Tomorrow will mark the 498th anniversary of the founding of Protestantism. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It is not without irony that this occurred on Halloween, because it directly led to the loss of meaning this once sacred feast day in the Church. Eventually it led to a near total paganization of the day as we will all witness to varying degrees on Saturday. Before we can reclaim this day as a Catholic day, we must begin to understand how all of this came about.
Whenever discussions about Christian holidays come up, there is always the accusation that they were originally pagan holidays lurking in the background. In fact, many would say that Halloween as we celebrate it today is a return to its original pagan roots. This is a claim that is worth examining because it has also been leveled at Christmas and Easter as well. Before doing this however it is important to shed light on the implied assumption of most people that do this—Christianity, like paganism that went before it is simply another myth. They see it as a variation on a similar theme. Because they all basically tell the same story, they are all made up.
However, this is not the way the term myth should be understood. To understand it as merely a made up story and therefore a falsehood is to equivocate truth with fact. Myths can be true without being facts. Because of his composite nature of flesh and spirit, man can often only know the truth abstractly until he experiences it firsthand. Through the use of myth, mankind is able to overcome this limitation and experience a truth concretely.
This is a theme that CS Lewis takes up in his essay Myth Became Fact. In responding to a friend’s claim that Christianity was merely one more myth of the Dying God, Lewis admits that Christianity is a myth; but a myth that became fact when the Son of God took human flesh to Himself. Lewis says that:
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
Once we understand that myth can convey truth, rather than refuting the claim that Christianity is a myth, we can follow Lewis’ suggestion that all the myths of the primitive religions were expressions of mankind’s yearning for contact and communion with God—a yearning the true God had placed inside of all of us. Jesus Christ and the religion He established, rather than being one myth among many, is the fulfillment of all of them. It is a myth to be sure, but a myth that is also a fact.
Recognizing that Christianity is the “myth that became fact,” it seems perfectly natural for it to adopt and baptize pagan holidays. These holidays too are in need of fulfillment because they reflect to varying degrees the seeds of the myth become fact. In particular, Halloween began when the Western Church took over the pagan festival of Samhain. This Celtic festival was a celebration marking the end of harvest time and was a time in which they celebrated the dead.
Christians too had a way to celebrate the lives of the dead—called All Saints day. Halloween is simply an anglicized version of “All Hallows Evening” or the vigil of All Hallows (Saints) Day. This also marks the time of the most important harvest—the harvest of souls. The Samhain festival honored the dead because they thought there was a thin veil that separated the living and the dead. The Church wanted the pagans to know that there is a thin veil that separates Christians from the “Cloud of Witnesses” that had gone before and it was possible to speak with them.
The accusations regarding stolen pagan holiday also come from Protestants as well. But this incorporating of paganism into Christianity has Pauline roots. When he is in Athens, he compliments their religiosity and reveals to them who their “unknown god” really is (Acts 17:22-23). St. Paul clearly adopted this as an evangelical principle telling the Corinthians that “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). When Catholics borrow from Pagans what is not sinful, they are simply doing what Paul taught us.
The gate to paganism in Halloween was actually opened shortly after Luther’s protestation. Because the Protestants thought it idolatry to venerate the saints, All Hallows Eve became a day of mockery. Once Henry VIII suppressed the Church in England, some of the original pagan practices were able to creep back in. This is the form in which it was brought to the United States.
Obviously “trick or treating” has become the staple of most people’s Halloween celebration. There are various accounts of where this came from, but the pagans believed that the souls that entered the nether world bore great hunger and would beg for food. From this came the practice of dressing up like the dead and begging for treats. As the holiday was Christianized, poor children would visit the houses of wealthier neighbors and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the dead members of the patron’s family (Sting has a song where he describes this called Soul Cake).
How can we restore Halloween to its rightful place as a Catholic holiday? There are some who would avoid the festivities all together. But if Christians transformed the celebration once, we could do it again by changing or restoring the meanings. Instead, I would suggest that your children dress up as saints or, at the very least, not dress up as anything that has connections to the occult. Also, I would suggest that rather than participating in the dialogue of “trick or treat” that they might offer prayers for the departed members of the families they visit in exchange for the candy they receive. I recognize that this might be awkward for younger children so it would also be an excellent day to offer a family Rosary for all the families whose homes they will visit.