The Origins of Halloween
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Summary: What is the origin behind this popular festival celebrated every October 31?
 
 

October 31 is approaching fast—a night of ghoulish costumes, haunted houses, trick-or-treating, witches, jack-o’-lanterns, parties and superstitions that we call Halloween. What is this festival really about?

Celtic Origins

While the exact origin of our Halloween celebrations remains disputed by scholars, most point back to the ancient Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sah-wen) as the precursor. The Celtic people of pre-medieval Europe lived in an area encompassing Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France.

In this Halloween greeting card from 1904, divination is depicted: the young woman looking into...

They divided their year into two halves or seasons – the “light half” (summer) and the “dark half” (winter). October 31 was the transitional time between the end of summer and the beginning of winter with its darker and shorter days that was often associated with death. Since the Celtic worldview relies on a strong sense of place and the natural world for its harvest and livelihood, there was much superstition surrounding this liminal or “in-between” night. The Celts believed the boundaries between the land of the living and the land of the dead became blurred on October 31, and the dead could cross over into this world to visit souls.

As a result, to avoid being recognized and sought by ghosts when they left their house, the Celts would wear masks or other disguises to trick the ghosts so they wouldn’t think they were a fellow spirit. This is likely the origin of modern-day dressing up in costume for Halloween. Vance Ferrell states that Celtic priests (Druids) told people to go with one another to gather food from each other’s houses to placate the ghosts, spirits, fairies, witches, elves, and otherworldly creatures believed to come out on that night and harm people.i This food often included dainty sweets and is one theory as to the origin of trick-or-treating or ‘guising’ as it is called in Scotland and Ireland. If the evil spirit didn’t get properly “treated” or sent off, they would play a “trick” on people instead.ii A symbolic, communal bonfire was held on this night to mark the end of the “light” half of the year and protect the people from the coming winter.

Many divination and occult practices took place on this night. People sought out spirits of their ancestors and other beings to tell the future about weather and crop expectations, or even romantic interests. One tradition for women included standing in front of a mirror with a candle in a darkened room, where it was said that the face of their future husband would pass before them.

God makes it clear where He stands on these sorts of practices:

There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

Jack-O'-Lantern

Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Balle-%C3%A0-leunettes_10.jpg...

The legend of the jack-o’-lantern has a few different meanings. Some sources say the Celtic people used hollowed-out turnips to carve frightening faces and put a candle in to keep harmful spirits away from their homes.iii Other tales say it was meant to act like a lamp to guide their dead ancestors to the meal left out for them.iv The legend of “Jack of the Lantern” has it that a man named Jack tried to outsmart the devil through practical jokes. The devil punished him for it by making him carry around a lit lantern the rest of his life, meant as a warning for others not to offend the devil.v

Roman Influence

When Rome conquered Celtic territory and ruled for four centuries (43-410 AD), aspects of Roman paganism became fused with the Celtic tradition of Samhain. For example, the Romans had two similar festivals themselves—Feralia, a day in late October where Romans commemorated the passing of the dead, and Pomona, a Roman goddess of fruit and trees, from which the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples likely derives.ii

Etymology

So if the Celtic festival of Samhain foreshadows Halloween, how did we come to call Halloween “Halloween”? Halloween literally means “the eve of All Hallows’ or All Saints’, which had to do with the Christian Church. On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV re-consecrated the Pantheon in Rome and renamed it “Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs.” This day established the anniversary of remembering the Church’s martyrs. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory III dedicated this day to all the saints (hence the name All-hallows or “All Saints Day”) and moved it from May to November 1—directly after the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain. The night before (October 31) became “All Hallow’s Eve” and eventually “Halloween” – a contraction of the phrase.

Christian Influence

The fusing of religious celebrations that occurred between the Celtic and Roman peoples similarly occurred between the Celts and Christians when Christianity began spreading into Celtic lands. Travis Allen describes why this intermixing of holidays occurred and its aftermath:

As Christianity moved through Europe it collided with indigenous pagan cultures and confronted established customs. Pagan holidays and festivals were so entrenched that new converts found them to be a stumbling block to their faith. To deal with the problem, the organized church would commonly move a Christian holiday to a spot on the calendar that would directly challenge a pagan holiday. The intent was to counter pagan influences and provide a Christian alternative. But most often the church only succeeded in ‘Christianizing’ a pagan ritual—the ritual was still pagan, but mixed with Christian symbolism. That’s what happened to All Saints Eve—it was the original Halloween alternative!vi

In this sense, Samhain was absorbed into Halloween. The same is true of other “Christian” holidays like Christmas and Easter, which all had pagan origins. Halloween eventually made its way to North America around the second half of the 19th century when a flood of Irish immigrants came to the New World after the potato famine in 1846 and brought their traditions with them. Certain Samhain festivities prevailed like costumes, trick-or-treating, candy, and bobbing for apples. Hollywood has added its own imagery to further enhance the scare-factor and spiritual darkness of this night.

Wiccans and Halloween

Witch riding broomstick
Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Witch_cutout.png
Samhain is also connected to modern-day Wicca – an old English word for witch. This religion is an offshoot of the ancient Celtic witchcraft of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Samhain was one of the more important sabbats or seasonal holidays of the year that witches held sacred. Celtic priests believed that witches ride on broomsticks this night and can change themselves into black cats—hence two popular symbols of Halloween that continue today.

According to one article, “Canadian Wiccans would like to see Halloween recognized as a day of special pagan religious significance.”vii Many Wiccans claim this holiday as their day, taking part in activities such as ritual purification, divination, and contact with dead ancestors. Vampires, witches, ghosts, goblins, and other such morbid costumes fill the streets on Halloween night. Haunted houses are decorated with violent imagery showing blood-stained hands, faces, and decapitated bodies. This holiday that has been around since ancient times increasingly focuses on the perverse, the gothic, and the occult.

Reformation Day

Martin Luther Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration.tif...

The hype around Halloween has further clouded people’s eyes from another celebration on this day that is truly honouring to God—Reformation Day. October 31, 1517 is the day Martin Luther, who instigated the Protestant Reformation, nailed his 95 Theses on the door of a Wittenberg church. This momentous day changed the whole of Christendom as Luther advocated for an individual’s relationship with Christ based on faith, grace, and Scripture alone (sola fide, sola gratia, and sola scriptura) and not the authority of the Catholic Church.

Instead of celebrating a pagan festival shrouded in superstitions, darkness, and occult imagery, let’s focus on the light that this day represents—the light of God’s Word revealed to each and every person directly through the Scriptures and not through an institution, and let’s look for opportunities to spread this message to others on October 31 in keeping with the legacy of the Reformers.

i. Vance Ferrell, The Real Story Behind Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. (Altamont, TN: Harvestime Books, 2003): 66.

ii. Travis Allen, "Christians and Halloween.”

iii. Ellen Feldman, "Halloween." American Heritage (52.7: 2001).

iv. "The History of Halloween." Sceptic (7.3: 1999).

v. Vance Ferrell, op. cit., p. 66.

vi. Travis Allen, op. cit.

vii. Terry O'Neill, "Pagans and Pumpkins: Christians recoil at the ghoulisness of Halloween, while Wiccans work to clean it up." Report News Magazine (Oct 25, 1999): 62-63.

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