Conspiracies and Catholicism: Halloween

These are articles originally published at the Catholic Stand online magazine; I plan to reprint and then continue the series here.

All Hallow’s Eve, when ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night, are all out in force….

Well, I already dealt with monsters back in the demon, vampire and Frankenstein articles, but there are still a lovely bunch of little Halloween things to look at.

Pag-again?
Just like every other big Catholic thing, it’s supposedly Pagan to have a party during the vigil before All Saint’s day. There is a long history of having a sort of harvest festival in pretty much any culture that can produce more than they can store (frequently it’s when you harvest fruits or slaughter the animals before winter) and there was one called Samhain in Ireland. There’s another one coming up in the US, called Thanksgiving. Since becoming Catholic didn’t suddenly make it so they had modern means of storing food that spoils quickly the parties would have kept happening, and when centuries after the pagan practices were gone the feast of All Saints was instituted there was nothing there to “steal.”

The trick-or-treating is believed to have grown out of gathering food for the vigil feast, plus hospitality, sort of like carolers traditionally get figgy pudding and something to drink; there is no specific support for this theory, but it does have more support than claims of pagan origins for the vigil of All Saint’s! Parties on feast days are traditional, priests (and their helpers, which at feast time would likely be small children) would likely be in charge of setting them up. There’s also the tradition of soul cakes, which were a food donation in exchange for a promise to pray for the dead. (Amusingly enough, a lot if Catholic customs have been taken by pagan groups from the UK area– if it’s not protestant, it must be pagan!)

Many American Halloween customs are most likely taken from Guy Fawkes’ day, November 5th– it’s entirely possible that they shifted over from the prior All Hallow’s Eve celebrations of the English, just as the harvest feast got hooked to the Feast and its vigil. People are very good at finding a reason to have a party and have fun, and fire is fun, food is fun, candy and costumes are fun.

Black Cats and Jack of the Lantern
You’ve probably heard something about black cats– or cats in general– being condemned by the Vatican and thus killed as associates of witches? Specifically, by Gregory IX, in the Papal Bull Vox in Rama? I’m sure you’ll be just shocked, shocked to find out that no, he didn’t. That claim can be traced to a book from the ’70s that was supposedly about witchcraft in the Middle Ages. The only Papal Bull we’ve got record of that Pope issuing was to canonize St. Francis of Assisi, and it’s after records are rather good. Startlingly enough, Gregory the IX did actually write a letter which started with the supposed title of the Bull, which does mention black cats… but that’s because it describes the supposed rituals of witches in Germany. (Kissing the cat’s posterior; I can’t read Latin, or even enough German to find the Latin text of the letter, but those snippets of translation I’ve seen suggest it was not a natural cat.) There is no claim before the ’70s that it was a Bull, nor does the letter say something to the effect of “hey, wipe out (black) cats, they’re satanic.” If there was actually such a strong connection, especially with official documents, it should have been showing up frequently during the witch craze; as it was not, I’d theorize that any connection was exactly the other way around– there was already a superstition about cats being witchy in various ways.

Jack-o-lanterns have a traditional sort of legend with many variations that can be summed up as ‘once there was a man who the devil couldn’t take and Heaven would not, who now wanders the world with a light in a carved container’ (the first part should sound familiar–it’s very popular for everything from fairies to the Wandering Jew). I know that swamplights, witchfires, will’o’wisps or foxfires are often associated with walking spirits, probably because a strange light from a non-human source at night is scary. The Irish carved turnips, the English carved beets, and here in America we carve squash- each year I’m startled that nobody has made some really impressive bottle gourds— that’s the hard, dryable variety of gourds; pumpkins are the soft type. If anyone wants to take the idea, do so with my blessing!

Random Bits:
The Vatican Condems Halloween! This was several years ago, but it is probably still floating around.
Here is a great summary of where that came from:A quote from a priest in Spain reported in an Italian newspaper read by an Englishman who then reported it as fact that the Vatican condemns Halloween.
Basically, some Spanish youth thought that the rather gruesome, dark, “magic” soaked American Halloween they’d seen on TV looked like fun and were being poorly behaved in newsworthy in rather bad ways; Father Joan Maria Canals of the Spanish Bishop’s conference said that’s bad. Shocking, you know, a Catholic official saying that he thinks people shouldn’t glorify death and doesn’t like a Church Holiday being hijacked for occult purposes.

A lot of information can be found at this Catholic Answers podcast has a bunch of information, but it’s very hard to link to specific bits; although I linked earlier, this pdf also has a wide range of information.
None of this should be taken to mean that you have to celebrate Halloween in any way, shape or form, and in fact my family doesn’t do costumes that glorify evil, or even that are gruesome. We just have fun, and the adults are more likely to cosplay or have an outfit that complements the kids’. My husband made a very dashing Harry Dresden, Wizard Detective. Joy, laughter, and fun.

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3 thoughts on “Conspiracies and Catholicism: Halloween”

  1. Hello! I just stumbled across your blog the other day, and I totally love it!! My name is John Watchorn, and I am a theology/history major at DeSales University in PA. I’ve always been interested in vampires, and am even trying to write some novels on a young Van Helsing, and his back story. I was wondering if you could point me to any resources on the matter, and maybe we could even get in touch to debate the whole soul question at some point. Keep up the good work!
    God bless.

    1. I can try! I’m republishing articles I did a while back, and the vampire article is set for mid-Feb; here’s the original:
      http://www.catholicstand.com/conspiracy-theories-catholicism-vampires/

      There’s also this article by Mr. Finn, who had a similar impulse to write things stronger from the bottom:
      http://thecatholicgeeks.com/2015/08/29/writing-catholic-vampires/

      Right now things are rather crazy– four kids getting ready for Christmas, who’d’ve thought?– but if you can drop specific questions I can usually find answers!

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