The Halloween season will soon be upon us. Stores will sell orange and black greeting cards, costumes and masks. Children will dress up as witches, ghosts, and vampires. Parents will carve pumpkins into grotesque configurations. Teens will join in the holiday spirit by engaging in pranks ranging from window-soaping to malicious destruction of property. What are the origins of these strange customs? And should you as a Christian take part in them?
Halloween, “Eve of All Hallows,” a quasi-Christian holiday, has become well entrenched in American and English tradition. But is it a holiday or a “holy day” – Christians should keep? Is it merely a harmless custom, or should its patently pagan origins warn us away from its observance? Halloween is an ancient tradition with complex origins. The customs of this evening began in northern and Western Europe with the Celtic people. Long before Christianity was taught there, the Celts worshiped nature and a variety of gods according to the tenets of the Druid religion.
Celtic worship (Druidism) was “solar” – that is, all its chief festivals related to points in the sun’s progress. Four main times were important: winter and summer solstices and spring and autumn equinoxes. Equinoxes were commemorated as Beltane on May 1, and Samhain (pronounced sowin) on October 31st.
Samhain, “Summer’s End,” designated both a time of year and the name of the Lord of Death. When the sun’s power waned, when harvest was over, dying and death prevailed in nature and the Celts felt that the strength of the gods of darkness, winter and the underworld grew great. The day Samhain also marked the end of the Celtic year, and the New Year began on November 1st.
The Druids observed Samhain (Halloween) with many customs which are still practiced today: for instance, lighting massive bonfires and telling of mysterious sights and sounds they’d seen and heard. Today’s society continues this tradition by telling Halloween ghost stories. Significantly, in such stories we still encounter the pagan beliefs that the souls of good people enter other human beings at death; that the souls of evil people enter the bodies of animals; that cats are sacred; and that cats are human beings who have been punished for evil deeds.
Even the modern jack-o’-lantern is reminiscent of the legend of a penny-pinching man named Jack who was supposedly barred from heaven because of his stinginess and barred from hell because he played tricks on the devil. He was condemned to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgment Day. The traditional Christian doctrines of heaven and hell are likewise pagan in origin. (Enroll today in our Traditional Christian Doctrine series).
When the Romans invaded northwestern Europe, the Celtic civilization was nearly destroyed, but its beliefs and practices survived and became amalgamated with the traditions of the conquering Romans. From the Roman feast which honored Pomona, goddess of fruits, new customs were added to the Halloween season, such as eating apples to drive away evil spirits. Apples hung on strings or placed in a tub for dunking also came from Roman tradition, as did the belief that if a girl ate an apple in front of a mirror on Halloween, the mirror would have the power of showing her the facial image of her future mate.
Christianity was the next movement to spread through northwestern Europe. One would normally assume that the Christian religion would have erased all vestiges of paganism. But such was not the case. Pagan practices were continued under Christian sanction.
The professing Christian church of the early centuries A.D. believed that one who did especially good works or lived an exceptionally good life should be recognized as a saint (in the biblical sense every true Christian is a saint). A special day was set aside to honor each of the many well-known saints. Of course, there were many who were never recognized since their good works had gone unnoticed, and, as the number of saints grew, there were not enough days in the year to accommodate all of them.
So it was suggested that there be one day in the year to honor all saints. The origins of the day are uncertain. The New Catholic Encyclopedia cites several sources which hint at a precursor of the later official Feast of All Saints. A hymn by St. Ephraem in A.D. 359 and a sermon by St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 407) uncover the fact that there existed at least two days of the year that honored all saints. However, the dates differed – May 13 according to St. Ephraem and the first Sunday after Pentecost according to St. John Chrysostom.
Pope Boniface IV received the temple of the Roman pantheon of the gods as a fief from the Emperor in or around the year A.D. 610. He dedicated it to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs on May 13.This is supposedly the first official date of All Saints’ Day (or Feast of All Saints).
However, by the 12th century the Feast of All Saints was being celebrated on November 1, on which it is still commemorated in Catholic and Protestant churches alike. Historians do not agree as to how All Saints’ Day came to be celebrated on November 1. Some believe that Popes Gregory III (731-741) and Gregory IV (827-844) had a hand in changing it. Others submit that the November date had its origins in Ireland, and had no connection with the May 13 celebration. If the latter is the case, a connection on the November 1 celebration of All Saints’ Day with the Celtic Druid feast of Samhain and its customs would be possible. Both Samhain and All Saints’ Day may have originated in Ireland. Thus similar traditions may have influenced both days.
The name Halloween comes from the Eve of All Hallows, which refers to the evening before All Saints’ Day. Although this is a “Christian” name, Halloween came to be celebrated in an almost exclusively pagan fashion.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe and the Western world, its traditions were mixed with those of pagan religions. Thus, a mixture of pagan customs was integrated with All Saints’ Day. In this regard, All Souls’ Day, which is observed on November 2, should also be mentioned. This day was established in the 11th century by St. Odillo, abbot of the Cluny monastery. Its observance consists of Mass and special prayers for the dead, especially for souls in purgatory.
All Souls’ Day, too, may be connected to the observance of Halloween. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that souls could appear on this day as will-o’-the-wisps, witches, toads, etc. This is clearly an infiltration of pagan superstition, which survives today in other Halloween customs. There was also the tradition of “souling,” begging for cakes in remembrance of the dead, which is similar to the 21st century “trick-or-treat” custom of going from house to house on Halloween.
How does all this affect us now in the 21st century? Understanding the historical origins of Halloween should change our outlook in a number of ways. First of all, we have discovered that some of the festivals which we call Christian are of pagan origin or are a mixture of paganism and professing Christiantiy. Do we really want to participate in a Christian-cloak holiday whose roots are unchristian?
Secondly, understanding the origins of our traditions leads us to question the validity of many commonly accepted modern religious beliefs. For example, most people who observe the traditions associated with All Saints’ Day do so because saints are considered by them to be “special” Christians. Yet the Bible calls all true Christians saints (I Cor. 1:2; II Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; 5:3). A saint is simply anyone who is set apart by God. Furthermore, those who observe All Soul’s Day are led to believe the erroneous concept of a soul which exists independent of the body.
Why blindly follow customs which consist mostly of recycled paganism, and which aren’t even mentioned, let alone sanctioned by God’s Word, the Bible? Why follow the traditions of ancient heathenism when it is questionable whether such observance pleases God (Deut. 18:9; Jer. 10:2)? Now that you have been given this eye-opening information, it’s up to you to act on it. The choice is yours.