C&C: Halloween

A repost, but a needed one– even EWTN is spreading some of these old myths!   Many thanks to Ben Butera for reminding me with his new post. 😀


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 pay 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.  (With credit to the father of our nation; Washington was very down on Guy Fawkes’ day. A shorter, modern version of his comments could be summed up as “grow up.”)

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 records for 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 (heh) 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.

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; it has a bunch of information all in one place. This pdf that I linked  for Guy Fawkes is also a good source.

None of this should be taken to mean that you must 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. A few years ago we embarrassed a couple that thought it would be a hoot to dress themselves and their infant boy up as zombies for the Mall’s trick-or-treat, because our three year old girl had to be reassured that they were OK– and then went up and asked them if they were OK.


It was pretty obvious from the parents’ expression that they hadn’t really thought through the whole “dressing in photo-realistic car accident injury makeup” thing.

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.  I am usually Miss Frizzle’s cousin, Miss Frazzled, complete with lizard.

Joy, laughter, and fun– we’re celebrating all of the saints!

More to explorer


  1. Isn’t it kind of like an exorcism to out a demon or monster? Give the vampire some goodies and watch him go away ’til next year. Or to remember a princess or saint? Superheroes are great. Superegos on the wing.
    We had a black kitten that made bosom buddies with a skunk, but that was all summer under our car all night. He went into the woods in the morning and she came into the house. Nary a scent. Such friendship.
    I started writing a book on Polish legends. My dad was a storyteller. Maybe when our country becomes a place where people can live in peace, the book will be done. There are some really good ghost stories from Poland, especially for Halloween…about dead bodies kicking their heads down the forest road….maybe another time or the hand of the bad son reaching out of the grave…next year. Turn back your clocks

  2. I don’t know about black cats being eaten by the Chinese but black dogs are considered a delicacy by them. I’ve seen live puppies for sale in an open air Hong Kong food market. In the Philippines only non vaccinated dogs were eaten. Roast dog preceded by lots of alcohol was the food served at cock fights. There was a fun interview of a Mr Tan in the WSJ a few years back: Viet-Namese Mr. Tan happily explained that with the Chinese eating the snakes and the Thais eating “little tigers” i.e., cats, it just meant “more rats for us”. Get your protein where you can find it, I guess.
    The Egyptians worshipped various goddesses that were half cat half human so perhaps that’s where the association with paganism began. It’s said that if the cat population had been greater in Europe the Black Death wouldn’t have spread so quickly the bubonic plague spread by flea infested rats.
    Halloween is fun for grown ups as well as kids. I love the cleverness of the homemade costumes. For years costumed as a witch I handed out candy from my talking cauldron to Trick or Treaters.. The real little ones were too scared to come up, but by the next year it was, “You don’t scare me. I know who you are. You’re only Mrs. M.”

  3. While rooted in pre-Christian culture, Halloween is simple fun for children of all ages.

    Our former neighbors were devote Baptists and didn’t do Halloween. One year they gave out religious tracts. They were nice people and I liked them. I always considered ironic the husband’s moderate holier-than-thou attitude. He sold life insurance.

    In medieval times, the cat was associated with Satan and seen as consort of witches. So, cats were not kept in homes. Maybe cats could have reduced rat and flea populations and so mitigated spread of the plague/black death. If they had any, people likely kept livestock in the house/hovel at night. That didn’t help the rodent/flea crisis.

    I think the news recently reported the plague rampant in Madagascar. In New Mexico and elsewhere in the West, people had best avoid ground squirrels, prairie dogs, etc.as they carry plague. .

  4. That’s the version I was told as a kid– not enough cats, etc– but it seems to be only in a few areas, and frowned on by the Church as a silly superstition.

  5. A naturalistic explanation for the claimed link between cats and Satan is the Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) parasite for which cats are the primary living host. This parasite can transfer from cats to other mammals and infects the brain. It has been linked to mental disease in humans. Our ancestors had good reason to avoid cats. And crazy cat ladies.

  6. For some reason, in Europe there seems to be a tradition of the days before major Christian holidays being somehow associated with ghosts and witches. Besides Halloween, there is the English tradition (which sadly has not made it to the USA) of telling ghost stories before Christmas, and perhaps Walpurgisnacht and St. John’s Eve, both of which are at least named for Christian holy days that happen AFTER the more questionable activities. It just now occurs to me that the more debauched aspects of Mardis Gras — which really tend towards the genuinely diabolical in some places — fit the same mold. If I were to give this a Christian reason, it might come from Revelation 12:12: “Woe to the earth, and to the sea, because the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time.” That might apply not merely to the end of time, but to the annual recurrence of important holy days.

  7. Foxfier, I attended a Harvest Chili Contest last night in my old neighborhood. A friend and neighbor brought up the year I was a witch and she a vampire. The vampire said, “You look tasty; I vont to drink your blood!” The young Trick or Treater, “I wouldn’t be any good. I’m too little!” and ran off to his mom. His older sister took him his candy.

  8. Micha,
    I may be a crazy cat lady, but with 3 indoor/outdoor cats I haven’t had a mouse or a black snake in our 1835 farm house. Every so often a few gall bladders are left by the kitchen door steps to let me know the work cats are earning their keep.

  9. CAM-
    that is adorable!

    On cats– remember that the freakout about it seems to be pushed by relatively few scientists, and part of why they aren’t making a big public health push is that when they’ve tried testing to support the theoretical levels, they can’t find it. There’s one population that has the theoretically normal level of infection– people in classes after road rage incidents. Even folks who volunteer with street cats don’t have a very high rate.

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