History of Halloween
As Halloween is right around the corner again, I thought I would re-release the two articles about Halloween with some new thoughts inserted in places. Maybe those of you new to this website would enjoy the material here…
This has consistently been one of my most popular articles.
This is much longer and more in depth than many readers might want, but I would rather be thorough here for those who do want it.
A Historical Understanding of Halloween
This is an in-depth look at the history of Halloween, and the timing of the other major Christian Holidays. There will be a follow-up article about what I think the appropriate Christian response to these issues are.
Before recorded history, people have used the length of days to divide out the year, and celebrated the coming and past events. The winter solstice is the shorted day of the year, and the longest night. The summer solstice is the opposite. Also, in between each of them is the equinox, fall and spring, which are the days when the night and day are essentially the same length. Before official calendars and clocks, these were important for measuring years and seasons.
As I recently read, clocks weren’t common in Europe, for example, until after the 1300′s. Before that, the precision of a few bells throughout the day was enough. (Chasing Francis by Ian Cron)
I want to show you how these play into our celebrations today and how I think we should respond. This may be longer than the typical blog, but I think you will appreciate it. If the history and background is just of no interest to you at all, skip down…
The pagan religions tended to focus special or “Holy” days (whence we get the words “holiday”) on obvious changes like these, and how they linked to the events of that time of the year. Remember, before grocery stores and before integrated heating, the three main events for most the those cultures, up through the 1800s were winter (and its hardships), and planting and harvest seasons. Life was pretty much utterly dependent on these.
An example many Christians can relate to here is the Jewish pattern of making use of the moon and its cycles to determine when events and Holidays (Feasts and Sabbaths) were to be held.
Let’s start looking at these in the order they tended to. For the pagans in Briton, for example, the new year started at the end of harvest… they had gathered in the crops that were supposed to keep them alive until next harvest. This would have been a time for preparation (for winter) and celebration (for the harvest). It was already starting to get cold… winter represented death, so part of the celebration would have been to seek to appease/interact with/pacify the evil spirits that killed people in the cold winter.
In modern times we have a hard time identifying with what winter must have meant. Imagine living in the same depth of cold as we experience today… or worse… but imagine no way to completely weatherproof your home, imagine the diseases and death that came with cramped conditions of a family huddling together, usually with the animals, in the deep cold, with little or no concept of hygiene, and sleeping with the vermin and their parasites, for months.
When the winter solstice approached, the religious leaders would call everyone out. Again, there were two parts to the event. First, recognize who was dead. Who hadn’t made it? The mortality rates were probably staggering. We know that later, even in early colonial times in North America, it wasn’t uncommon for half of the population to die every winter! In Jamestown, for example, 440 of the original 500 settlers died in the first three years (Kelso and Hancock). What then? Well, you redistributed the goods. People who had more than they needed gave it to those who were running low. There was likely a new series of weddings – new widows and widowers married to one another and moving their families together into the best holding and combining their resources. You would have acknowledged death, but celebrated life in the midst of it. “Well, I made it this far through the winter” was something worth celebrating. So, you got your biggest best log for the fire to prepare for the longest night of the year, you gathered around the evergreen tree as the symbol for life that perseveres in the midst of death, you hang the Holly branch as another example of it… what else are you going to hang in the homes of all the newly weds to encourage fertility? There aren’t any flowers or garlands. You share the excess, you bid each other goodnight, and then you hunker back to try and survive the second half of winter death.
Maybe, after a few months, you check to see if the animals, especially the burrowing sleepers, have started to emerge, or if they hide back as if they were afraid of their shadows. That’s right, Woodchuck Chuckers…
Then, spring begins to arrive. What do you naturally celebrate then? New life. For humans, the long winter is almost over and many of them, in addition to surviving winter themselves… while bored and trying to stay warm, got pregnant many months ago, and are now very pregnant – celebration! The stores of food are thinning, but berries, fish, deer, birds, etc. are back. Domesticated animals begin to experience the abundance of green and being to have offspring, some in amazing numbers! So, what would be your symbols of the Spring Equinox? Symbols of fertility… Rabbits (what do things reproduce like? Rabbits!), eggs, bright colors, flowers, lambs… new life. Gods and goddesses of fertility and rain are the focus of attention.
