The Strange History of Trick or Treating … Prayer?
Throughout the middle ages people believed in a theological concept called purgatory…a place between heaven and hell where certain people could pay for their sins before entering heaven. Of course, Evangelical scholars don’t believe the concept even exists in the Bible. Some credit Pope Gregory the 1st (late 6th century) as the originator. But keep this belief in mind; because, as you’ll see in a moment, it added an interesting twist on the rituals of Halloween.
As Christianity spread through the tribes of unchurched Europe, the Catholic church wanted to co-opt certain pagan holidays by creating a new “Christianized holiday” on top. (For example, “Easter” is technically the name of the pagan goddess of fertility, but… don’t tell anyone). So, to overtake the pagan festival of Lemuria (and later, Samhain,) the church created “All Saints” and “All Souls” days as times to commemorate the dead.
Pagan observers of Samhain believed that the barrier between the after-life and the present became thin at this time. Spirits could “cross over.” Catholics found their belief in purgatory to be a convenient parallel for those transitioning out of pagan traditions. So to co-opt this pagan tradition, Catholics began an interesting ritual called “Souling.”
Keep in mind, Catholics believed that Christians could help people get out of purgatory by giving money to the church (indulgences) and by praying. So, Catholics were often quite zealous to recruit help for their poor relatives (you know… the ones who didn’t live very morally). So, All Souls day provided a unique opportunity for recruiting help.
On All Souls Day, kids would go out “souling” – a ritual in which they went door to door, offering prayers for “soul cakes” (spiced cakes mixed with cinnamon and raisins). Naturally, this was good for the poor (as they offered prayers in exchange for food). And over time, this became a tradition more like Christmas caroling (songs for figgy pudding). But the main purpose was to encourage young people to pray.
In some ways, it’s pretty clever. As a young kid, I would have been quite happy to pray if someone paid me in KitKat bars. And to think I was helping people on top? Wow!
Now, obviously, I’m not trying to say that Trick or Treating is good or bad. (After all, I know that many Christians have strong opinions about this stuff). Obviously, I don’t believe in purgatory… nor celebrating pagan holidays. But, doggonit, I think it’s wonderful that candy should remind us to pray : ) So, the next time you sneak a piece of candy from your child’s stash, you can thank your Catholic friend. And why not thank the LORD himself. “Whether you eat, drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” 1 Cor 10:31… Just don’t sneak too many!