Facing the altar and tabernacle of the Ossuary chapel
beneath the Catholic Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec
image copyright Nick Moulds
image copyright Nick Moulds
November First is the feast of All Saints. It is the day that Catholics celebrate The Church Triumphant. That is to say, the part of the Church made up of all of those who have died and now live in the presence of God, those who now celebrate the eternal Heavenly Liturgy, the same liturgy we celebrate every day at Mass, right along side of them, but from the linear, earthly vantage point.We call those members of The Church Triumphant "Saints."
The day before All Saints Day is called "All Saints Eve." Kind of like Christmas Eve. Get it? Another word for "Saint" in our culture is "Hallow." So the day before The feast of All Saints is also known as "All Hallows Eve." Literally, it means, "The Vigil of All Saints Day." In Catholic culture it is common for a big festival to be held the day before a major feast. These have commonly included activities like parties and masquerades and what have you. The same basic elements you see in your secular Halloween celebration. See also: Mardi Gras. They literally come from the same tradition which is why you see some obvious similarities between the secular celebrations of Mardi Gras and Halloween. Mardi Gras being the day before Ash Wednesday. Although, these days are traditionally observed in the Church with a Vigil Mass.
The word "Halloween" is literally a contraction of "All Hallows Evening."
The night before the Feast of All Hallows marks the beginning of Allhallowtide, a triduum of feasts by which Catholics honor all the Saints and also recognize in a special way, the need to pray for souls in Purgatory (also known as The Church Suffering.)
The day after All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day (or All Hallows), is a day on which we, The Church Militant, celebrate The Church Triumphant. All Hallows Day is a Holy Day of Obligation, which means that all Catholics throughout the world are obliged to attend Mass.
Then, the day after that, All Souls Day, is a day of prayer and fasting for the The Church Suffering.
It is common to wonder why a Christian would celebrate a holiday that is so overrun with the imagery of death. Skeletons, graves, tombs and so on. What is interesting to me is that, historically and currently, throughout the world, the Catholic tradition surrounding Allhallowtide could be seen as consistently even more morbid than the secular tradition. Take, for example, the ossuary chapel inside the Cemetery Church of All Saints in the Czech Republic which is furnished almost entirely with the bones of the faithful departed, the use of skulls and bones as common imagery concerning the saints, the famous "gilded saints," skeletons arrayed in resplendent decoration as veneration of the saints. A part of this could be explained in an obvious sense. To an outsider, it's obvious that Allhallowtide revolves around those of our ranks who have died. But the meaning is deeper. We do not believe that the saints are dead. In Christ, they live forever. They are more alive even than us. They see the face of God. And, just as in one sense, we use the crucifix, the image of the crucified Christ, as simultaneously a reminder of Christ's suffering and death as well as a mockery of our persecutors and of death itself as they are now conquered by Christ, so we also embrace the imagery of death and decay in our veneration of the saints. In a sense, simultaneously a reminder of and a mockery of, that which Christ has conquered through His life, death and resurrection: nothing less than suffering and death themselves. By uniting our lives, our sufferings and our deaths with those of Christ, we may also become saints.
Some will tell you that modern Halloween traditions come from the ancient pagan tradition of Samhain. This is not totally unlikely as the Catholic Church, at its best, down through the ages has assimilated what is true and good in the customs and traditions of all the cultures that have joined her. Christ is prefigured in the histories, customs and mythologies of many pre-Christian cultures. Although, it is important to recognize that some scholars maintain that the customs of All Hallows Eve emerged independently of these pagan traditions. All Hallows Day, the primary feast of the triduum, also doesn't take place on the same day as Samhain, but the day after, All Hallows Eve being the Vigil of All Hallows Day.
So the next time someone tells you that Halloween was "once known as 'All Hallows Eve'" you can tell them that, in the lives of one seventh of the world's population, it never stopped being that.
The Worship of Saints
The Intercession of Saints