In a nutshell, the word Halloween is a contraction for All Hallows Eve, which is the vigil or eve of All Saints Day (also called Alhallowmass), at which time the Roman Catholic Church commemorates all of the hallowed saints in Christian history.
The historical origin of All Hallows Eve goes back to the ancient Celtic tribes who lived in Scotland, Wales and Brittany. They were pagans -- Druids, actually -- and Nov. 1 marked the beginning of the new year and the coming of winter. The eve before Nov. 1, they celebrated a festival called Lord of the Dead, or Samhain. During this festival Celts believed that the souls of the dead, including ghosts, goblins and witches, returned and visited the living. In addition, they believed that evil people reincarnated as cats, which also made their appearance on Oct. 31. In order to scare away these unwelcome visitors, the people would don masks and light bonfires.
After the Romans conquered the Celts, they appropriated this tradition and added their own touches, such as bobbing for apples and drinking cider. As the Celts were converted to Christianity, many of their customs combined with Christianity, including this one. Until the 9th century, All Saints Day was celebrated on May 13. In 835 A.D., the date was deliberately changed to Nov. 1 to Christianize the existing pagan time for remembering the dead. The Roman Catholic Church thus sought to sanitize, or "baptize," the customs of their darker pagan aspects, and to infuse them with the true meaning of the "Communion of Souls and Saints."
This has been the case throughout the history of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church in a sense baptized numerous customs of the cultures which were converted, as long as they were not in open conflict with the gospel and doctrines of the faith. This essentially allowed the faith to spread more quickly. This is how Easter acquired Easter eggs and the Easter bunny, and Christmas acquired holly, elves, and so on. The church sought to make Halloween a vigil or preparation for the celebration of All Saints and All Souls days. What has occurred in practice, however, is the All Saints and All Souls holy days of Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 retained their true meaning, while Oct. 31 continued to be celebrated more in its pagan elements, rather than its infused, baptized Christian meaning.
What is to be our attitude toward Halloween today? Like Easter and Christmas, Halloween has been heavily secularized and commercialized. Of the three holidays, it has had the weakest link to its Christian moorings. The Roman Catholic Church has historically tolerated the faithful participating in the usual Halloween traditions. But the Roman Catholic Church seeks ardently to catechize its members on the true meaning of All Saints and All Souls, what is referred to as the "Communion of Souls and Saints."
Both the living and the dead are united as one body around Christ. Death does not separate us from our loved ones. In addition we believe that all souls in heaven (by definition, everyone in heaven is a saint) care about those still on earth, and pray or intercede on our behalf. In the final analysis, we in the clergy would very much like to see children raised to understand the true meaning of Christian death and the afterlife, and to celebrate Halloween in that light.
-- Father Kris Sorensen is associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bakersfield.