All Hallows’ Eve along with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, or “Days of the Dead,” is celebrated October 31 and November 1 and November 2. This three day “Hallowtide” is a special time when Catholics pray for the dead. Hallowe’en is effectively one vigil for the two feasts, All Saints and All Souls. Often, there is confusion that Halloween is a pagan holiday, and this is not true. For more information about All Hallows’ Eve and its Catholic roots, read Halloween: The History of the Celebration.
Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France, marked the beginning of the Celtic winter on November 1. The word Samhain literally meant “summer’s end.” The Celtic people divided their year by four major holidays. November 1, the beginning of winter, marked the beginning of the Celtic year. With the coming of winter and the change in the landscape, the lives of the pastoral Celts changed significantly during this time. With darker days, coldness and death, the Celts came to connect Samhain with human death. The eve of Samhain was a time of pagan sacrifice. Druids believed that the veil between the living and the dead became thin on the eve of Samhain; human souls that were trapped in animal bodies were set free by the lord of death and sent to their new incarnations. The returning dead came back and might harm the people that had hurt them during life, so they doused their hearth fires and waited. Then, the Druids (Celtic priests) used sacred branches to light an enormous bonfire for the new year. The Druids offered burnt sacrifices of crops, animals and humans.
Romans had their own pagan celebrations occurring in late October that they brought to Britain. Feralia was held to honor the dead. The goddess Pomona, the patroness of fruits and gardens was also celebrated in autumn by the Romans; this might be how apples came to be associated with Halloween.
These autumnal celebrations and feasts all blended. For Catholics, All Hallows’ Eve is the vigil before the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Up until the 8th century, All Saints Day was celebrated on May 13. Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to November 1, presumably because of the drab, brown earth already harvested, and not yet covered with snow reminded men of death and beyond. Catholics shared the same reasons for the celebration of Samhain for Celts and Feralia for the Romans. Some suspect that Pope Gregory III changed the dates to correspond with the pagan fall festivals. By combining pagan celebrations and Catholic feast days, the Church was often successful in bringing people into the Catholic faith.