Pots and Pans and More: The Catholic Origins of Today’s Halloween

Catholic Halloween

SOME OF OUR MOST POPULAR HOLIDAYS have surprising origins, and Halloween is one of them. Merrymaking, costumes, going from house to house asking for treats – where did all this come from?

Every year on November 1st the Western Church honors All Saints on the feast of that name, preceded on October 31st by All Hallows Eve (“Hallow E’en”), and followed on November 2nd by the feast of All Souls, also known as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed or the Day of the Dead.

A Hell of a Noise

With the understanding that the “faithful departed” would by definition exclude those in hell, the peasants of medieval Ireland wondered how they should remember those souls, and even worried that if neglected, those souls may seek revenge. They solved the problem by banging pots and pans on October 31st, as a way of letting those in hell know that they weren’t forgotten.

Dressing Up

Centuries later after the bubonic plague killed millions in France, those who survived prayed for the dead and meditated on their own mortality by staging elaborate All Souls’ Day parades. Their danse macabre included people (frequently children) costumed as princes, popes, and paupers, following Death to the grave, side by side.

Author P.S. Conteh writes: “It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. In order to avoid being recognized by any soul that might be seeking such vengeance, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities”. In the Middle Ages, churches displayed the relics of saints, and those parishes that were too poor to have relics let parishioners dress up as the saints instead.

Trick or Treat

In Catholic England, on October 31st people walked from house to house, promising prayers for the inhabitants’ dearly departed in exchange for tasty cakes called “soul cakes” – a custom known as “souling.” Years later, after England became a Protestant country, every November 5th the revelers celebrating Guy Fawkes Day visited the houses of known or suspected Catholics and demanded food or drink for their merrymaking. If the Catholics didn’t want to see their homes or business vandalized, they supplied what the revelers demanded. it was a choice of…trick or treat.

The United States of Halloween

Many of these traditions died out in their country of origin. But in early 19th century America they found new life and new purpose on All Hallows Eve. Immigrants from England, France, Ireland and other parts of Europe brought their unique customs with them. Mingled in the melting pot of America, they eventually became our present holiday of Halloween.

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The Story of the First Easter Egg

Easter EggsBefore the egg became closely entwined with the Christian Easter, it was honored during many rite-of-Spring festivals. The Romans, Gauls, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians all cherished the egg as a symbol of the universe, of the earth’s rebirth at springtime. With the advent of Chrisianity the symbolism of the egg changed to represent, not nature’s rebirth, but the rebirth of man.

Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose. Saint Augustine first described Christ’s Resurrection from the dead as a chick bursting from an egg. This symbolism was enhanced in the Christian East’s celebration of Easter. At the end of the Paschal Liturgy, the faithful exchange paschal greetings and the priest and the faithful present each other with red eggs. Wooden eggs are sometimes suspended from hanging lamps and chandeliers, and often the faithful decorate wooden eggs with icons and hang them from the vigil lights in their homes.

THE FIRST EASTER EGG

Saint Mary MagdaleneAccording to tradition, Saint Mary Magdalene, who had patrician rank, gained an audience in Rome with the emperor after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. She denounced Pilate for his handling of Jesus’ trial and then began to talk with Caesar about Jesus’ resurrection. She picked up a hen’s egg from the dinner table to illustrate her point about resurrection. Caesar was unmoved and replied that there was as much chance of a human being returning to life as there was for the egg to turn red. Immediately, the egg miraculously turned red in her hand! It is because of this tradition that Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Easter.

OTHER CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS

Eastern Christian legends blended folklore and Christian beliefs and firmly attached the egg to the Easter celebration. A Polish legend tells of when Mary Magdalen went to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as a repast. When she arrived at the sepulchre and uncovered the eggs, lo, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.

Our Lady of CzestochowaOne legend concerns the Virgin Mary. It tells of the time the Blessed Virgin gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel and she wept. Her tears fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.

Decorating and coloring eggs for Easter was the custom in England during the Middle Ages. The household accounts of Edward I, for the year 1290, recorded an expenditure of eighteen pence for four hundred and fifty eggs to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.

PYSANKY – THE UKRAINIAN EASTER EGG

The sets of colorful wooden eggs offered by Monastery Icons were handpainted and engraved in the Ukraine and feature traditional folk and religious symbols and designs.

FABERGE EGGS

The most famous decorated Easter eggs were those made by the well-known goldsmith, Peter Carl Faberge. In 1883 the Russian Czar, Alexander, commissioned Faberge to make a special Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Marie.

This special Faberge egg so delighted the Czarina that the Czar promptly ordered the Faberge firm to design further eggs to be delivered every Easter. In later years Nicholas II, Alexander’s son, continued the custom. Fifty-seven eggs were made in all.

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