Before the day became associated with pumpkins and trick or treating, Halloween—or All Hallows Eve—was a liturgical event in the life of the Church.

The history of Halloween is commonly linked back to the ancient Celtic religious observance known as Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). During this festival, which happened on 31 October, Celtics apparently believed that the veil between the living and dead blurred and otherwise buried spirits came back to walk the land of the living.

It is theorised that this is where the practice of dressing up came from—a way of disguising oneself to blend in among the wandering spirits. The origin of pumpkins and trick or treating seems to be more modern—the former an initiative of Irish immigrants to America, and the latter an early-20th-century American innovation. Admittedly, though, the history is difficult to pin down.

While there are certainly analogies between the way Halloween is celebrated now and more ancient rituals, the term actually comes from the Church’s liturgy. The solemnity of All Saints was also known as All Hallows (hallow simply means ‘holy’). Prior to the 1955 liturgical reforms, there was such a thing as Hallowtide, a kind of ‘triduum’ that began with All Hallows Eve (or Halloween).

While the Easter triduum revolves around the death and resurrection of Christ, this triduum was centred around the eternal destiny of our own souls.

A Christianised celebration

In AD 1484, the vigil of All Hallows Eve (Halloween) was instituted by Pope Sixtus IV, who also turned it into an octave—a celebration lasting eight days.

However, the solemnity of All Saints, which it precedes, had long been part of the liturgy. Originally it was called the feast of All Martyrs, celebrated on 13 May to mark the consecration of the Roman Pantheon to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs by Pope Boniface IV. This was in the year AD 609 or 610.

In AD 844, Pope Gregory IV moved the feast to 1 November and named it All Saints. It is theorised that one of the reasons for this change was so that All Saints could serve as a Christian substitute for the pagan Celtic festivals. Christianity has often ‘Christianised’ important non-Christian practices, which usually meant developing its own traditions with themes that coincided with what it was replacing.

With the vigil of All Hallow’s Eve, we can certainly see some thematic similarities. On the vigil, it was common to sing the ‘Vespers of the Dead’, or the ‘Black Vespers’ (since the liturgical vestments for it were black). The antiphon for the Black Vespers was ‘I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 116:9).

It was the beginning of a liturgical celebration that turned people’s minds towards the dead—not only to the saints in heaven but also to the suffering souls in purgatory.

Saints, souls and sanctification

The first major solemnity, as we keep it today, is All Saints, and the purpose of this great feast is to direct us to the glory of the saints in heaven. Appropriately, the gospel reading of the day is the Beatitudes from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. At the heart of this feast is a reminder of our ultimate calling to eternal happiness in God, a happiness that lies beyond the vale of tears and beyond this world marked by death.

It is also a chance to remember the ‘great cloud of witnesses around us’ (Hebrews 12:1), praying for us on this journey.

The second major solemnity is All Souls’ Day. While All Saints has often been celebrated by both Catholic and Protestant traditions, All Souls’ Day has proven a bit more ecumenically controversial, not least because of its focus on the souls in purgatory, traditionally referred to as the Church Suffering.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of purgatory:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (§1030).

The practice of praying for the dead has been a staple of Catholicism since the earliest centuries of the Church, rooted both in the witness of Scripture (2 Maccabees 12:38–46) and the apostolic tradition. All Souls’ Day is a special feast allowing us to commemorate the souls undergoing post-mortem purification and to dedicate special prayers and penances for them, believing that our prayers aid their sanctification.

St John Chrysostom said, ‘Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.’

In fact, to this day, according to the 1999 Enchiridion of Indulgences, on any day from 1 to 8 November (the traditional octave), the faithful who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray for the dead can receive a plenary indulgence for the souls in purgatory (so long as the usual conditions are fulfilled).

The power of prayer

Even though we don’t officially celebrate All Hallows Eve today, its themes still resonate throughout the two great solemnities following.

We are reminded of how the boundaries between the living and the dead are, in a sense, blurred by virtue of our baptism. The Church, the mystical Body of Christ, is not only made up of those on earth but also those who have died, those who need our prayers and those praying for us.

There is a beautiful reciprocity to our prayer, whereby, as the Catechism says, ‘Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective’ (§958). The more we help the souls of the dead with our prayers, the more they are able to help us.

A ‘churchyard prayer’ associated with Pope St John XXIII is well worth reciting during this season:

Hail, all you faithful souls whose bodies rest here and elsewhere in dust; may Our Lord Jesus Christ, who redeemed you and us with His most precious Blood, vouchsafe to release you from your pains to unite you to the hosts of the angels; and there do you be mindful of us and suppliantly pray for us that we may join your company and be crowned along with you in heaven. Amen.