Seems that I’ve always had a preconceived notion that the holiday of Halloween was an ancient holiday of witches and ghouls, and pagan ritual. Though I have heard it said that Halloween began as a religious holiday, I’ve always had my doubts.
Going into the third week of October 2018, I’m still unsure of the source from which this mysterious holiday came. This article is a broad-brush account of what I found in researching the origins of Halloween, research that began with a question that stemmed from my own curiosity. Is Halloween a holiday given by Christian religion, or is Halloween a holiday born of witches?
Today, Halloween is observed in numerous countries around the globe on October 31st, but this pumpkin seed actually took root around 2,000 years ago in the Irish Celtic festival and worship of Samhain (pronounced sow-en). This took place on November 1st and was celebrated on the night of October 31st. Samhain was the Celtic celebration of the Irish new year and it was believed that the souls of the dead could mingle among the living, and the living could communicate with the dead during this time.
Samhain remained a popular Celtic festival until the arrival of St. Patrick around 432 AD. As Christianity spread throughout the region, the celebration of Samhain began to fall in popularity. In an effort to abolish the pagan holiday and convert its remaining followers to Christianity, the church introduced Christian concepts into the Samhain festival, but this had little effect; the worship and ritual of Samhain continued.
300 years later
Between 731-741 AD, Pope Gregory III is credited for changing the Feast of All Holy Martyrs to the Feast of All Saints, also known as All Saints Day. He also changed the date from May 13th to November 1st. The same day as the Celtic festival of Samhain. This, undoubtedly in an effort to terminate the pagan holiday and practice thereof. Traditions of Samhain, however, were incorporated and absorbed into the Feast of All Saints. The celebration and evening before became known as All Hallows Eve, and later became known as Halloween. This started out as a localized celebration, but nearly a hundred years later (827-844) Pope Gregory IV further introduced Halloween into the church and it became more widely recognized throughout the Christian community.
Note: While some Roman and Anglo-Catholic churches still recognize October 31st as All Saints Eve, and November 1st as All Saints Day, much of the orthodox Church throughout the world continues to celebrate All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost, which is seven weeks after Easter.
During the ancient celebration of Samhain people would build bon fires and burn crops or animals as sacrifices. They would also hollow out potatoes or turnips, call them Jack-O-Lanterns and burn candles or put hot ashes in them. People would dress up in costumes to protect themselves against, or fool malevolent spirits into thinking they were one of their own. In the early days of All Hallows Eve it became customary for children, and some poor people, to go door to door in their costumes begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers for the dead. In return, the children would receive soul cakes, baked goods with crosses on the top.
Today, many parts of the world are familiar with the traditions of modern-day Halloween. Traditions that have been followed and remain eerily similar to what they were in the beginning. Traditions brought forth from a pagan Irish holiday that was meant to celebrate the new year and mingle with the dead.
With Pope Gregory III inundating the Feast of all Saints with traditions from the Celtic festival of Samhain, he allowed for the ancient pagan rituals to flourish far into the future. Samhain is still followed today by some pagans, witches and wiccans. However, the evidence and customs of this centuries old, Druid religion, is most prevalent in the traditions of modern-day Halloween.
While Halloween was initially meant to replace the Celtic pagan celebration of Samhain, the act of accepting traditions from the Samhain holiday into the then, All Hallows Eve festivities, facilitated from the beginning, for Halloween to follow in the footsteps of the Celtic festival.
Rooted in ancient pagan customs and having followed those traditions for centuries, I feel safe in saying that Halloween, as we know it today, is a holiday that was most certainly born of witches.
As we once again close the gap on October 31st, many will go about carving pumpkins and decorating in ghoulish fashion, all in the name of good fun. Unaware, and likely uncaring, that ancient Samhain tradition believed that the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest during this time of year, making it easier for the dead to crossover into the world of the living. In the name of good fun, people will fashion costumes and wear disguises, possibly warding off evil spirits according to Celtic pagan belief. Nonetheless, most who indulge in such festivities will pay no mind to the real wizard in the room, the wizard called human who will make of things what they want and believe as they will. A wizard capable of turning a night of innocent fun into an evil and dreadful event, or able to change a night of pagan born festivities into one of innocent fun.
Regardless of where you stand and what you believe, I thank you for reading and I wish you all, a Happy Halloween!