Posted by: Santos Garcia | Monday, October 27, 2014

The Christian Origins of Halloween

A Remarkable History of the Original Intent

A Remarkable History of the Original Intent

I happened upon a Christian radio interview while driving around town recently, and heard this author present an alternative and original understanding of this Holiday which has been co-opted by the forces of darkness. Her website is fascinating as it goes into the background history of many of the special days that Christians do celebrate, and how to separate ‘the precious from the vile’ in our observance of any and all of them.  Please consider studying her detailed website at ‘celebrating holidays.com‘.  You will not be disappointed. A disclaimer:  I am not Catholic, but rather am a Biblical Christian- therefore any reference to the Roman church is strictly related to the history that Ms. Mosteller is presenting.  She also kindly gives permission for reposting her articles and essays, so long as appropriate credit is given to her work.  Therefore I am citing these as follows:

Halloween and Reformation Day

This article, written by Angie Mosteller, was published by Crosswalk in October 2013.
Halloween and the Reformation -- The Connection
Various Protestant churches celebrate Reformation Day on October 31st. Though it may seem like a coincidence that the day is the same as Halloween, there is actually an intimate connection between the two holidays.

Martin Luther is said to have posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church (also called Castle Church) on October 31, 1517. This was the eve of All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day (the origin of the name “Halloween”).  It was a time when Christians were particularly focused on their dead. The unfortunate thing was that, by Luther’s time, there was tremendous confusion about just what happened to believers after death – ultimately moving Luther to address the misconceptions associated with the afterlife.

To best understand the Ninety-Five Theses, it is important to explore how Christians had come to view the afterlife by the time of Luther. Early in church history, believers began to celebrate their dead – specifically those who had been martyred for their faith or who were considered outstanding in holiness. Various Christian communities celebrated these “saints”* on different days until the 8th century, when the Western Church chose November 1st to commemorate these heroes of the faith. By 835 AD, November 1st was formally added to the Western Church calendar as All Saints’ Day.

It is not entirely clear when Christians began making a distinction between the souls of the “saints” and the souls of the rest of believers. However, by the 11th century, various congregations were honoring November 2nd as a day to pray for the souls of the dead, believing that while the “saints” immediately entered the presence of God when they died, other believers “pass(ed) out of this world without at once being admitted into the company of the blessed” – in other words, they entered purgatory instead of heaven.1

Halloween 3

The concept of purgatory was made official church doctrine at the 1274 Council of Lyons. The council wrote that Christians who had not shown sufficient repentance for their sin needed to be cleansed by purgatorial punishments. Furthermore, the council taught that these punishments could be relieved for oneself (or for those who had died) through “the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, alms, and other duties of piety.”

Though the Roman Catholic Church was careful not to define the nature of purgatory, wild and terrible descriptions developed among Christians. Over the next several centuries, a significant amount of “energy went into understanding purgatory, teaching people about it, and in particular, arranging life in the present in relation to it.”2  The focus of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day was to remember the Christian dead, and it was standard practice for Christians to call on the “saints” or to seek indulgences for help in relieving loved ones (or oneself) from the punishments and terrors of purgatory.

The idea behind an “indulgence” was that the Roman Catholic Church could draw from a “treasury of merit” – a collection of good works done by Christ, Mary, and the “saints” in excess of what was required of them. An indulgence allowed these works to be applied to other Christians to reduce their purgatorial punishment.

Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were particularly focused on the practice (and corruption) associated with indulgences. Specifically, indulgences were being sold for financial gain, as well as giving people a false assurance of salvation. It is not surprising that Luther posted his theses on October 31st, the eve of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, a time which emphasized the distinction between the souls of “saints” and the souls of everyone else, as well as revealed widespread misunderstanding about the power of indulgences (and the afterlife in general).

Since Luther’s work is widely regarded as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, October 31st is now celebrated as Reformation Day. It should be noted that, in time, Protestants made sure to articulate a clear teaching about the afterlife to avoid any remaining confusion. The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1646, states the following:

“The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none” (Chapter XXXII).

In light of the history of both Halloween and the Reformation, it seems appropriate during this time to remember and rejoice over those who have died in Christ, both heroes of the faith and loved ones – for in biblical terms, all Christians are called “saints” and the blessing of heaven awaits us after death (until God gives us new glorious bodies to live on a new earth).

It comes as no surprise that death is mysterious and terrifying to non-believers (thus the “scary” element of Halloween), but for the Christian, there is no place for fear and superstition regarding the afterlife. Our only “fear” should be awe, wonder, and reverence of the God who “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10-12). This is a message of hope that needs to be shared not only on Halloween and Reformation Day, but in every season of the year!

Is Halloween Pagan in Origin?

This article, written by Angie Mosteller, was published by Crosswalk in October 2012.
Is Halloween Pagan in Origin?
Many Christians struggle to decide how (or if) to celebrate Halloween. After all, it is a holiday that seems to emphasize darkness, superstition and fear. Furthermore, there is the claim that the holiday is pagan in origin – an assertion that simply is not true.
The name Halloween is a blending of the words All Hallows’ and Even or E’en (referring to the evening before All Holies Day, or All Saints’ Day, which is November 1). The term hallow means “holy” – you may recall reciting it in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9).
Early in church history, Christians began to celebrate the “saints” (heroes of the faith),* and by the 7th century, All Saints’ Day was celebrated annually throughout the Christian world – Orthodox churches celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, and Roman Catholic churches celebrated on May 13th. Without a doubt, the origin of All Saints’ Day and its Eve (Halloween) was entirely Christian.