Soon, though, it is a busy time – planting season – sowing. Harrowing, plowing, tilling, planting, watering, fertilizing, tending, keeping out animals, chasing off dangers, pulling diseased plants… this is a busy time, not to mention calving seasons, new born lambs, piglets, rabbits, etc. There are some celebrations, but mostly people are too busy to play much.
The busiest seasons of all – the reason we still have summer break really probably hearkens back to the days when the children were needed at home for harvest. During the summer, different plants – vegetables, grains, fruits, ripen and must be taken off of the vine or they rot and are lost for the whole year. There is little room for error – seeds must be taken and preserved for next year, and everything is harvested. Celebrations here are minimal… the rest of the year is dependent on how things go in just a few short weeks!
Harvest season is wrapping up, people are slaughtering or hunting meat, and salting, smoking or drying it. When all of this is done, in time to prepare for winter, as the Fall Equinox approaches, it is time to party. The people need to gather together, and trade out stores for the winter. People whose crops failed need people to give them enough to survive the winter. They might go house to house and ask for what they need. Celebrations are held to celebrate the bountiful harvest… baskets are filled with the fresh good things of harvest – vegetables, dried fruits, gourds, meats – in such an abundance and variety that today we would call it a “cornucopia”. However, we mustn’t forget the dark side of this holiday. Just as mid-winter accepts death and looks forward to the hope of life, fall accepts life but looks forward to the imminence of death. The mysterious sources of sudden illness and death, “spirits”, must be dealt with. They are prepared to run free throughout winter, they are coming out of their realms to prepare to assault the people. So, we hang out gourds, carved to scare away even evil spirits, we light huge bonfires (made up of the dried sheaves of threshed wheat, probably) to scare them away, etc. Children, taking advantage of the scary mindsets, dress themselves in scary costumes, and the adults (who of course, are just indulging their children) pretend to be scared of these little evil spirits, and bribe the evil spirits with little treats to stay away from their homes this winter. The air of fear of death, while celebrating harvest, must have been an odd mixture. Pacify the evil spirits, and also try to scare them away.
In the British Isles, this was called the season of “Samhuinn”. This was literally just their name for the month we call November. The last day of the month before November was called “Oidhche Shamhna” – roughly, “November Night.” And apparently this was treated as the beginning of the year for the early Britons. The celebrations connected to this time were linked to the pagan groups, like the Druids. (Beltane, wikipedia’s citation)
So, how does this play out in regards to Christians holidays?
When the early Christian, mostly the medieval Roman Catholic Church, came to the far Western World (there were allegedly already some Christian influences there, possibly lending credence to the legend that the Apostle Thomas may have visited the British Isles before the turn of the first century), they began to interact with the local peasants and seek to convince them to convert from their pagan ways (Coffman).
There are only a few major events in the Christian calendar, and we are only really aware of the dates on one of those – Easter. Thanks to the Jews, and their faithful adherence to the lunar calendar and the clarity of the New Testament connection to the death and resurrection of Jesus to the Passover, we know pretty nearly when Jesus died and rose…
And the supposition I am about to present still fits really well with this one too…
Otherwise, the Christian leadership apparently decided to compete with the pagan festivals by setting their (our) holidays (remember, “Holy Days”). For example, we really have virtually no idea what time of the year Jesus was born in… though there are some pretty good arguments based on the time when Zacharias’ family was in the temple, and the times of the year that shepherds stayed out all night with their flocks, etc., we really don’t know (Sheifler). However, it was almost certainly NOT late December.
It seems likely that the Christians decided to essentially, throw a bigger and better party on or near the pagan ones! Ok, remember what was being celebrated by the pagans at the Winter Solstice? The hopes for life to come – salvation from the death of winter that is near… so, what a perfect place to (otherwise arbitrarily) celebrate the birth of New Life! So, my assumption is that the mostly illiterate farm families just began to integrate both celebrations! After all, if your typical life is scraped together with death always around the corner, wouldn’t it make sense to go to both parties?
