This time of year, Christians in America ask the question, “Can we celebrate Halloween?” Some Christians participate fully in American Halloween traditions like dressing up in costumes, walking from door to door, and asking strangers for candy. They wear costumes that reflect their favorite professions, characters from books of movies, and even as witches or vampires. Other Christians believe that Halloween celebrates Satan and his minions. Ghoulish costumes are unnecessary interactions with demonic forces, and we should avoid them at all costs.
The most common argument that Halloween is that it is a pagan holiday, celebrating the Spirits of the dead. This could not be further from the truth. In this post, we will discuss the Christian origins for Halloween and unravel the threads that point it to pagan practices. This post leans heavily on a piece written by Joseph Abrahamson. He also lists his sources in this post.
What Is Halloween?
Halloween is a shortened version of the phrase, “All Hallows Eve.” It refers to the night before All Saints Day. Just like Christmas Eve is the evening before Christmas, All Hallows Eve is the night before All Saints Day.
Before All Saints Day became a holiday, Christians would celebrate local Christian martyrs on the anniversary of their deaths. As more people gave their life for the gospel, more and more days of remembrance were needed. By 373 AD, Ephraim the Syrian mentions a combined day to remember all the martyrs. In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV established All Saints Day as May 13th. In the early 700’s AD, Pope Gregory III moved the date to November 1st. Pope Gregory IV spread this to the whole Christian church in the early 800’s.
Pagan Claims about Halloween
The typical claim is that Christians encountered the ideas of a local culture and then co-opted them. In other words, we changed a pagan holiday into a Christian one. Much of the argument against Halloween comes from neo-pagan claims that our celebrate finds its roots in Samhain (pronounced Sow-in).
According to modern pagans, Samhain was a harvest holiday that celebrated the spirits. During this time, the barrier that separates the world of the living from the spirit world was weak, and those spirits were able to roam freely. They also claim that the spirits of the dead would roam around looking for hospitality, and that people would dress up as spirits, looking for food.
You could see, then, how our modern celebration of Halloween might seem like a natural extension of Samhain. We talk about ghosts and spirits. People dress up in costume and they go door-to-door, looking for treats. For these claims to be true, however, we would have to know several things:
When discussing these questions, it is important to note that Ireland became Christian following St. Patrick’s missionary trip in the late 5th century. Since then, Ireland became thoroughly Christianized.
How Was Samhain Celebrated before Christians Arrived?
We have no idea. While modern sources purport to tell us exactly what happened, ancient sources do not help us understand how the day was celebrated and even whether it was truly a holiday. The earliest references to Samhain do not mention a particular celebration on that day. They, instead, use that word as a way to mark the end of summer. They mention the end of the summer, and sometimes they mention a celebration, but they do not speak of the kinds of ceremonies that modern pagans describe. These records do speak of Druid rituals around Beltane, but no Samhain. It seems that there is no record of Samhain as a celtic festival of the dead.
The Date for All Saints Day
If Halloween was based on the festival of Samhain, the date for All Saints day should have started as November 1st in Ireland, and then moved to other parts of Europe following that influence.
We do not see that pattern. Pope Gregory IV established the date of All Saints Day as November first in the early 800’s, but an Irish Bishop, Bishop Óengus of Tallaght, writes that the day was celebrated in the Spring in 843 A. D. If the date had been taken from Samhain, the Irish church should have been celebrating All Saints Day on November first from the very beginning. Instead, they waited for the decree to come to them from Rome.
Traditions that people use today to celebrate Halloween do not come from Samhain, either. Trick or treating comes from a common custom in the middle ages to beg for alms on holy days. We see this not just on Halloween, however. The tradition of Christmas caroling was not just a nice way to spread holiday cheer. People literally sang for their suppers. The Two Gentlemen from Verona, by Shakespeare, has one character accusing another of whining like a beggar at Hallowmas, AKA All Saints Day.
Trick or Treat does not seem to be a Halloween custom in many places until recently. Halloween postcards don’t depict trick or treating or use those words until after the 1930’s. Other traditional Halloween activities, such as Jack O’Lanterns seem to be modern inventions, too.
The claim that Halloween comes from Samhain, the pagan holiday of the dead, is not true. While many repeat this story, we Christians understand that it draws from a long tradition of remembering the martyrs of the faith. The question about whether you should participate in the modern incarnation of that holiday is up to you. Just don’t let the pagan misinformation keep you away from this day.
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