Halloween: Pagans and Puritans

The following was originally written in 2002…

It happens every year about this time. Here in the Bible Belt, leaflets and flyers circulate warning Christian parents against allowing their children to participate in the “pagan” festival of Halloween. One that I picked up recently begins, “Even though on this very night children will be sacrificed in satanic rituals…Millions of Christians will allow…Even encourage… their children to pay respect for the Devil on October 31st. Who me? Yes YOU! If you or your children participate in this Satanic Holy day, while proclaiming to be a follower of Christ, you are deceived!” All bad grammar is in the original.

The flyer goes on to tell us that Halloween, along with other “common festivals” that Christian people celebrate, has no basis in the Bible. It warns that, “Christians should have no part in Halloween, Jack-o’-lanterns, Cornstalks, Witches, Skeletons, Ghosts, Costume Parties, or Trick or Treating. Why? Because it is not fun or cute but of the Devil.” Furthermore it gives a history of the origin of Halloween, as an explanation of why we should have nothing to do with it.

It correctly identifies the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-en), but erroneously claims that on this night druids (the Celtic priest class) would travel from “castle to castle” playing trick-or-treat. The treat demanded was a maiden for human sacrifice. In return the druids would leave a jack-o-lantern lit with a candle made from human fat, as a charm to ward off demons. If someone could not make the sacrifice, they would mark the door with a hexagram and the druids would send a demon to kill someone in the castle. Halloween came to America in the mid-nineteenth century when Irish immigrants came and brought their “pagan customs” with them. Or so reads the history according to the puritans.

The idea expressed in this account of everyone living in a castle and having a handy supply of maidens to spare betrays an almost juvenile knowledge of the past. And the portrayal of nineteenth century Irish as “pagan” smacks of anti-Catholic bigotry. (And if one were inclined it would not be that hard to read the reference to the hexagram as an allusion the Jewish Star of David). What do we really know about Halloween’s origins, and should it be so avoided by Christians, as the anonymous author of this tract advocates?

Many of the customs associated with the celebration of Halloween do have pagan origins. That cannot be denied, nor should it be. But we will discuss the implications of these pagan elements later. What we, as Christians, should be focused on is the origin of the Christian celebration of Halloween, not any supposed pagan ancestors.

Let’s begin with the very name “Halloween” itself. It’s usually spelled without the original apostrophe (“Hallowe’en”), so people forget that the name is actually a contraction. It’s a shortened form of “All Hallows Eve” which is, of course, the evening before All Hallows Day, an archaic name for All Saints Day. All Saints Day, celebrated on November 1st, is the day set aside in the Catholic Church to recognize all of the saints and martyrs, known and unknown.

Christians have been honoring the martyrs of the faith since the earliest times by celebrating a feast day in their name, usually on the anniversary of their martyrdom. Many Christians were martyred together, and so of course some martyrs shared a common feast day. As the number of Christian martyrs increased, especially under the reign of Diocletian, it became impossible to have a separate day to honor each of them. And as other, non-martyred Christians were recognized as saints and honored with their own feast day, the calendar soon was overflowing! The Church felt that each saint and martyr should be venerated, and so to avoid any deficiency, appointed a common day for all.

The earliest such celebration was observed in Antioch on the Sunday after Pentecost. Other places observed such a day at different times during the year from as early as the fourth century. The November 1 date was first established in the West by Gregory III (731-741), who consecrated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to all the saints, and fixed an anniversary celebration on that date. Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended this November 1 celebration to the entire Church. And according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the vigil was celebrated as early as the feast.

A vigil is a mass that is celebrated on the evening before a particular feast day, in anticipation of that day, and also because the Church traditionally reckons the beginning of a day at sunset of the day before. So, the vigil for All Saints Day (or All Hallows Day) is All Hallows Eve, a.k.a. Halloween.

What does this have to do with pumpkins and costumes and candy? Absolutely nothing. All Saints Day, and its vigil celebration, is there to honor those Christian brothers and sisters that have gone before us, have died in the faith, alive in Christ’s love, and now enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven. These are those saints known and unknown, recognized and unrecognized. This includes saints like St. Francis, St. Andrew, St. Patrick, and St. Cecilia. And it also includes those unrecognized saints such as the devout grandmother, the pious farmer, and perhaps many of the beloved dead in your own family. And it includes every faithful Christian who died centuries ago and has long since been forgotten by man, but eternally remembered by God. We honor them all.

It should be noted that this feast in the Church is followed immediately by All Souls Day on November 2, where we remember and recognize the souls of all the dead, saintly or not, and pray for those who may not yet be enjoying heavenly bliss.

It just so happens that this Holy feast happened to fall on the day traditionally celebrated as Samhain in the Celtic parts of the British Isles (notably Scotland and Ireland). The Celtic New Year began on November 1, and Samhain was the final celebration of the harvest season. At this time, the pre-Christian Celtic people believed that the otherworld was in turmoil. The world of the dead was thought to be closest to the world of the living on this night. People would leave food out for offerings to those beloved departed ones who might visit (the origins of our giving out candy). To light their way, they would burn lanterns inside of carved out turnips (jack-o-lanterns). Malevolent spirits were also thought to be about, though, and so people would disguise themselves by blackening their faces and hands so that the dead would not be able to recognize them (the origins of wearing costumes).

