Halloween is in just a few days, and then we have Thanksgiving a month later and Christmas a month after that. You may have heard that Halloween and Christmas were originally pagan holidays and that the Church just took them over and Christianized them. This may well be true, and it can teach us a lesson about how the early Church Christianized a culture that it had already evangelized. You see, it’s not enough just to accept the Gospel, we have to live it out in our lives and let it change our culture.
What we call Halloween probably started as a Celtic or Druidic celebration Samhain, which was the Celtic new year. They believed that ghosts of the dead returned to earth on Samhain, so they would light bonfires and wear scary masks to ward off the spirits. When missionaries brought Christianity to Great Britain, they also brought the Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day, which was first already being celebrated on November 1 as early as the 700s AD. They added the feast of All Souls’ Day on November 2 to emphasize to the newly Christianized population that we don’t need to fear the souls of the dead, but that we should pray for them and ask them to pray for us.
We’re not sure about the history of Christmas, but it happens to be around the same day when the Romans would celebrate the feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Sol Invictus was originally a relatively unpopular god in Rome until the 3rd or 4th century AD, when some of the Emperors began to promote his cult. Some historians think they did that as a response to Christianity, since the Rising Sun is also a symbol of Jesus. Maybe it’s a coincidence that Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25, or maybe not, but it is a sign of the contest between Roman paganism and Christianity.
You see, the ancient Christians had a saying, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, meaning, “The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living.” The way we pray, like the way we celebrate different feast days, will affect what we believe, and what we believe will affect how we live. The ancient Christians instituted Christian feast days, sometimes directly competing with pagan or druidic feast days, in order to reinforce the Christian beliefs that most people were converting to.
Today, these feast days are in the process of changing again. They aren’t going back to paganism; instead, they are becoming more secular. Many people who aren’t really Christians still want to celebrate these holidays that they grew up with, but they don’t really want to think about the Christian meaning of them, so they ignore that part or take it out altogether. We have to remember that the way we celebrate Halloween and Christmas will affect what we believe and how we live, so let’s celebrate them specifically as Christian Catholics and don’t surrender to secular culture. Make sure that you go to Mass together as a family. On Halloween, offer some prayers together for lost family members and friends. On All Saints’ Day look up the story of a saint and on All Souls’ Day go to a cemetery blessing. When we begin to truly celebrate our faith again, and to celebrate our Christian feasts, then we’ll find it much easier to live as faithful followers of Christ.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.