All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en for short, is one of the most controversial and misunderstood holidays celebrated in the United States—its controversy owing in large part to its misunderstanding. More so than the recent “War on Christmas” that may or may not be raging across the country, or the most important of all Christian holidays—Easter—blatantly named after the pagan goddess (Eostre), Halloween tends to separate Americans into those who enjoy it and find it harmless and those who disdain it and find it demonic. Interestingly enough, both groups tend to base their ideas about Halloween on the same erroneous “facts” about its origins.
A quick perusal of the internet (once you have gotten by the commercialized sites selling costumes and the like) will offer the following generalizations about the holiday, taken for granted by most folks as historical truth.
Common ideas from a secular and/or Neopagan perspective:
- Halloween developed from the pan-Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced “sah-ween”)
- Samhain was the Celtic equivalent of New Years
- This was a time when the veil between the living and dead was lifted
- It becomes Christianized as “All Hallows Day” (All Saints Day)
- The eve of this holy day remained essentially Pagan
- Celebrating Halloween is innocent fun
Common ideas from an Evangelical Christian perspective (which would accept the first five of the above):
- Halloween is Pagan in origin and outlook
- It became intertwined with the “Catholic” All Saints Day
- It celebrates evil and/or the Devil
- It glorifies death and the macabre
- Celebrating Halloween is blasphemous, idolatrous, and harmful
Even more “respectable” sites like those from History.com and the Library of Congress continue to perpetuate the Pagan-turned-Christian history of Halloween despite scarce evidence to support it, and considerable reason to be suspicious of it.
To be sure, like most legends, this “history” of Halloween contains some kernel of fact, though, again like most things, its true history is much more convoluted and complex.
The problem with Halloween and its Celtic origins is that the Celts were a semi-literate people who left only some inscriptions: all the writings we have about the pre-Christian Celts (the pagans) are the product of Christians, who may or may not have been completely faithful in their description and interpretation. Indeed, all of the resources for ancient Irish mythology are medieval documents (the earliest being from the 11th century—some 600 years after Christianity had been introduced to Ireland).
It may be the case that Samhain indeed marked the Irish commemoration of the change in seasons “when the summer goes to its rest,” as the Medieval Irish tale “The Tain” records. (Note, however, that our source here is only from the 12th century, and is specific to Ireland.) The problem is that the historical evidence is not so neat.
A heavy migration of Irish to the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the early Middle Ages introduced the celebration of Samhain there, but the earliest Welsh (also Celtic) records afford no significance to the same dates. Nor is there any indication that there was a counterpart to this celebration in Anglo-Saxon England from the same period.
So the best we can say is that, by the 10th century or so, Samhaim was established as an Irish holiday denoting the end of summer and the beginning of winter, but that there is no evidence that November 1 was a major pan-Celtic festival, and that even where it was celebrated (Ireland, Scottish Highlands and Islands), it did not have any religious significance or attributes.
As if the supposed Celtic origins of the holiday are uncertain enough, its “Christianization” by a Roman Church determined to stomp out ties to a pagan past are even more problematic.
It is assumed that because the Western Christian churches now celebrate All Saints Day on November 1st—with the addition of the Roman Catholic All Souls Day on November 2nd—there must have been an attempt by the clergy of the new religion to co-opt and supplant the holy days of the old. After all, the celebrations of the death of the saints and of all Christians seem to directly correlate with the accumulated medieval suggestions that Samhain celebrated the end and the beginning of all things, and recognized a lifting of the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds.
The problem is that All Saints Day was first established by Pope Boniface IV on 13 May, 609 (or 610) when he consecrated the Pantheon at Rome. It continued to be celebrated in Rome on 13 May, but was also celebrated at various other times in other parts of the Western Church, according to local usage (the medieval Irish church celebrated All Saints Day on April 20th).
Its Roman celebration was moved to 1 November during the reign of Pope Gregory III (d. 741), though with no suggestion that this was an attempt to co-opt the pagan holiday of Samhain. In fact, there is evidence that the November date was already being kept by some churches in England and Germany as well as the Frankish kingdom, and that the date itself is most probably of Northern German origin.
Thus the idea that the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st had anything to do either with Celtic influence or Roman concern to supersede the pagan Samhain has no historical basis: instead, Roman and Celtic Christianity followed the lead of the Germanic tradition, the reason for which is lost to history.
The English historian Ronald Hutton concludes that, while there is no doubt that the beginning of November was the time of a major pagan festival that was celebrated in all of the pastoral areas of the British Isles, there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead, and no proof that it celebrated the new year.
By the end of the Middle Ages, however, Halloween—as a Christian festival of the dead—had developed into a major public holiday of revelry, drink, and frolicking, with food and bonfires, and the practice of “souling” (a precursor to our modern trick-or-treating?) culminating in the most important ritual of all: the ringing of church bells to comfort the souls of people in purgatory.
The antics and festivities that most resemble our modern Halloween celebrations come directly from this medieval Christian holiday: the mummers and guisers (performers in disguise) of the winter festivals also being active at this time, and the practice of “souling” where children would go around soliciting “soul cakes” representing souls being freed from purgatory.
The tricks and pranks and carrying of vegetables (originally turnips) carved with scary faces (our jack o’ lanterns) are not attested to until the nineteenth century, so their direct link with earlier pagan practices is sketchy at best.
While the Celtic origins of Samhain may have had some influence on the celebration of Halloween as it begin to take shape during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Christian culture of the Middle Ages had a much more profound effect, where the ancient notion of the spiritual quality of the dates October 31st/November 1st became specifically associated with death—and later with the macabre of more recent times.
Thus modern Halloween is more directly a product of the Christian Middle Ages than it is of Celtic Paganism. To the extent that some deny its rootedness in Christianity or deride its essence as pagan is more an indication of how these groups feel about medieval Catholic Christianity than Celtic Paganism (about which we know so very little).
And to the extent that we fail to realize just how Christian many of these practices and festivities were, we fail to see how much the Reformation and later movement of pietism and rationalism have been successful in redefining exactly what “Christian” is.
As such, Halloween is no less Christian and no more Pagan than either Christmas or Easter.