Thirteen Ideas for Restoring the Catholic Roots of Halloween

In my previous articles on the liturgical roots of Halloween, I have examined some of the customs of the Vigil and how they might be adapted to the present day. This year, I thought it might be useful to distill these disparate musings into a convenient list of ways that individuals and families can restore the spiritual and liturgical heart of Halloween. 

1. Reading the Mass and Office for the Vigil of All Saints. As the vigil of All Saints was unfortunately suppressed in 1955, later Missals and Breviaries will not have it. But thanks to the Internet you can easily find the texts online. In 2021, Halloween falls on a Sunday (Christ the King in the traditional Missal), so we will all be honoring the day with Holy Mass. You may want to bring along a pre-1955 Missal or print out the Introit and Collect for private prayer during Mass.

2. Attend or Say First Vespers. First Vespers of All Saints are sung on the evening of Halloween, and this is the only liturgical tradition proper to the day that still survives everywhere. If you are lucky enough to have public Vespers in your area, this would be a great way to reconnect with that ancient liturgical tradition. Otherwise, you can always pray Vespers together with friends or at home.

3. Pray “Black Vespers”: This is a popular name for Vespers of the Dead, said in black vestments. Although it is not officially on the Roman liturgical books for Halloween, it was a popular custom to pray it at the cemetery in Brittany and other places, and it harmonizes well with the idea of freeing souls from Purgatory that is so characteristic of the day.

4. Sing the Hymns. There is indeed sacred music appropriate for Halloween! Most important is the Vespers hymn Christe Redemptor Omnium, conserva tuos famulos (also known as Placare Christe Servulis). This hymn gave rise to English versions like Caswall’s O Christ Thy Guilty people spare and, O Christ, Thy servants deign to spare from the Brébeuf hymnal. Michael Haydn (1737-1806) composed a setting of the gradual of the Halloween Mass, Exsultabunt sancti in Gloria. And generally hymns for both All Saints, like Ye watchers and ye holy ones, and All Souls, like Help Lord the Souls, are very appropriate for the day. There are various recordings of Souling Songs by Peter Paul and Mary and other folk groups; we also greatly enjoy the organ-accompanied rendition by Kristen Lawrence.

5. Fast. Vigils were traditionally fast days, and the Vigil of All Saints was specifically mentioned in the Baltimore Manual of Prayer (1888) as an obligatory day of fasting in the USA. 


The obligation has since been lifted, but anyone is still free to fast voluntarily. According to the traditional American rules that would be:
    * Coffee/tea/other hot beverage in the morning, with 2 ounces of plain bread
    * A Collation of 8 ounces
    * One full meal
This fast can even be harmonized with Halloween celebrations, as classic Halloween foods are generally meatless (apples, pumpkins, corn, candy). So you can fast throughout the day and then enjoy a celebration as your full meal. Note though that Sunday is never a fast day; in such years you would fast on October 30th instead.

6. Pray for Delivery from Evil Spirits. Several prayers are particularly recommended for the laity to use against demons: the short St. Michael prayer, the indulgenced long form of the St. Michael prayer (not the priestly one that includes an exorcism), and St. Patrick’s Breastplate. There is also a book of Deliverance Prayers written by exorcist Fr. Chad Ripperger.

7. Decorate with Liturgical Colors. The proper liturgical color of All Hallows Eve is violet. By using that as a main color (say, on a home altar) and by adding secondary accents in orange, black, and white, you arrive quite naturally at the common Halloween palette. And if the kids are helping decorate, make sure to explain how these colors each have special liturgical and seasonal significance in Hallowtide:
    Purple for All Hallows Eve
    White for All Saints and the octave
    Black for All Souls
    Orange for Autumn (beginning liturgically at the Ember Days of September)

8. Crowd your Home Altar with the Saints. In the evening, as the trick-or-treaters are heading out and the world parades its mythical superheroes and its demons, your domestic church can be parading heroic saints and the angels. On our home altar we put out every statue, icon, and prayer card we have. It is also good to light a candle and say some prayers before bed, especially the following.

9. Pray or Sing the Litany of the Saints. What could be more appropriate on this feast than praying this classic devotion before a collection of sacred images, pleading for their intercession before the Divine Throne? A particularly beautiful thing about this litany is that it is very easily customizable for subgroups of saints and patrons: litanies of the American or Canadian saints, for example. (See #13)

10. Have All Saints Parties. All Saints parties are a very wholesome way to redeem the secular costuming tradition for a sacred purpose. Customs vary from parish to parish, but in one I’ve attended children were allowed to wear their saint costumes to Sunday Mass. After Mass, each child could give a little biography and the others would try to guess the saint. Since the saints hailed from just about every time and place, and because of stories like St. George and the dragon and St. Jerome and the lion, children have a great deal of latitude in their costume choices.

11. Bake Soul-cakes. Originally, begging for treats on Halloween had a spiritual purpose. Even long after the Reformation, English mothers would bake soul cakes and hand them out to children who promised to pray for the souls of that household. The traditional observance didn’t encourage children to celebrate gluttony, it taught them to repay kindness with acts of charity, to offer spiritual works of mercy for corporal ones. Recipes for this classic All Hallows dish can be found here and here.

12. Pray for the Dead. If your children collect candy instead of soul cakes, insist that they repay the charity of their neighbors through praying for the dead of their benefactors. You can either prescribe a certain set of prayers for them to say, or you can have them count their treats and then say that many times “Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and may the perpetual light shine upon them.” You can also use the following formula on a standard set of rosary beads, adapted from the Chaplet for the Souls in Purgatory): say the Our Father beads as normal, then say on each of the 10 decade beads: O good Jesus, have mercy on the souls in Purgatory, and grant to them eternal rest. 

13. Keep the Whole Octave. Finally, remember that All Hallows Eve was traditionally just the gateway to an entire liturgical octave that included not just All Saints and All Souls, but also the entire following week. So after All Souls' Day, you can keep your home altar decorated with white and crowded with saints all the way to November 8th. One wonderful old liturgical custom that is observed still during the octave and throughout November involves special feasts in honor of national and regional saints: All Saints of Ireland on November 6th, of Africa on the 6th, of Wales on the 8th, and of Hungary on the 13th. Many religious orders, including the Augustinians, Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans also have special Masses honoring their own. The octave days are thus the perfect time to break down “All Saints” into groups of saints that may be closer to home. Recite litanies for your national or ethnic patron saints, and pray prayers of canonization for those Servants of God and Venerables you have a particular devotion to. You can even compose a special family litany where the saints from each family member’s given name, middle name, and Confirmation name are invoked for their intercession.

* * *

Hallowtide as a season was meant to be kept as a coherent whole, with All Saints and All Souls framed by a vigil and an octave that intertwined themes of Heaven and Purgatory, of the Church Triumphant and Suffering. In that sense, Catholics agree with the secular society that it is a time to remind ourselves about death. Except whereas others only seem to revel in morbid fascination, we are focused on imitating the blessed, praying in charity for the suffering souls, and wisely minding our own mortality. 

Restoring that historically and theologically correct vision lies chiefly in recovering the wonderful sacred traditions of Hallowtide, and celebrating it once again as our Catholic ancestors have always taught us.

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