Hallowtide is right around the corner, commencing with Hallowe’en on Saturday, All Saints’ Day on Sunday, and All Souls’ Day on Monday! As such, let’s take a look at the Hallowmas Triduum, beginning with the ever popular (and rather spooky) Hallowe’en.
Nowadays, many Christians (mainly of the fundamentalist/evangelical variety) view Hallowe’en as a satanic or pagan holiday, and encourage “Real True Christians” to avoid it altogether. And while it’s true that many of the secular customs associated with the holiday are rooted in European pagan and folk traditions, the truth is that Hallowe’en is just as firmly rooted in pious Christian tradition as any other holy day.
“Hallowe’en” of course comes from “All Hallows’ Even” or “Eve”, which eventually got shortened to Hallow E’en. It is the eve of All Hallows’ Day, commencing at Vespers on the evening of October 31st. “Hallow” is an archaic English word meaning “holy” or “saint”, therefore it may also be called All Saints’ Eve. According to tradition, a day actually begins at sunset prior to the day we would recognize on the calendar. Major Holy Days (and Sundays) are assigned two Vespers offices — so, for example, Vespers I for Assumption Day would be prayed around sunset on August 14th, and Vespers II would be prayed at sunset on the 15th: both beginning and concluding the Holy Day. In the case of Hallowe’en, Christians would gather to pray in honor of the Saints, particularly for those who were not known or publically venerated by the Church with their own individual feast day. Prayers and Masses would continue into the next day, and even today, the Catholic Church recognizes the Solemnity of All Saints as a Holy Day of Obligation.
You might ask, how did All Saints’ Day end up on November 1? It was originally celebrated in honor of all the holy martyrs, known and unknown, on May 13. On this day, in 609 or 610 AD, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon of Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all martyrs, and ordered an anniversary of the dedication. All Saints Day was eventually moved to November 1 during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731-741) to celebrate the foundation of the an oratory of St. Peter’s for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs, confessors, or all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world”, and the May 13th date feast suppressed.
This happened to fall on the Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), which had a similar theme to the Roman festival of Lemuria (when restless spirits were propitiated and the dead were honored), but the Celtic holiday was also a harvest festival. Even after conversion to Christianity, the Celtic customs remained popular. The belief that the dead could return on this night to haunt the living lead to the practice of carving jack-o-lanterns (originally out of turnips) and wearing costumes to trick the spirits into leaving the living alone. But the practice of praying still continued, both in Church and in the streets, and this is where the origin of trick-or-treating originated.
Christians would bake soul cakes in honor of the dead in Britain and Ireland throughout the Middle Ages, usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, raisins, or currants. Before baking, these were marked with the sign of the cross to signify that they were alms. Children, widows, and beggars would go out “soulling”, that is ritually begging for cakes door to door, and reciting prayers for the dead. Each cake given represented a prayer.
All these traditions were brought over to America by Irish immigrants, and thus Hallowe’en became a popular holiday in the U.S.
In traditions that do not recognize the Saints, All Saints’ Day is generally ignored. If it is celebrated, it often celebrates all Christians — the living and the dead. These traditions also generally do not believe the praying for the dead is efficaceous, and therefore the following Holy Day dedicated to All Souls gets tossed out.
While All Saints’ Day and its Eve are dedicated to all the saints, both known and unknown, All Souls’ Day on November 2nd is focused on praying for the departed. We pray for the repose of our loved ones: the friends, family, mentors, and clergy who have passed on but are never forgotten. We also pray for those forgotten souls who have no one to pray for them. We visit cemeteries, leaving flowers and candles; and, hopefully, we remember our own mortality so that we can make the best of our lives here on earth.
Yes, I personally love all things spooky, and it’s fun to dress up for Hallowe’en. But for me, and many Christians Gnostic or otherwise, this three-day period is an important triduum in which we the Church Militant have the opportunity to pray with and for the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering. As I always like to say, prayer is not limited by space and time, and the prayers we say today may be assisting a martyr as they’re lead to their death centuries in the past, or aiding someone on their death bed who has no one to be with them as they depart from this world and on to the next. We may not know how God chooses to apply our prayers, but we can be confident that through His mercy, our prayers are always effacaceous!
At this Hallowmas Triduum, I’d ask you to do four things: honor your patron saint or saints; honor in particular all the unknown saints; pray for your departed loved ones; and most importantly, say a prayer for all the forgotten souls who have no one to pray for them. You may use the following prayer, or improvise your own:
O merciful God, take pity on those souls who have no particular friends and intercessors to recommend them to Thee, who, either through negligence or through length of time are forgotten by their friends and by all. Remember them, O Lord, and remember Thine own mercy, when others forget to appeal to it. Let not one soul ever be parted from Thee; may they find repose in the Eternal Fullness, and may light perpetual shine upon them. Amen.
(The artwork is “The Angel of Death” by Evelyn De Morgan)