The Season of the Dead: The Origin and Practice of Allhallowtide

We think of our American experience of Halloween—with its focus on horror themes, costumes, candy, and decorations—as normative. In fact, it’s a product of the 20th century media-saturated consumer-oriented appropriation of Catholic feasts for mass consumption, which strips things of their true meaning. Like secular Christmas and Easter, it’s a hollowed out thing that emphasizes pleasure while downplaying devotion.

Yet tantalizing hints of its genuine origins remain, and the Catholic calendar continues to focus doggedly on its real meaning.

Allhallowtide is actually a kind of triduum: three days of commemoration that includes All Hallows Eve (October 31, shortened Hallowe’en), All Saints Day (All Hallows Day, November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2). As with other major feasts, celebration of All Saints Day begins on the vigil, which is why secular culture celebrates Halloween on the night of October 31st, but then does nothing on the actual feast days that follow.

Halloween is a Christian holiday. Some Celtic neo-pagans and fundamentalist Christians claim the Church simply took over the date for a pagan festival of the dead and all its trappings. False. The current dates fall on a harvest festival called Samhain by the Celts, but there is no indication that Samhain was a festival of the dead. It simply marked the end of the harvest season. Festival days were often regarded as liminal time in which the veil between the material and spiritual worlds are considered thinner, but elaborating this into a festival of the dead on par with those found in other ancient pagan belief systems is more than than the textual evidence can support. Since we have no pre-Christian records of its observation, claims about about its observation are speculative.

Bede calls November Blod-monath (Blood Month), which sounds promising. However, the real meaning is mundane: it was the time surplus livestock were slaughtered to save fodder for the long winter. Otherwise, Bede attaches no significance to the season.

There is, however, a connection to pagan practices found deeper in history.

References to a feast of All Saints are found in the 4th century in St. Ephrem the Syrian and Chrysostom, with the latter assigning it to the first Sunday after Pentecost. The Feast of All Saints was created by Pope Boniface IV to mark the consecration of the Roman Pantheon, which had been a temple for “all gods.” The Emperor Phocas gave the temple to the Church, and Boniface had it reconsecrated as St. Mary and the Martyrs on May 12th or 13th in 609. The calendar was filling up with feast days for saints at such a rate that it could never hold them all. Furthermore, there were saints who could not be known by name. All Saints was created to honor them and originally celebrated on May 13th.

The date for the new feast fell near those for the ancient Roman festival of Lemuria. This festival was an elaborate three day ritual to propitiate the spirits. On the final night the head of the household went outside, unshod and holding his hand in the shape of the evil eye (forefinger and pinky extended), washed his hands, and threw black beans over his shoulder, without ever looking back at the ghosts no doubt nipping at heels, while saying (nine times), “With these I redeem myself and mine.” After a final ablution and loud noise to drive away the spirits, he dismissed the ghosts with the phrase “Manes exit paterni” (“Leave, ghosts of my fathers!”), also repeated nine times. The beans recall a bit of vampire folklore: throwing beans or rice on the ground will end a vampire’s pursuit, since they must stop to collect and count them all for reasons never adequately explained.

The feast of All Saints was moved to November 1st in the 8th century by Gregory III to coincide with the consecration of a new chapel in St. Peter’s dedicated to all the saints. A century later Gregory IV officially added this date to the calendar. It’s certainly possible the date was chosen to “baptize” the harvest festival of an obscure group of Celtic pagans from the backwaters of the empire, but Jacobus de Voragine has a more logical explanation for the shift: “supplies were ample after the harvest and the vintage was finished.”

In other words, this was a traditional date of harvest festivals throughout Europe, which made it a good time to party. The church usually took these moments, embedded deeply in folk culture, and kept their trappings while shifting their focus. The goal was to let people continue their revels, moderate their sensual excesses, and raise their vision to that which is above. Also, Rome in May isn’t a great place for large numbers of people to gather, and the festival was beginning to attract significant numbers of pilgrims.

As for All Souls Day, St. Odilo added a memorial for all the faithful departed (Omnium fidelium defunctorum memoria or commemoratio) to the annual calendar of the Benedictines of Cluny and its associated monasteries in 998, building on an earlier practice of praying for them during Whitsuntide. The practice—which included fasting, almsgiving, and masses for the dead—spread to the other Benedictine houses and was adopted by individual dioceses. The practice built on the ancient tradition of offering prayers for the dead.

For example, in “On Monogamy,” Tertullian writes of a widow: “Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship (with him) in the first resurrection; and she offers (her sacrifice) on the anniversaries of his falling asleep.” These prayers and offerings, following tradition, were indicated for the anniversary of a person’s death. All Souls Day gathered them to a single day. It first starts appearing in the Ordines Romani (volumes of liturgical rubrics) in the 14th century, indicating its spread to the wider church.

From the middle ages until its suppression during the reformation, the days were marked in several ways in England, to take one example. Most prominently, this included much ringing of bells: joyful on October 31st, mournful on November 2nd, until Queen Elizabeth I declared an end to “the superstitious ringing of bells at Allhallowtide, and at All Saints Day.” She may have silenced the bells, but prayers for the dead were harder to drive out, and they continued—discretely—into the 19th century, with people gathering in open fields to pray by torchlight.

This brings us to another part of the festivities: fire. This has been artificially linked to Beltane fires, which were bonfires set in May, allegedly to protect livestock from witches. (Many of these connections, and indeed much writing on folklore, are highly speculative.) The fires called to mind the fires of purgatory, which cleansed the souls of the dead who were being recalled by their loved ones on the feast. And, frankly, bonfires in November are just not that uncommon. The weather is cold and there is often detritus to burn off.

Bells were rung, masses said, candles lit, and prayers and alms offered all for a single purpose: seeing the dead through purgatory and into heaven. Thus, they ran afoul of the reformers who insisted purgatory was merely a Romish lie.

In early tradition, “soul cakes” were baked and distributed, at first probably just to the poor, but eventually to the entire community in some places. House-visiting customs evolved around the distribution of these cakes, including a little bit of chanted doggerel recorded by antiquarian John Aubgry in 1686:

A soul-cake, a soul-cake
Have mercy on all Christians for a soul-cake.

And Shakespeare notes the practice in Two Gentleman of Verona, where Speed says of Valentine that he is “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.” In the mid-19th century, one folklore collection recorded that children would go begging for rewards and sang a little song:

I hope you will prove kind with your apples and strong beer
And we’ll come no more a’souling until this time next year.

One for Peter, one for Paul
One for Him as made us all.

Up with your kettles, and down with your pans
Give us a sou’cake and we will be gone

The cakes were a kind of alms, and thus also helped the souls in purgatory. The house-visiting, called “souling” in England, has obvious echoes with today’s trick-or-treating. The practice seems to have vanished in most places in England in the 19th century, only to come back to life in the 1980s under the influence of American-style Halloween.

Costumes are not a huge part of the surviving reports, but there would have been mumming as part of the festivities, along with games. In some areas, superstitions took hold involving divinations at this time of year. A girl could learn who she would marry by paring an apple and throwing the peel over her left shoulder. The shape formed by the peel was supposed to be the initial of her future husband.

There’s no reason for contemporary Catholics to shed the secular trappings of a modern Halloween, although certainly the more occult aspects should be shunned. Rather, we must simply remember its original purpose as well, and that is to honor our dead: those who are surely in heaven, and those who are on their way, with prayers, offerings, and masses.

Originally published at Catholic World Report.