Halloween - What Is the Origin of the Tradition?
Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and told each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
The American tradition of "trick-or-treating" probably originated in England. During the All-Hallows festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for the family's dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving bowls of food outside homes to appease ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter. The practice, which was referred to as "going a-souling" was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money. Wearing costumes on Halloween is connected with many of these traditions. It was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world when this time between life and death was remembered. People thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes on this night. To avoid being attacked people would wear masks so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.
As European immigrants came to America, they brought their varied Halloween customs with them. As the beliefs and customs of different ethnic groups, and the American Indians, meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included "play parties," public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, dance, and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country. In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland's potato famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.
In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community, than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country's second largest commercial holiday.
Biblical Connections and Ideas for Celebrations
Halloween customs and celebrations can be linked to a number of Biblical passages. Leviticus 23:15-22; 33-44 describes the celebration of harvest Festivals. Psalm 27:1; Joshua 1:9; Romans 8:31-39, I John 4:18, and many other passages, all deal with the power and strength of God to deal with our fears. Most Halloween traditions developed out of fear and superstition. As Christians, the Scriptures tell us that there is no need to fear. Perhaps your congregation could plan a Fall Festival instead of a Halloween party. Use the occasion to celebrate the grace and goodness of God and our deliverance from fear.
Connecting with "All Saints Day" is a part of Christian tradition. The scriptures tell us to "Honor your father and Mother", Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses" and we are celebrate the saints who stand now in the presence of God (Revelation 7:9-17). Special services remembering those who have gone before us, special recognition of the ‘saints' in our congregations, thanksgiving for all who are now a part of the Church triumphant, and reflection on our past, present and future would all be appropriate ways to celebrate.
The traditional giving of treats can be related to our calling to share our abundance and give to the poor. Passages like Leviticus 19:9-10; 25:35-38; Micah 6:6-16; and Matthew 25:31-46 remind us of this calling. Take this opportunity to reach out to the community. Feed the hungry, trick or treat for UNICEF, take an offering for 2 cents a meal or volunteer to serve a meal at your local mission. Halloween can become an opportunity to strengthen faith and grow in discipleship.
Material researched and written by Pamela Daniel, Presbytery Staff Associate,
and provided as information for the Presbyterian Churches of Western North Carolina.