Tales & Traditions

Oct. 30- Nov. 5, 03
VOL 122 NO. 38
Tales & Traditions
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer

For a lot of people, Halloween is thought of as a holiday filled with candy, costumes, witches, ghosts and pumpkins. All Hallows Eve is, in fact, a Christian holiday with origins that date back to the ancient Celtic tribes who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany over 2,000 years ago.

Halloween, (the word, “hallow” meaning holy) was developed by the Celts to mark the beginning of the new year on Nov. 1 and the coming of winter. The Celts believed that on the night before the new year, Oct. 31, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On that night, they celebrated Samhain –– the feast of the dead –– when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The Celtic priests built huge, sacred bonfires and people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities and to chase away evil spirits.

By 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered most of the Celtic territory and during the next 400 years of rule, combined two festivals of Roman origin with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second day was to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which likely explains the tradition of “bobbing for apples” that is practiced on Halloween today.

By the 800’s, the influence of Roman Christianity had spread to Celtic lands. Until the ninth century the church celebrated All Saints Day on May 13 during the season of the Resurrection. In 835 the date was deliberately changed to Nov. 1 to Christianize the pagan tradition for remembering the dead. It was not until much later –– 1000 A.D. –– that the church designated Nov. 2 as All Souls Day, a day to pay tribute to the dead. As Europeans immigrated to America, they brought their traditions with them. In the second half of the 19th century, millions of Irish, fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween in America. The current custom of going door to door to collect treats started in Ireland hundreds of years ago when farmers would go door to door collecting food and materials for the village feast and bonfire. They believed that those who donated to the festival would be prosperous and those who did not received threats of bad luck.

The tradition of carving a pumpkin can also be attributed to the Irish, though in Ireland the custom began with a turnip. People would hallow out the turnip and place a lighted candle in it to ward off evil spirits. While the feast of All Hallow’s Eve has become mostly a secular holiday, the feasts of All Saints is a holy day of obligation. “Liturgically, we don’t celebrate Halloween,” said Father Andrew Baranski, Assistant Chancellor for the diocese. “We celebrate the vigil of All Saints Day in preparation of the feast. All Saints Day is a day to remind us to live a life similar to those of the saints with God and our neighbors,” he said. “These feasts tie in with the church’s liturgical calendar year that concludes in November,” said Father James Fritzen, director of Catholic Cemeteries for the diocese. “The Scriptures focus on death and dying in November. The season of fall also is a time when things in nature die off. The Scriptures are very fitting because we are called upon to remember all of the faithful departed throughout the entire month of November.”

The solemnity of All Saints demonstrates the great respect rendered to holy men and women of the past, whether they are officially recognized by the church as saints or not. “It is a day to remember ordinary people as well as the saints,” said Father Baranski. “There were many people who did saintly works that are not recognized by the church.” By honoring saints and martyrs Christians are reminded of their goal of attaining heaven as a reward for their efforts in living the life of Christ on earth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that through the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth.” The Catholic Church believes that while one may die in peace with Christ, there is still a need for purification before seeing God. Purgatory is a state of final purification after death. “There are different interpretations of purgatory,” said Father Baranski. “Some believe that purgatory is a moment of deep sorrow right before death as we prepare to face our maker. Others believe it is a moment of true conversion, while others believe that it is an intermediate place between heaven and hell where those who have died go to reconcile their sins. While sins may be forgiven, the consequences of those sins remain,” he said.

Father Fritzen said that All Souls Day is not a day for those on earth to say prayers as a way of paying the fines of those who have gone before them. It is a day to pray that those who are in purgatory will be open to God and let go of the worldly things they are clinging to. “Purgatory is a gift from God. It’s a ‘letting go’ period,” he said. “It is a time to prepare for the next life, a time to purge ourselves of our material attachments so that we are prepared and can fully enjoy God and the wonders of heaven.” “All Saints Day is about those who have attained heaven praying for us and in turn we are praying to the souls in purgatory on All Souls Day,” said Father Fritzen.

Another custom of this feast day that was brought over from Europe is the tradition of processing to cemeteries to pray for the dead. “In Poland and Germany, the celebration starts on the afternoon of Nov. 1,” said Father Baranski. “The people process to the cemetery to visit and decorate the graves of loved ones. A Mass is celebrated and those gathered light candles and pray the rosary. The celebration continues the next day for the Feast of All Souls,” he said. Father Baranski said that while this is a popular custom in Poland and Germany, he didn’t believe it was as prevalent in the U.S. “This tradition seems to have shifted to Memorial Day in this country,“ said Father Baranski. “But for that day of remembrance, the atmosphere is more patriotic.” Father Fritzen agrees. “Masses are celebrated in cemeteries in the U.S. during November, but it really depends on the locale. Here in the Northeast, because of the winter conditions and the early darkness, it is more popular to visit cemeteries on Memorial Day,” said Father Fritzen. However, Father Fritzen said that all four regions of the Syracuse Diocese celebrate Masses in cemeteries to remember the faithful departed during the month of November. The feast of All Hallow’s Eve, later shortened to Halloween, started out as a pagan tradition and then became Christianized by the church as a day to remember all souls and saints. By the 1920’s and 30’s it again became a more secular holiday consisting of parades, costumes and trick-or-treating. While the Irish brought many of the Halloween customs to America, the custom of trick-or-treating is a ninth-century European custom. On All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes” –– pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars received, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors.

Even though Halloween seems like a very secular holiday, and in many ways it has become so, there are distinct Christian aspects to the holiday. It is a time for people to pray to the saints to intercede on their behalf and become conscious of the communion of saints as they pray for their departed loved ones.

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