Purgatory in the Celtic Folklore of All Hallows Eve

Although we still can see a connection between All Saints and All Souls by their mere proximity on the calendar, we seem to have lost a sense of Hallowtide, in its pre-1955 form, as a discrete season with several overarching themes.

One of those themes is praying for the dead in Purgatory.

Of course, All Souls Day is the quintessential day for that–and that has not changed, even in the aggressively pruned calendar of 1970.

But All Hallows Eve has also played a key part in praying for the dead, particularly in Celtic countries. And despite the feverish imaginations of some authors, it seems to be Celtic Catholicity, not Celtic paganism, that is most responsible for shaping the original folklore of what we know today as Halloween.

At first blush, the liturgical books seem not to offer much evidence of this.

We could certainly observe how in the vigil Mass–the Mass of Halloween–the Gradual and the Offertory take the future tense: Exsultabunt sancti in gloria, laetabuntur in cubilibus suis: “The saints shall rejoice in glory; they shall be joyful in their beds”. This passage from Psalm 149 points toward the eventual establishment of the Church. It also takes on a new, deeper meaning in the context of a vigil Mass, pointing forward to the next day’s feast.  And we could further admit a third application of this future tense: the freeing of the souls currently in Purgatory. These souls are as-yet-unrealized saints–being led inexorably to that future joy just as surely as those on earth today who will be raised to the altars.

Yet admittedly, that inference by itself is not terribly compelling evidence.

It is, rather, in Catholic folklore and devotional life that Halloween really begins to show itself not only as a preparation for the celebration of the Church Triumphant, but also as a preparation for relieving the Church Suffering.

Office of the Dead illustration

For instance, a devotion in Celtic lands was the recitation of “Black Vespers”, or Vespers of the Dead, at the parish church on the vigil, followed by a trip to the cemetery to pray for the dead. In Brittany, hymns would be sung at charnel houses as if the bones were beseeching the living for prayers, and a folk belief was current there that the souls of the dead were freed from Purgatory on this day and allowed to visit their homes and participate at Mass.

Memento Mori

That folk belief may well have been inspired from Black Vespers, whose opening line is: Placebo Domino in regione vivorum, commonly translated as: “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living”. It seems quite natural for this phrase to have powerfully influenced the medieval mind, especially given the common contemporary images of memento mori and the “Dance of Death,” featuring skeletal figures dancing with living men and women.

In Ireland’s County Kerry, a large uncut loaf and a jug of water were, somewhat superstitiously, put out for the Holy Souls on Halloween night. And even outside the Celtic-speaking lands and under the strict legal injunctions against certain Halloween festivities of post-Reformation England, the vigil remained there a day for children to beg for “soul cakes” in return for prayers for the dear departed.

All Hallows Eve among the Celts and the English was both a day to liturgically prepare for the great octave of All Saints and a day to devotionally prepare for All Souls. And this particular combination, it seems, is what is at root of the modern holiday.

While deprecating, of course, the flat-out immorality and neopaganism that has crept into Halloween as currently practiced in the United States, it would still seem a worthwhile goal to fight for its original intention and spirit as part of our Catholic patrimony.

Not just for our own sakes, but especially for the souls in Purgatory, who are counting on us for prayers and Masses on their behalf.


October 14, 2020