The Christian Festival of All Saints Hallows, on 1st November, in medieval times was part of a three-day festival beginning on October 31st. The Western Church traditionally held a vigil on All Hallows’ Eve when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself. At the Reformation the vigil ceased along with All Souls Day on 2nd November. This was because the Church of England in line with other Protestant denominations removed all prayers for the dead. That vacuum has over the years been filled with a number of customs, some from pagan times and some darker ones. It was not until the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1927 that prayers for the dead were included although the followers of the Oxford Movement had, for a long time, celebrated Requiem Masses (Masses for the Dead) and prayed for the ‘faithful departed’.
The prevailing customs associated with Halloween are mainly pagan in origin. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain marked the equinox and the change to the dark part of the year. Samhain is a Gaelic word meaning ‘end of the summer’. This festival is believed to have been a celebration of the end of the harvest, and a time of preparation for the coming winter. It was thought that the boundary between this world and the ‘other’ world was especially thin on this night. As a result, many folk customs have become popular. The ‘trick or treat’ is derived from the old custom of ‘souling’ when children would knock on doors to be rewarded with apples on All Souls Day, 2nd November. The Victorian Log Books of Welshampton School record instances of absentees because of ‘souling’. The pumpkin lanterns etc are a remnant of the darker side that involved making costumes and wearing ghoulish masks to ward off ghosts, evil spirits and the supernatural in general. Many of these customs have been imported from America.
It is widely accepted that the early church missionaries chose to hold a festival at this time of year in order to supplant native Pagan practices with Christian ones, thereby smoothing the conversion process. This view is contested by some who point to the fact that the feast of All Saints on this date was unknown before the eighth century and that there is no proven link with the pagan festival of Samhain. These theories matter not because for centuries the Christian observance for the evening before the Feast of All Hallows was fasting and prayer. This was done in preparation for reception of the sacred elements in communion with the Saints on the day appointed to specially honour those saints who do not have a festival day of their own.
Feature Image: Lighting Votive Candles – Public Domain