Written by Patrick Gouker (University of Notre Dame) | Edited by Mary Ryan
Halloween, despite what many may think, is actually a Christian holiday. Contrary to the night of scaring people, causing mischief, seeking out copious amounts of candy, and having the great sugar high that leaves you candy-hungover the next day, Halloween has Christian roots as the beginning of a triduum, a series of three days of special religious devotion. In Catholicism a number of liturgical tridua exist. Most notable is the Paschal Triduum which consists of Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. However, many people still observe the Rogation Days, days set aside to offer sacrifices through fasting and to petition God (“rogation” comes from the Latin rogare meaning “to ask”) for protection from disasters. The major rogation day is April 25, while the minor rogations which form a triduum are the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday leading up to Ascension Thursday. Though the practice of observing this triduum of rogation days has fallen out of practice since the Second Vatican Council, some continue the practice.
One triduum that goes seemingly unnoticed, though, is that of Hallowtide, since the liturgical reforms of 1955 included removing the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) from the liturgical calendar. This triduum begins with Halloween and continues with All Saints’ Day, followed by All Souls’ Day. This is not an unimportant liturgical celebration. While many do not realize it, even the commercial and somewhat sinister holiday of Halloween celebrated now has retained a number of aspects of its liturgical origin. For example, both the religious triduum and the modern holiday have an emphasis on death. And, in fact, the traditional colors of Halloween come from the liturgical colors of the Triduum of Hallowtide. All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) saw the priest dressed in penitential violet for the Mass. Then, due to a historical devotion, many would double up on Vespers, praying first the so called “Black Vespers,” a name derived from the black vestments worn, from the Office of the Dead, then secondly the proper First Vespers of All Hallows (All Saints) which used white vestments. Thus, on Halloween, the people would have seen violet, black, and white, the traditional colors of the modern holiday minus, of course, the orange which comes from the autumnal vesture of the trees.
Aside from the parallels in their coloring palette, however, the liturgical Triduum of Hallowtide and the current celebration of Halloween have another key connection: they focus on death. This is not out of place. This Triduum takes place on the last day of October and the first two days of November. As the Church enters November, she prepares herself for the end of her liturgical year, which ends only to begin again in the penitential season of waiting, known as Advent. But it seems fitting that, as we reach the end of our liturgical journey, we remember our death. Indeed, the liturgical year is meant to represent the Christian life and we are meant not just to experience the liturgy when we walk into a church, but to make the liturgy the work of our life. We get the word “liturgy” from the Greek leitourgia, meaning a work done on behalf, or for the benefit, of the people.
This is all to say that the liturgical calendar has an eschatological aspect to it. That is, it calls us to memento mori – to remember that we will die – and that the end will come and we will be judged as our soul enters either unity with God in Heaven (although this perhaps only after a time of purification) or joins the souls of the damned in Hell. We see this clearly through the focus on death in the Triduum of Hallowtide, which is butted up against the Solemnity of Christ the King. This feast was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and calls us to remember that Christ has a threefold ministry as priest, prophet, and king and that He will return crowned in glory as our King to judge us. When this feast was instituted it was placed on the Sunday before All Saints’ Day and after Vatican II the feast was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, always in November, at most a few weeks removed from the Triduum of Hallowtide. In either calendar, though, this feast and the triduum are celebrated close together, and each reminds us of our impending death and the judgement of our souls to follow.
Now, it may seem rather morbid and it may seem depressing that Holy Church places such an emphasis on death as we come to the end of the liturgical year. Certainly, when All Hallows’ Eve was still celebrated, the penitential violet vestments, the language of judgement in the Propers of the Mass, the celebration of the Black Vespers, etc. seem anything but happy and joyful. And yet, underneath it all, there are hopeful tones. For as we begin to recall our coming judgement, the Introit of the Halloween Mass ends with the same psalm as the introit for the All Hallows’ Mass: Exsultate, justi, in Domino (Rejoice in the Lord, ye just). And we see that even the morbidity of Black Vespers gives way to the radiancy of the First Vespers of All Saints. We come to spend the next day dwelling on the glory of the saints in Heaven, rejoicing that so many of our brothers and sisters have entered into that perfect unity with God and are praying that we might one day join in that union.
