My mother was the third generation Catherine among my Irish ancestors. There are probably more. I haven’t gotten very far in researching our family genealogy. My daughter carries Catherine into the fourth generation as her middle name.
Brooklyn, Kathryn Grayson, and Halloween
Blue-eyed and strawberry blond, Mom entered this world at midnight on Halloween. I felt sorry for her because as youngsters, the six of us would focus more on our costumes and trick-or-treating than on her birthday. She’d share her birthday celebration with my brother Michael, born November 1st, the day following her birthday. She didn’t seem to mind. When answering a question about family traditions for her keepsake memories, she wrote, “I don’t think we ever had any.”
She grew up in Brooklyn, New York in multi-story walk-up apartment buildings, always on the fifth or sixth floor which required the lowest rent. Her parents, who knew each other in Ballymahon, Ireland, re-met after immigrating to the Big Apple and married. Her father worked for the railroad. Money was always tight. Her mother, Kate, took in half a dozen boarders over the years, feeling sorry for people in bad circumstances and only charging them a few dollars a week for room and board.
She longed to take piano lessons, but could not afford them. She’d sometimes observe her friend’s piano lessons to try to learn. Mom always loved actors and actresses and played the lead in a French play in high school. In her day, actress Kathryn Grayson inspired her to no end. She’d see her in movies (television didn’t exist then).
Despite having little money, Mom somehow managed to change her name from Catherine to Kathryn. Later in her married life, she sighed in resignation when she was called Kay by my father’s work associates. The nickname stuck, to her chagrin.
The Power of the Name Catherine
Since learning of the multi-generational lineage of the name Catherine on my maternal side, I’ve paid close attention to Catherines, regardless of how they spell their name. One of my favorite feisty actresses is Katharine Hepburn who won four Oscars, none of which she showed up for. “As for me, prizes are nothing,” she once said. “My prize is my work.” I love that. Still, four best actress — or actor — awards is an unbeaten feat, akin to Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in an NBA game.
Did you know Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—one of her Oscar-winning performances—features one of her neices? Yep, another one carrying the name, Katharine Houghton.
The Catholic Church named two Catherines as Doctors of the Church: St. Catherine of Genoa and St. Catherine of Siena. I most recently read Paul Murray’s book Catherine of Siena: Mystic of Fire and highly recommend it as well as Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Msytics by Carol Flinders which includes portraits of both Catherines.
Other famous Catherines:
Catherine the Great
Catherine (Kate Middleton), Duchess of Cambridge
K. D. Lang (Kathryn Dawn), Canadian singer/songwriter
Kate Smith (given name Kathryn), American singer
Kathryn Bigelow, film director
Kathryn Grayson, actress/soprano
What the name Catherine means.
Although the name Kathryn and its derivatives do not appear in the Bible, the name likely originated with the Greek word “katharos”, which translates as “pure” or “clean” in the New Testament. I love that etymology for I think of my mother as a saint for all she physically suffered and endured with barely a grimace.
Likewise, Halloween does not appear in the Bible either, but do you know its Christian heritage? We trace the origin and customs of this special day to my mother’s people. In Ireland, an ancient pagan Celtic festival called Samhain—Gaelic for “summer’s end”—bid farewell to warmth and light. Ancient Celts believed a veil split the worlds of the living and the dead and during Samhain, they believed the veil thinned this day more than any other. This made the festival an ideal time to communicate with the deceased and to divine the future.
When the Roman Empire conquered Celt-occupied lands in the first century, they combined Samhain and other Celtic traditions with their own, thus evolving All Hallow’s Day or Allhallowmas. “Hallow” means “to sanctify.” All Saints Day honored all Catholic saints.
Seven hundred years later, in 837, Pope Gregory IV ordered the official observance of All Saints Day every November 1 to include the entire Church, having previously been celebrated only in Rome with a mass, bonfires, and people costumed as angels and saints. November 2 is set aside as All Souls’ Day, a holy day to honor the dead and departed.
Today’s trick or treating connects to All Saints and Soul’s Day. In the Middle Ages, poor people collected baked goods called “soul cakes” from the wealthy. In exchange for the cakes, the poor promised to pray for the giver’s deceased loved ones.
Where did Halloween come from?
Just as we once called November 1 All Hallows’ Day, the ancients called my mother’s birthday, October 31, All Hallows’ Eve. Over time, people shortened All Hallows’ Eve to Halloween.
Finally, check out the Irish history behind the jack-o’-lantern’s connection to Halloween. In ancient Ireland, those celebrating Samhain and the end of harvesttime hollowed out large turnips, potatoes or beets and carved them into a demon’s face to frighen away spirits since they perceived the thinner veil separating our world from theirs made them vulnerable then. Lighting a candle or piece of smoldering coal inside the turnips, they placed the lanterns in windows and doorways of their homes, hoping to scare off any evil spirits and welcome deceased loved ones inside.
When Irish immigrants arrived here in the early 1800s, they discovered a plentiful supply of pumpkins and more happily, found them easier to carve.
So now you know a little about my mother, a little about the traditions surrounding Halloween, and why the ancient Irish hold a surprising connection to Halloween and All Saints’ and Souls’ Day. It’s not so strange after all, to have these seemingly contrasting days one after another.
I’ve hung some ghosts in our front yard, but in a small effort to help restore the “Hallowness” of these days, they all have happy faces. Mom would have liked that.