Halloween, celebrated on Oct 31, is a festival when people dress up in frightening costumes and go trick-or-treating. Underneath this festive outlook, it is actually a Catholic tradition, being the first of a 3-day feast to remember the dead. However, a further probe into its origin shows us that Halloween is, in fact, a pagan festival.
Rooted from a Celtic Festival to Entertain the Dead
Historians mostly agree that Halloween evolved from a Celtic tradition called Samhain. The Celtics resided in northern France, United Kingdom and Ireland. To them, Nov 01 was regarded as their New Year, and on Oct 31, they celebrated Samhain, which means “end of the summer”. They believed that on this day, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and that ghosts, evil spirits and witches returned to earth and roamed the earth.
Since the Celts thought these evil spirits might play tricks on the living, they dressed in grotesque masks and costumes typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and danced around the bonfires, pretending to be pursued by evil spirits. They offered food to the ghosts so that they would feel entertained, welcomed and at home. If food were not provided, they believed these evil spirits would cast spells on them.
When the Celtic land was conquered by the Romans, the Celtic traditional celebration of Samhain started to combine with two Roman festivals: Feralia, which was to commemorate the passing of the dead, and Pomona, to honour the goddess Pomona1).
Christianised As a Catholic Tradition to Remember Dead Saints
On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition to commemorate dead saints: All Martyrs’ Day, kept on May 13, was instituted in A.D. 609 by Pope Boniface IV to honour the Christian martyrs. It was eventually extended to honour the saints as well.
In A.D. 834, Pope Gregory III moved the date from May to Nov 01, calling it All Saints’ Day2). In doing so, All Saints’ Day was combined with Samhain, and many historians believe that this was done to satisfy the needs of the people of different religions. For example, Elaine Pagels, an American religious historian asserted that the change of date was to give the popular festival Samhain a Christian twist of interpretation and sanctify it in some way. This is because pagan images and culture are so deep-rooted that Catholics found it hard to wipe them out. 3)
Later, in around A.D. 1000, the church instituted All Souls’ Day on Nov 02 to remember the dead and to pray for the souls who are in purgatory and have not reached Heaven4). Its celebration was similar to the Samhain, with bonfires, parades and dress-ups as saints, angels, and devils.
The evening before All Saints’ Day, which falls on Oct 31, was All Saints’ Evening, or, All Hallows’ Evening5). This name slowly contracted to become Halloween as we know today.
This 3-day period (from Oct 31 to Nov 02) when many people of all types of faith remember the dead, including family members, saints, martyrs and the faithful departed, is commonly known as Allhallowtide6)
Popularised as the Halloween We See Today
In 1846, the potato famine brought an influx of Irish immigrants into America. With them, came the celebration of Halloween. Today, Halloween has become one of the most popular festivals in America, cashing in billions of dollars each year, with consumer spending on festive items like candies and costumes. Below are some of the trick-or-treat traditions that appeared when the Americans began dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door asking for food or money.
The round-shaped sweet bread called soul cakes which were given out to commemorate the dead souls was “encouraged” by the Catholic Church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food for the dead spirits.
Halloween lanterns were originally carved out of turnips which then changed to pumpkins during the modern times since they were easier to carve. The Jack O’Lantern’s tale was about a young smith who made a pact with the devil.
In the late 1800s, Halloween became a holiday for parties, games, foods, festive costumes and the scariness or the horror of Halloween faded away7).
All in all, by looking at its historical roots, it is clear that, Halloween, though being a Christian tradition, is not only non-biblical, but also rooted from paganism. Jack Sanitino, a Folklorist from Bowling Green State University said nothing much changed, except the fact that they started doing it under the name of Halloween, not Samhain.8).
Worshiping God in Accordance with the Bible’s Teachings
Deuteronomy 12:30-32 …and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.’ You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifice to their gods. See that you do all I command you; do not add to it.”
God already knew that His people would imitate practices from other religions, and that they would attempt to worship Him in pagan ways. So God strictly warned against this. As God’s people, we should ensure that we are not being deluded by the devil, and should steer clear of such pagan rites and rituals. We should not pursue the customs of men, but rather, the truth of the new covenant which promises the salvation of our souls.