Why then do we go from being so hopeful on that second day of this triduum to so mournful on the third? Why do the white vestments which conquered the black during the double vespers of Halloween succumb to the black again as we celebrate All Souls? It is truly a stark contrast. Yet, All Souls’ Day is not meant to be sad or at all lacking hope. Rather, All Souls day is the culmination of this Triduum of Hallowtide. The entirety of this triduum and the eschatological emphasis at the end of the liturgical calendar reminds us of the fullness of the Church. The Church entire is composed of the Church Militant (the faithful on earth), the Church Suffering or the Church Penitent (the souls of the faithful departed who are being purified in Purgatory), and the Church Triumphant (those members of the faithful whose lives were so well lived that they are now in union with God in Heaven). Together, with the angels, these groups form the communio sanctorum – the communion of saints – a “spiritual solidarity…in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, in a constant interchange of supernatural offices.”
Thus, All Souls’ Day is the climactic end of the Hallowtide Triduum. While on Halloween we beech God’s mercy for ourselves when our death comes, and while on All Saints’ Day we pray in thanksgiving for those who have come to union with God already, it is on All Souls’ Day that we focus most heavily on the union of the Church Militant, Church Penitent, and Church Triumphant. It is on this day that we, the Church Militant, offer sacrifice to God to speed the members of the Church Penitent through purgation so that they might enter more quickly the Church Triumphant where they, in turn, can intercede for us as saints in Heaven. So, it is on All Souls’ Day above all others that we see that special solidarity of the communio sanctorum. We see that the members of the Church Militant, Church Penitent, and Church Triumphant, united in the Mystical Body of Christ are called to be unified by interceding for each other, constantly helping one another until they are all joined in perfect unity with God.
The sequence of All Souls’ Day is the magnificent Dies Iræ. The sequence begins:
Dies iræ, dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla
That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
Shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
As David and the Sibyl say.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
What horror must invade the mind
When the approaching Judge shall find
And sift the deeds of all mankind!
These opening lines of the sequence set the scene for this final day of the Hallowtide Triduum. It reminds those who hear it that the “day of wrath” is approaching just as is the Judge, Who will “sift the deeds of all mankind.” It is a terrifying reality. This final triduum of the liturgical year reminds the listener to memento mori – to remember that he will die. Death comes for us all. And as death and judgement come closer, so too does the anxiety over what ruling that judgement will bring.
The seventh strophe of the Dies Iræ asks:
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix justus sit secures?
O what shall I, so guilty plead?
And who for me will intercede?
When even Saints shall comfort need?
The answer to this soul’s question is that the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant for him are interceding. This sequence also serves as a reminder to those in the Church Militant that the Church Triumphant (especially those souls whom they have sped through purgation by their prayers) intercede for them now and at the hour of their death.
The relationship between the Church Militant, Church Penitent, and Church Triumphant is one of unity, especially in prayer. The Dies Iræ vocalizes the anxiety felt as the members of the Church reach their time of judgement. Those being judged fear the outcome; those already judged holy “shall comfort need” as they anxiously await the fate of their brethren. Yet, the Hallowtide Triduum focuses on an underlying hope. While the triduum reminds the faithful that death will come for them, it also underscores a hope to be found through the prayers offered by the faithful on the behalf of other members of the Church, and a trust in God’s just mercy. This realization allows them then to say:
Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.
You Who did Mary’s guilt unbind,
And mercy for the robber find,
Have filled with hope my anxious mind.
Though during the Hallowtide Triduum the faithful recall those from whom they are physically separated, they have a hope that they might see them again. This triduum calls the faithful to remember that they will die and that they will be judged. It calls them to strive to “be perfect as [their] heavenly Father is perfect”. And in doing so, they have hope that God’s mercy will be granted to them. Through their prayers, they have hope that the souls of the faithful departed will be sped through purgation to join the saints, and that the prayers of the saints, in turn, will aid them on the path of perfection. They trust that through this cycle of intercession, so greatly emphasized in this Triduum of Hallowtide, they will reach that ultimate goal of being together again with those who have died before them, all perfectly united in God.
“Devil: Search Online Etymology Dictionary.” Index. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=devil.
Salvucci, Claudio. “All Hallows Eve (Halloween) in the Traditional, Pre-1955 Liturgical Books.” Liturgical Arts Journal. Liturgical Arts Journal, September 13, 2019. https://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/2019/09/all-hallows-eve-halloween-in.html.
Sollier, Joseph. “The Communion of Saints.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 6 Oct. 2020 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04171a.htm.