Where does Halloween come from?
The holiday isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Nor is it an official holiday in the United States. Yet it continues to be distinctively celebrated in some communities, conspicuously absent in others.
Engaged citizens have hotly debated Halloween in recent years. Both Christians and non-Christians have offered perspectives on the holiday which trails only Christmas in holiday spending.
The Christian community itself has expressed a variety of views about October 31 and celebrated–or not celebrated–accordingly.
“Holidays are derived from old celebrations that predate the establishment of Christianity,” wrote folkore professor Jack Santino in All Around the Year. “Many, if not most of the customs and symbols of our holidays can be explained only in the context of their histories.”
Therefore, any understanding of contemporary Halloween must take into account its ancient, pre-Christian roots.
“Halloween was born in the fires of pre-Christian new year’s festivals, and fathered by the Celtic peoples of England, Ireland, and Scotland. The Catholic Church is its stepmother,” Santino wrote. “The holiday we enjoy today is an amalgam of Celtic druidical ritual, Christian theology, and northern European folk belief.”
Celts, who by the time of Christ inhabited the northwestern fringes of the European continent, divided the year into fourths. A major holiday marked the beginning of each quarter, or season.
These holidays fell on dates corresponding to our February 1, May 1, August 1 and November 1. The November 1 holiday, called Samhain (pronounced sah-wen), was the most important. It marked the beginning of the winter season and the Celtic new year. It also signaled the necessity of bringing the herds closer, harvesting the crops and securing property.
The Samhain festival dealt with themes of death and dying; understandably so since the Celts were entering the seasonal period when death comes full circle in the cycle of nature.
“The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who died during the year traveled into the otherworld,” wrote Santino.
The Celts lit bonfires on Samhain, though scholars have debated their purpose. Some claim the Celts lit fires to light the way for the dead souls, to guide them to the otherworld. Others assert the bonfires were intended to keep the souls away from the living.
Nevertheless, “with the belief in the wandering spirits of the dead came the custom of preparing offerings of special foods, and of dressing as these spirits,” Santino wrote.
Starting to sound familiar?
The Celts tried to appease the spirits. “As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink,” wrote Santino.
Contemporary Halloween’s roots are plainly seen in the Celtic festival of Samhain.
But how has the festival survived the centuries?
“Halloween embodies the persistence of pre-Christian and non-Christian beliefs and practices carried through to . . . the twenty-first century in part because of the Christianization of ancient festivals,” Santino wrote.
As Christian missionaries came into contact with the (pagan) Celts, they saw the potency of local celebrations. Rather than obliterate such celebrations, Christian missionaries followed the edict of Pope Gregory the Great in 601.
“Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship,” wrote Santino.
This strategy took hold, and numerous Christian holy days were purposefully made to coincide with earlier celebrations. Christmas, made to coincide with midwinter celebrations, is one example. So is Halloween.
The Catholic Church established All Saints Day on November 1 as a time to honor the saints who have no day of their own. The church hoped All Saints Day, or All Hallows, would eventually supplant the pre-Christian celebrations.
When it failed to do so, the Catholic Church sought to recapture more of the spirit of the original celebration. It created All Souls Day on November 2 as a means for recognizing those who died the previous year.
But the ancient traditions never completely died. The night of October 31/November 1–All Hallows Eve–continued to be a time for the supernatural.
“People continued to celebrate the occasion . . . as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now associated with evil. The folk continued to propitiate those spirits and their costumed, masked representatives with gifts of food and drink. Consequently, All Hallows Even, known today as Halloween, is an ancient Celtic New Year’s Day in modern dress,” wrote Santino.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s project coordinator. He holds a Ph.D. in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University, where he studied with Jack Santino.