All Saints—which would presumably include her—and to change the annual celebration of All Martyrs to a celebration of All Saints.

In the west, Pope Boniface IV established May 13th as an annual feast day in honor of the Virgin Mary and the Martyrs in 609 or 610 A.D. Some suspect he chose that day to usurpt the pagan Feast of the Lemures, on which people sought to placate the maleovalent and restless spirits of the dead. Others wonder if he chose that date based on the practice of some of the eastern churches.

In any event, Pope Gregory III (731-741) is said to have moved the celebration from May 13th to November 1st, and to have changed it to a celebration of All Saints, not merely those who had been martyred. By the 12th century A.D. the May 13th celebration had been abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church in favor of November 1st.

In the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Day is still celebrated on November 1st, while eastern churches generally celebrate it on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Those Protestant churches which celebrate All Saints Day—in particular, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists—usually do so on the first Sunday in November, or even on a Sunday in late October, rather than strictly on November 1st.

All Saints Day is different from All Souls Day, which is November 2nd. All Saints Day honors those who have entered Heaven, whereas All Souls Day commemorates the faithful who have died but who are still in Purgatory.

Since Protestant churches don’t recognize Purgatory, most Protestant churches use All Saints Day to honor and remember all Christians who have died—and in some churches, even those who are still living.

For Roman Catholics, All Saints Day is a holy day of obligation—which means that all Catholics must attend Mass unless they have a good reason not to, such as serious illness.

Now where did Halloween come from? In medieval England, All Saints Day was called All Hallows. The term, “Hallow,” means to regard something as holy or sacred—as in “Hallowed be thy name” in the Lord’s Prayer. In medieval England, the noun form of “Halllow” referred to a saint or a holy person. So All Hallows was the same as saying All Saints.

The term, Halloween, comes from a contraction of “All Hallows Even” or “All Hallows Eve.” (In the 19th century it was written as “Hallowe’en.”) So just as Christmas Eve is the day before Christmas, All Hallows Eve is the day before All Hallows.

Halloween is probably a modern version of Samhain, a Celtic festival which occurred on the day before the Celtic new year began on November 1st. The Celts believed that on October 31st the ghosts of the dead returned to earth to cause trouble and make mischief.

After the Romans conquered the Celts, Samhain merged into the Roman festival of Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans honored the dead.

Trick-or-Treating probably has its roots in the medieval tradition of “mumming,” in which amateur actors would dress in costumes and go door-to-door, performing short scenes in return for food and drink. It may also be related to the Christian medieval custom of “souling,” in which poor people would visit houses of the well-off and offer prayers in exchange for “soul-cakes.” By the 19th century, we have stories of English children dressing in costumes and traveling to nearby houses, where they would sing and beg for food or money.

English and Irish immigrants brought these traditions to America in the early 20th century. The modern practice of trick-or-treat began to spread in the 1930s and really took off in the late 1940s and 1950s, when it became a fixture in American culture.


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