It is easy to see, then why, to this day, we celebrate Christmas with evergreen trees, holly bushes, yule logs (the big log meant to last out the entirety of the longest night of the year, remember)… as well as giving gifts (spreading the wealth). Of course, many of these fit nicely in with the Nativity story as well – the birth of the Savior, the gifts of the Magi, the later charitable works of Nicolas (Saint Nicolas… or Santa ‘Colas… Santa Claus). Instead, we celebrate the Christ’s Mass (the name for the main Catholic worship services)… “Christmas”.
With Easter (though for years, it was taught that the name came from the name of a fertility goddess, but that seems to be under debate…it might be connected, but some seem to say it that before the goddess, it came from the word for “East” – and that literally meant “rising”… or even that the goddess connection was error (since that is where the sun comes up)) is also easy to see the integration, and what a natural integration it is! (unknown article *, Harper) If the spring equinox was about new life, a new degree of abundance, then what better connection that the True New Life – Resurrection, and the purchase and the eternal defeat of sin and death, the victory of the Lamb of God! Today, we still celebrate His work, we have fun with colorful eggs, bunnies, lambs, and lilies.
Summer, if you recall, is too busy for anyone to do much celebration… so, for the sake of what is already a long article, we move along…
So, what about the end of Harvest? The people were “celebrating” Death and the preparation for death and winter. So, the Church came along and decided to celebrate what else? Martyrs. The Church had this celebration already, called “All Saints Day” sometimes celebrated by some at different time of the year, but in the mid-700’s, it was moved by Pope Gregory III to Nov 1st officially (Brittanica and Christianity History Timeline). Again, it was a great fit. Recognize in faith those who died in the name of Christ when the pagans are preaching fear of the spirits of the dead. The “eve” before All Saints Day was Holy (or “Hallowed”) Day Eve… which over time was shortened to “Hallowed ‘Eve”… Hallowe’en”. Still, they were mixed… the pagan “Fall Festival” or “Harvest Festival” mixed with the Christian “Halloween”. (How ironic that most churches have fled from the word “Halloween” and moved to “Fall Festival”)… we party, we have bonfires, pumpkins, and costumes.
So, with all of these main celebrations being celebrated in a way that integrates all kinds of natural links, agriculturally obvious connections, pagan aspects of worship, and Christian teaching, what is the right response of the modern believer?
For my thoughts on that question, please check out the other, much shorter article about that!
American Catholic.Org http://www.americancatholic.org/features/default.aspx?id=23
Choi, Hanel. National Institute of American History and Democracy,http://niahd.wm.edu/index.php?browse=entry&id=172
Coffman, Elesha. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2000/dec08.html
Cohn, Emily. National Institute of American History and Democracy,http://niahd.wm.edu/index.php?browse=entry&id=146
Harper, Douglas. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Easter
History Channel. http://www.history.com/topics/halloween
Kelso, Dr. William and Hancock, Dr. Franklin. PBShttp://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/previous_seasons/case_jamestown/about.html
* Unknown currently… This article does a good job of gathering and articulating the arguments I found in other places… I am trying to find out who the author is and what his credentials are or his sources…http://www.answerbag.com/q_view/190170
Myra, Harold. “Is Halloween a Witches Brew?” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/octoberweb-only/42.0.html
Sheifler, Michael. http://biblelight.net/sukkoth.htm. Again, I do not know
As well as information from the www.Wikipedia.org information for Samhain and All Saints Day.
Note: Anytime I use information I find on Wiki, I try to use phrases like “apparently” or “some think” in an effort to designate that information gathered here may or may not come from trustworthy information. However, I think that much of what we find here is pretty well policed and at least created a good start for further research. However,Wikipedia cites
Chadwick, Nora The Celts London, Penguin. p. 181: “Samhain (1 November) was the beginning of the Celtic year, at which time any barriers between man and the supernatural were lowered”.