Any historian can tell you that Scotland and Ireland became Christianized fairly early on. The conversion of Scotland mostly happened in the sixth century and is credited to such men as St. Columba, St. Ninian, and St. Kentigern. By the eighth century, when the pagan Vikings began their raids, they came to a land entirely Christian, dotted with chapels and monasteries.

Like other places where it spread, Christianity did not seek to completely suppress the native culture or traditions. It condemned what was bad and evil in pagan cultures and preserved what was good and true, baptizing it as a part of the universal Christian tradition. How fitting that the day on which the dead were traditionally reckoned to be closest to the living according to pagan tradition, the Church has set aside to remember those that have died in Christ.

Is there anything wrong with children dressing up in costumes and going around the neighborhood collecting candy? Leaving alone, for the moment, the question of safety in some neighborhoods today, I don’t think that there is anything in this tradition that is worthy of condemnation. In fact, one could use it to teach a lesson about generosity. Is there anything wrong with carving a pumpkin and using it for decoration? Again, no. There is nothing evil or wrong with this practice. In addition to the jack-o-lantern and trick-or-treating, our tract writer also objected to witches and ghosts and cornstalks.

While we may argue the merits for or against a child dressing as a witch or a ghost, one must ask what this writer finds objectionable about cornstalks. What Christian truth is being attested to by protesting the use of decorative cornstalks in autumn? Because a particular practice originated in a pre-Christian pagan culture does not, ipso facto, equate that practice with the worship of a pagan deity. I doubt that the downtown shop keepers who decorate their store fronts with pumpkins and ears of corn have any more intention of idolatry than the child who dons a plastic mask and heads out, parents in tow, to fill his sack with chocolate and hard candy.

While idolatry usually is applied to the worship of false gods it equally applies to the fear of false demons. And this is the problem with the modern puritans who seem to object to celebrations of any sort. Although Halloween is the favorite for these holiday prohibitionists, other Christian celebrations that have been accused of being pagan include Easter and Christmas! Yes, there are some pagan (or more properly speaking, extra-Christian) aspects to the celebration of these holidays. Nowhere in the Gospel accounts does it tell of a decorated tree at the Nativity. Nor were there colored eggs at the Resurrection. But even though Christianity may have adopted pagan forms of celebration, the One we are celebrating is Christ! This is, of course, what ultimately matters.

G. K. Chesterton remarked, when atheists accuse Christianity, or when Protestants accuse Catholicism, of adapting pagan practices, that “they may as well accuse us of having pagan legs!” Of course Christianity has adapted some old pagan practices. All human cultures were at one point pre-Christian and pagan. These people were, for the most part, seeking the truth as best they understood it. While they did not have the benefit of The Truth, Christ, they were generally looking in the right direction. In the light of Christ, what was wrong and false about the old ways were abandoned, and what was good and true in them was kept and preserved. The Catholic Church has always acknowledged this.

Christ is the ultimate measure of the truth. It does not follow that everything pre-Christian must therefore be abandoned. We should follow the example of Pope Boniface IV, who in the early seventh century consecrated the Pantheon (the greatest pagan temple in Rome) to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. He could have torn it down, as a pagan thing to be shunned. But instead he consecrated this beautiful and majestic triumph of architecture to Christian usage, and our culture is all the richer for its preservation.

The problem with Halloween is not that it has elements of pagan origin. The problem is that we have forgotten that these traditions only survive at all because the Church has preserved them, blessed them, and allowed them to survive in the cultures that observed then in association with its feast of All Saints. This does not make it a satanic holiday, but a secular holiday (but then again Christmas and Easter are secular holidays for the majority of Americans these days, so why should we expect Halloween to be any different).

While secularizing a sacred holiday is a shameful denial of God’s glory, attributing it to Satan is giving the devil more than his due. But this has always been the tendency of the more puritanical sects. The Puritans in the Old World began by abandoning the veneration of the saints. And the Puritans in the New World ended up persecuting accused witches. Even though their intentions may have been based in Christian virtue, no one today believes Christ was truly served by the Salem Witch Trials. Nor is He being served with tracts like this one. Spreading shameful lies and half-truths about our ancestors abducting maidens for human sacrifice, burning candles made from human fat–and scaring small children by telling them they might be sacrificed in a Satanic ritual–not only is deceitful, but harmful. God is Truth. Therefore God is not served by twisting or hiding the truth, even if you do it in His name.

If you are Catholic, go to Mass on All Saints Day, or its vigil. If you belong to a Protestant denomination that does not observe this ancient feast, try to make an effort to remember those Christians who have gone before you. And if your kids want to dress up in costumes with their friends and go trick-or-treating, let them. Carving a pumpkin can be enjoyable family time, and get the kids (and parents) away from the television for an hour or so. Bake a pumpkin pie. Roast the pumpkin seeds. Bob for apples. The point is, if you remember Christ and point your heart towards God, these seasonal celebrations become a holy thing. I’d advise our puritan holiday-bashers to spend less time searching for demons, and more time living for Christ.