Ghouls, ghosts, and witches, warlocks, and spooks of all kinds. These, along with every sort of Disney princess and comic book hero, seem to be the common theme of the average Halloween celebrations in American culture today. Of course, many rural places add a harvest theme to the celebration, and if you want truly scary stuff, it wouldn’t all that hard in our current culture to find a very active occult world on All Hallows’ Eve.
But for all that, All Hallows’ Eve is exactly what this evening is about, and apparently, always has been. Let me explain: October 31 is the eve of All Hallows’ Day. All Hallows’ Day is known more often as All Saints’ Day. Hallowed is an older word, and most people know it from the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be thy name.” It means sanctified, or made holy (and comes from the Greek word, hagiázo). A related version of the word is hagios which is often translated as “saint.”
So All Saints’ Day is the festival celebrating all the sanctified, or holy ones—those who were set aside by God as His holy children. This is not a reference only to “Saints” as in Saint Augustine of Hippo and all the other saints names that we have on Church calendars, but saints as in all those who have lived the Christian life and gone on to be with God to wait for the final resurrection of the dead. So Halloween actually comes from the Church. All Hallows’ Eve was contracted to Hallowe’en, and eventually, lost the apostrophe, and most now just spell it as Halloween.
Many today believe in pagan underpinnings of Halloween, and the often ghoulish trappings of the celebration—especially the occult activities happening on this night—help to solidify that opinion. In the 19th century, the academic opinion grew that Halloween was rooted in the Celtic Festival of Samhain. In turn, this academic opinion bled into the general public, particularly in America. Ronald Hutton, in his The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, notes that one 19th century English academic’s theory about Samhain being the Celtic New Year “was further popularized by the Cambridge scholar, Sir James Frazer. At times [Frazer] did admit that the evidence for it was inconclusive, but at others he threw this caution overboard and employed it to support an idea of his own: that Samhain had been the pagan Celtic feast of the dead.”
Frazer’s argument for this is a bit sketchy. He argues that November 1 had been dedicated by the medieval Church to be a festival of the dead, and therefore it could be surmised that this had “been a Christianization of a pre-existing festival.” Hutton notes that Frazer “…admitted, by implication, that there was in fact no actual record of such a festival”(1). In fact, we know very, very little about the Celtic Samhain.
We are more certain, however, that the Celtic peoples of the British Isles were Christianized by the 600s. Of course St. Patrick converted the Irish in the 400s. St. Ninian was the first missionary to Scotland in the middle 400s and converted the southern part of the land. St. Columba worked among the people of northern Scotland in the 500s.
All Saints’ as a Feast Day celebration was well established in the Eastern and Western Church by 400AD. St. Chrysostom (d. 407) assigns it a definite day, the First Sunday after Pentecost (which is fifty days after Easter), and it is still observed on that day in the East. In the West, the Feast day did not become firmly established until about 610. “From then on an annual commemoration of ‘All Saints’ was made on 13 May”(2). The date was changed across the Western Church by order of Pope Gregory IV in the 800s.
The idea that the Bishop of Rome changed the date for the Feast of All Saints’, for all of the Western church, so that the very small Celtic part of the Church (furthest away from Rome, in fact) could take dominion of the Celtic Festival of Samhain, when that Festival or whatever elements of it were left to a culture that had been Christian for 200-400 years had never caused one complaint from Church officials(that we have record of), seems to be a very far stretch.
Without getting into the extra evidence that Hutton points out, let me quote his conclusion: “This [evidence] makes nonsense of Frazer’s notion that the November date was chosen because of ‘Celtic’ influence: rather, both ‘Celtic’ Europe and Rome followed a Germanic idea….” Cambridge Historian Mary Beard writes that “a large proportion of [Frazer’s] The Golden Bough is inadequate, as well as irrelevant…”(3). Essentially, Frazer’s arguments have been dismissed for a long time in the academic world, but are still the backbone of popular belief in the culture of our day, so that many Christians fear that Halloween is really pagan and that Christians should not be involved at all, or involved guiltily at best. Many non-Christians are convinced that Halloween has nothing to do with the Church, and neo-paganism is pressing this point, often veering into the truly frightening world of the occult.
The simple truth is that the Church should reclaim her heritage, and own the truth with beauty and goodness, and should celebrate Halloween as the Church has always celebrated, with the liturgies and prayers and devotions associated with the festival. How much and what kind of parties are up to the discretion of the Church and her people. How many of the pagan traditions from the old world that still cling to All Saints should be used is also to be chosen wisely. But really, who wants to ban apple-bobbing because it has folkloric roots in predicting future love, finding a husband, and likely in being a female fertility rite?
1 Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996, ch. 34.
2 F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 42.
3 Beard, Mary. “Frazer, Leach, and Virgil: The Popularity (and Unpopularity) of The Golden Bough.” Modes of Comparison: Theory & Practice. Ed. Aram A. Yengoyan. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2006. 161-87.