On November 1, Catholics honor the souls in Heaven with the Feast of All Saints. On November 2, Catholics pray for the souls in Purgatory with the Feast of All Souls. But what about the souls in Hell? How should Catholics remember them?
In medieval Ireland, simple peasants pondered that question and worried that the damned, if neglected, might seek revenge. They solved the problem by banging pots and pans on October 31. Noisemaking became their way of letting the eternally lost know that they weren’t forgotten.
A couple hundred years later, the Bubonic Plague swept through France, killing untold millions. Those who survived prayed for the dead and meditated on their own mortality by staging elaborate All Souls Day parades. These “Dances of the Dead” featured people dressed up in the garb of princes, popes, and paupers, all following the devil to the grave, side by side.
Meanwhile, on October 31 in Catholic England, people walked from house to house, promising prayers for the inhabitants’ dearly departed on All Souls Day in exchange for tasty cakes, dubbed “Soul Cakes.” Years later, after England became a Protestant country, every November 5 the revelers celebrating Guy Fawkes Day visited the houses of known (or suspected) Catholics and demanded food or drink for their merry-making. If the Catholics didn’t want to see their homes or business vandalized, they supplied what the revelers demanded. The choice was simple: trick or treat.
Many of those traditions eventually died out in their country of origin. In early-nineteenth-century America, however, they found new life and new purpose on All Hallows Eve. As immigrants from England, Ireland, and France poured into the United States, they brought their ways of celebrating the triduum of Hallowtide with them. The arrival of more Catholic immigrants from elsewhere in Europe brought more traditions. And eventually all those traditions mingled together to form the very American (and very Catholic) holiday of Halloween.