October 31 is a charged date for many Christians. Some embrace Halloween with open arms, while others opt for participating in fall festivals or celebrating Reformation Day.
Conflicting opinions abound. Some believe Halloween is a purely pagan holiday, or even the devil’s day. Others point to origins in the Catholic church’s celebration of All Saints Day. Yet others shrug and believe Halloween is what you make of it; why not just dress up and eat candy and not worry about it?
Whatever your stance, the history of Halloween and its relationship with Christianity is probably more complex than most realize. And the “hijacking” goes both ways.
History of Halloween
Many historians point to some of Halloween’s roots lying in the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The below is what has generally been accepted by researchers, though as Beth Allison Barr, associate professor at Baylor University, points out, “We have very little evidence about the actual festivals of the people we know as Celts.”
About 2,000 years ago, the Celts occupied parts of Ireland, the UK, and Northern France. For the Celts, researchers say, the new year began on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of winter, a time associated with death.
On the night of October 31, right before the new year, it was believed the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead was blurred. Food would be left out for the dead, although sources differ on whether these offerings were meant to placate angry spirits or if they were gifts for deceased loved ones.
Sacred bonfires were built and sacrifices offered to Celtic deities, while druids (Celtic priests) dressed in costume and attempted to tell the future. The Celts would then light their home fires from the sacred bonfire in hopes of staying warm throughout the winter.
By 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered most of the Celtic world and continued to rule for another 400 years. Roman holidays were mixed with Celtic traditions. A sort of harvest festival that took place in late October to honor the goddess Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees, got tossed into the mix (perhaps the origin of bobbing for apples), as well as Feralia, a holiday the day after in which they honored the dead.
Meanwhile, the church was developing its own holidays. On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV established the feast of All Martyrs Day when he dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to honor all Christian martyrs. Pope Gregory III (pope 731-741) then expanded the festival to include all saints as well as martyrs, making it All Saints Day. Gregory dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, Rome, in honor of the saints on November 1. This was the first record of All Martyrs Day, now All Saints Day, being held on November 1.
A Hijack, or a Blending?
As this took place in Rome in the 7th and 8th centuries, Christianity in the UK was tenuous among the Celtic/Welsh peoples, though it grew rapidly with the Anglo-Saxons. Meanwhile, Ireland’s “Celtic Church” was still coming to agreement with the larger Latin West on matters, dates, and theology. Though some sources say Gregory III moved All Saints Day to November 1 to coincide with Samhain, there is little to no evidence that the two were in any way related. A connection could perhaps be made between the later All Souls Day (November 2) and Samhain, but All Saints Day and the Eve of All Saints (October 31) seem to have been established separately from Samhain.
The All Saints Day celebration was also called “All Hallows” (from the Middle English Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints’ Day), and thus the night before it All Hallows Eve. By dropping the word “all,” and since “even” is a synonym for “eve,” along with other such modifications, we eventually arrived at the term “Halloween.”
After that, things get more confusing. With the two holidays on the same days, some of our modern traditions are difficult to trace; are they relics of Celtic pagan practice, or Christian ritual?
To figure out where our traditions come from, it’s necessary to trace the thread of Halloween to modern times. In America, Halloween traditions came over in full force with Irish immigrants during the Potato Famine, although it had previously been present in the less rigidly Protestant communities, in which colonists held “play parties” to celebrate the harvest. Due to the fierce rejection of Catholicism by many of the early colonists, however, widespread celebration of Catholic holidays such as All Saints Day was out of the question.
This revival in Halloween festivities led to trick-or-treating, parties, and dressing up in costumes. Ghost stories and fortune telling were common early American Halloween pastimes, but by the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween had lost most of its religious and superstitious overtones and become a secular, community-based holiday.
Though there are many Halloween traditions, a few stick out: trick-or-treating, ghost stories, and costumes.
Trick-or-treating may have come from the practice of putting food out to appease evil spirits. However, it was also a practice of All Souls Day for the poor to come door to door begging for food. They would be given “soul cakes” in exchange for praying for the souls of the departed.
Samhain festivities centered around the idea that spirits could visit for the night. All Souls Day centered around honoring the departed. Though All Hallows Eve and All Souls Day were separate holidays, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day followed each other so closely that the three were easily compressed. Ideas about the dead in purgatory being able to visit for two days developed, as did other superstitions about evil spirits. Thus, the ghost stories don’t have a specific root either.
The costumes also have multiple potential sources. For All Saints Day, believers would dress up as the saints. Others would dress up as angels to guide the saints, or devils or evil spirits for the saints to triumph over. Of course, the ancient druids also dressed in costume for their rituals. At disparate points in place and history, celebrants might dress up to blend in with the evil spirits out and about that might otherwise antagonize them, or even dress up to show benevolent spirits their way back to the spirit world.
Thus, where exactly these traditions originated is a tangled mess of traditions from across Europe and the centuries.
Did Pagans Hijack Halloween from Christians?
Today’s Halloween is far different than the medieval All Saints Day. Many of the Halloween staples were later additions, such as the jack-o-lantern in the 1800s.
Another change is that Halloween has become associated with the occult. Today’s ghosts are far more sinister than the faithful departed of All Souls Day. How did a Catholic holiday, transformed into an American, community-based fall festival, become associated with evil?
With the rise of Wicca in the 20th century, with its dedication to reviving pre-Christian practices, revived Samhain and claimed Halloween as an important religious night.
Satanists also set claim to Halloween, but the Satanic church wasn’t established until the 1960’s. Contrary to popular belief, most Satanists do not worship the devil as we know him from Christian thought; rather, Satanism is a non-theistic religion surrounding a central figure of evil that symbolizes freedom, rebellion, and self-determination. Anton LaVey, who formed the church of Satan in 1966, chose Halloween as a holiday more as a jab against those who had once superstitiously feared it than for an actual reason. The website of the church of Satan states, “Satanists embrace what this holiday has become, and do not feel the need to be tied to ancient practices.”
Thus, if Christians hijacked Halloween from the pagan Celts, then modern pagans and occultists have attempted to hijack it right back.
So What IS Halloween?
This is a question each person must answer for themselves. Is it a holiday with such varied history that it has lost all meaning? Is it a dangerous day for the occult that must be avoided? Is it a celebration of the saints that came before us that needs to be reclaimed?
Perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty on the topic is this:
“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:13-14).
There is quite the parallel between Paul’s discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols and our Halloween conundrum. Though Paul did not think it wrong for himself to eat such meat, he acknowledged that for those who might struggle with it, it would be wrong for them to partake.
If our brothers and sisters in Christ refuse to participate in Halloween, let us honor them. If we have a clear conscience about celebrating Halloween, let us not shame those who believe it is wrong. Whatever Halloween is, it is not a time for causing rifts, shame, and anger between fellow believers. That is a sure way to surrender the night to the devil.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema