Halloween: A Holiday With Christian Beginnings

Crothersville will observe Trick or Treat tonight (Oct. 31) from 5-8 p.m. Residents welcoming trick or treaters should turn on their front porch lights.

The name “Halloween” has it origins from the Nov. 1 observance of All Saints Day celebration of the early Christian church. It was a day the church set aside for the solemn remembrance of the church martyrs; those who died for their faith. All Hallows Eve, the evening before All Saints Day, began the time of remembrance. “All Hallows Eve” was eventually contracted to “Hallow-e’en,” which became “Halloween.”

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 distinctively 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. Likewise, the Christian Christmas celebration has it origins in the winter soltice celebration of Saturnalia, a time of feasting, merrymaking, giving gifts, and sending good wishes to others.

The Celtic people of Europe and Britain were pagan Druids whose major celebrations were marked by the seasons. The pagan Samhain festival (pronounced “sow” “en”) celebrated the final harvest, death, and the onset of winter, for three days—October 31 to November 2. The Celts believed the curtain dividing the living and the dead lifted during Samhain to allow the spirits of the dead to walk among the living—ghosts haunting the earth.

For some, the focus on death, occultism, divination, and the thought of spirits returning to haunt the living, fueled ignorant superstitions and fears. Some believed spirits were earthbound until they received a proper sendoff with treats— possessions, wealth, food, and drink. Spirits who were not suitably “treated” would “trick” those who had neglected them. The fear of haunting only multiplied if that spirit had been offended during its natural lifetime.

Trick-bent spirits were believed to assume grotesque appearances. Some traditions developed, which believed wearing a costume to look like a spirit would fool the wandering spirits. Others believed the spirits could be warded off by carving a grotesque face into a gourd or root vegetable (the Scottish used turnips) and setting a candle inside it. Today we use a pumpkin to make a jack-o-lantern.

As the centuries passed, Samhain and All Hallows Eve mixed together. On the one hand, pagan superstitions gave way to “Christianized” superstitions and provided more fodder for fear.

On the other hand, the festival time provided greater opportunity for revelry. Trick-or-treat became a time when roving bands of young hooligans would go house-to-house gathering food and drink for their parties. Stingy householders ran the risk of a “trick” being played on their property from drunken young people.

Halloween didn’t become an American holiday until the immigration of the working classes from the British Isles in the late nineteenth century. While early immigrants may have believed the superstitious traditions, it was the mischievous aspects of the holiday that attracted American young people. Younger generations borrowed or adapted many customs without reference to their pagan origins.

Some churches of today try to sanitize and re-write the history by holding fall festivals instead of Halloween parties and ‘trunk N treat’ in church parking lots where candy is given from vehicles to children in non-darkside costumes.

The American culture—both religious and secular—embrace frightening its citizens. Pastors warn of eternal damnation for the non-believer. Hollywood has added to the wide assortment of fictional characters—demons, monsters, vampires, werewolves, mummies, psychopaths.

And other things that go bump in the night.

(Research for this story was gleaned from Grace To You at gty.org)