The supposed connection to paganism comes with the fact that the Roman Catholic Church moved the celebration of All Saints’ Day to November 1st in the 8th century. Many scholars claim that Christian leaders were attempting to Christianize a pagan holiday called Samhain(pronounced sow-in; “sow” rhymes with “cow”) which was celebrated on the same day. However, there are several reasons to dispute this claim.

First, it should be noted that nothing is known about Samhain with any certainty. It seems to have been a celebration limited to the Northern Celtic people (particularly in Ireland and Scotland) who, prior to their Christianization, had no written records. Regardless, scholars have made wild, though totally unsubstantiated, claims about Samhain as a day dedicated to the dead on which human sacrifices and other dark rituals were practiced. In reality, all we really know about Samhain is that it marked a change of season. In fact, the name Samhain is derived from an Old Irish word that roughly means “summer’s end.”1

Second, by the time that All Saints’ Day came to be associated with November 1st, Christianity had been well established in the Northern Celtic region for at least 300 years. There is no indication that pagan practices persisted on Samhain in a way that concerned Rome (which was 1500 miles away across land and sea) enough to change the date of a holiday.

Third, Irish Christians originally celebrated the saints on April 20th. So, it is more likely that they remembered the dead in April than during Samhain on November 1st. When All Saints’ Day was transferred to November 1st among Roman Catholic churches, the focus on the dead shifted with it.

Lastly, as one scholar suggests, November 1st may have been chosen simply so that the many pilgrims who traveled to Rome to commemorate the saints “could be fed more easily after the harvest than in the spring.”2

So why do so many scholars draw the connection between Halloween and Samhain? In the nineteenth century, cultural anthropologist Sir James Frazer studied the practices of the Northern Celtic people on Hallowmas (a term that has come to describe the three day period of October 31st, Halloween, November 1st, All Saints’ Day, and November 2nd, All Souls’ Day). He asserted that the traditions of Hallowmas were rooted in Samhain, and he claimed that the ancient pagan festival had been a day to honor the dead. Though Christianity probably brought the focus on the dead to Samhain, Frazer claimed the reverse. It seems that every cultural anthropologist after Frazer, has repeated, and even exaggerated his claim.

Frazer believed that Christianity was rooted in paganism, and he often tried to make connections between the two in his writing. This makes it all the more peculiar that evangelical Christians have embraced his claims and have suggested that we abandon the celebration of Halloween because of its supposed connection to a pagan holiday. The reality is that Halloween is Christian in origin and the selection of its date probably had nothing to do with Samhain.

Honor Christ Alone- Who Is Risen!

Honor Christ Alone- Who Is Risen!

Unfortunately, it must be conceded that modern Halloween celebrations (at least in the U.S.) seem to have lost their Christian heritage altogether. But it should come as no surprise that a holiday celebrating death would develop a dark and superstitious character among non-believers. After all, death is mysterious and terrifying to those who don’t know the gospel. However, as Christians, we can celebrate the lives of those who have died in Christ, because we know that “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54); it is nothing to fear. Though our bodies will die, our spirit will dwell with Christ (Philippians 1:21) until He returns to earth to make all things new (2 Peter 3:13) and to clothe us with new glorious bodies (Philippians 3:20-21). Halloween affords the perfect opportunity to contrast the Christian and the non-Christian views of death and to share the hope that we have in Christ.

Rather than abandoning Halloween to the lost, let us reclaim it for God’s glory. May He help us to be light in the darkness and to find ways to creatively bring the “hallowed” back into Halloween.

Halloween History

Many sources mistakenly claim that Halloween has its origin in a pagan celebration calledSamhain (pronounced sow-in). Though pagan ideas and various superstitions have certainly made their way into Halloween celebrations, the origin of the holiday is distinctly Christian.
Halloween History

History of Halloween

The name Halloween is a blending of the words All Hallows’ Eve or Even (referring to the evening before All Saints’ Day on November 1). The term hallow means “holy” – you may recall reciting it in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9).

From the early days of the church, saints (more specifically martyrs —  the only persons initially recognized as saints) were honored and celebrated.1 However, with time, the growing number of martyrs (particularly under the persecution of Diocletian, the Roman Emperor from 284-305 AD) made it impossible to assign a separate celebration for each. Thus, various churches made an effort to select a common day to commemorate all the saints.

Pantheon in Rome

Pantheon in Rome (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Some churches celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, while others chose the Friday after Easter. In 609 AD (or possibly 610 AD), Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the saints on May 13, and he established it as a yearly celebration.2

Pope Gregory III (in office from 731-741 AD) is credited with choosing the date of November 1 when he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome, to all the saints on that day and established it as an annual commemoration; Pope Gregory IV (in office from 827-844 AD) is credited with extending the holiday to all Christians by formally adding it to the Church calendar in 835 AD.3 By this time, Christians recognized as “saints” not only the martyrs but also the confessors (those who had “confessed” their faith by godly word and life but were not martyred).

It should be noted that the New Testament repeatedly uses the word saints to refer to allbelievers. However, early in church history, the term came to be used specifically for “heroes of the faith.”

History of Samhain

Many scholars claim that Gregory III chose to commemorate the saints on November 1 in order to combat an ancient pagan Celtic* festival called Samhain that was celebrated on the same day. However, Samhain seems to have been a tradition limited to the Northern Celtic people (particularly in Ireland and Scotland), and since these areas were Christianized by this time, it is difficult to substantiate this assertion. Furthermore, it should be noted that the Irish celebrated saints on April 20, “a chronology that contradicts the widely held view” that Rome adopted the November 1 date under Celtic influence.4 Lastly, if remnants of pagan practices remained only in the remote parts of Christian lands, they were probably not of particular concern to the Christian leadership in Rome. Scholar Francis X. Weiser believes that November 1 was chosen so that the many pilgrims who traveled to Rome for the Feast “could be fed more easily after the harvest than in the spring.”5

Samhain (pronounced sow-in) is a name derived from Old Irish that roughly means “summer’s end.”6 Practically speaking, it was a time to prepare for the harvest, shelter (and slaughter) animals, welcome home soldiers and kings, and generally reorganize communities in preparation for the coming cold weather.

Whatever claims are made about the ancient pagan celebration of Samhain are purely speculative. There were no written records among the northern Celtic people prior to their Christianization in the 5th century. Early Roman sources from the first century BC note the superstitious nature of the Celts and how they would celebrate their festivals with fire and sacrifices (both animal and human), but there is no specific mention of Samhain.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), Image from Wikimedia Commons

“The Gauls [Celts] are extremely superstitious.” (Julius Caesar, 100 BC to 44 BC, The Conquest of Gaul)

In order to learn anything about Samhain, we are forced to rely on northern Celtic folklore recorded in the 10thcentury and later. From this literature, we learn that Samhain “marked the boundary between summer and winter, light and darkness.” 7 This change of season lent itself well to colorful storytelling as the increasingly long and cold nights drew people around their hearth fires. Samhain served as the perfect setting for fairies, elves and spirits to appear in stories; it was also the time of year that mythic kings and heroes were said to have died.

However, there is no indication that ancient Samhain was ever a festival of the dead or dedicated to some Lord of the Dead. Though this idea was popularized by Sir James Frazer in his famous work The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion (1890), Frazer seems to confuse the traditions associated with All Souls’ Day (November 2) with ancient Samhain practices.8

Ironically, it was probably the Christian focus on the dead, combined with the change of seasons, which contributed to the growing Halloween lore about ghosts, goblins and creatures of the night. Now it comes as no surprise that nonbelievers would associate a holiday for the dead with darkness, mystery and fear. However, even among Christians there developed a host of wild and terrible descriptions about the afterlife – particularly regarding the “punishments, torments and pains” of purgatory.9 Such beliefs, namely the connection between purgatory and indulgences, are what motivated Martin Luther to post his famous 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church on October 31, 1517. The date was not coincidental.

Halloween in America

The Reformation put an end to the celebration of All Saints’ Day in some parts of Europe, as well as in many of the early American colonies. However, Lutherans and Anglicans continued to recognize the feast (though with a more reformed theology), as did Catholics, and these groups brought their traditions to various places throughout the New World. Furthermore, a variety of regions incorporated elements of Halloween into their harvest festivals, even if they did not formally recognize All Saints’ Day. However, there was certainly no uniformity in how Halloween and the overall harvest season were celebrated in America. According to historian Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, “The existence of Hallowmas, or of any autumn holiday, depended entirely on the religious and folk fabric of each emerging colony.”10

However, in the 1800s (particularly 1825-1845), America received a vast number of Irish immigrants who contributed significantly to forming an “American Halloween.” According to Bannatyne, “Of all the immigrant groups to enter America, the Irish had the greatest influence on the celebration of Halloween. They came in such great numbers that the cities and regions in which they settled took on new character, new ethnicity and, in many cases, a new holiday.”11

For further information, see our article “Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

1 Thurston, Herbert. Notes on “November 1: All Saints” in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol IV. New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1956, p.234. It should be noted that the New Testament repeatedly refers to all believers as “saints.”

2 Mershman, Francis. “All Saints’ Day.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 22 Sept. 2011. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm.

3 Ibid.

4 Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween, From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 22.

5 Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. Deus Books, 1963 (original 1952), p. 188.

6 Rogers, Nicholas, p. 11.

7 Ibid, p. 21.

8 Ibid, p. 19.

9 Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica.  Question 2, Articles 2 and 6.

10 Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. Halloween, An American Holiday, an American History. Pelican Publishing Company, 1998 (originally published with Facts on File in 1990), p. 21.

11 Ibid, p. 66.

End of several citations from the ‘celebrating holidays.com‘ website.  Happy ‘All Saints Day’.

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