Is the Origin of Halloween Rooted in a Pagan Holiday?
- Jessica Brodie Contributing Writer
- 2020 1 Oct
It’s that time of year again, when temporary costume shops start sprouting up in strip malls, huge bags of candy begin lining store shelves, and songs like “Monster Mash” feel like they’re on repeat everywhere you go.
But some Christians, concerned about whether the holiday is pagan in origin, wonder if it’s acceptable to celebrate Halloween at all given the plethora of macabre costumes, fake blood, and witches and ghouls decorating both homes and storefronts.
Many ask: Should we celebrate Halloween in our family, and if so, how can we do it in a way that doesn’t conflict with our faith?
First, let’s address the big question: Is the origin of Halloween rooted in a pagan holiday?
What Is the Origin of Halloween?
Halloween is a commingled word formed from both “All Hallows” and “Even,” or “E’en,” the Scottish word for evening. Hallow means “to make holy.”
Halloween is meant to refer to the evening before All Holies Day, also known as All Saints Day, a religious holiday in the Roman Catholic and many Protestant denominations of Christianity to honor Christians who have died (also called saints) and gone to heaven.
All Saints Day — also called All Hallows Day, All Holies Day, and Hallowmas — is celebrated November 1, which is why Halloween is celebrated October 31.
The day after All Saints Day, November 2, is called All Souls Day and honors all who have died regardless of their religious beliefs and presumed afterlife destination.
The triple-day festival is, in essence, a Christian observance known as Hallowtide to commemorate the dead.
People would prepare for All Saints Day beginning the evening before (that is, on Halloween) by holding prayer vigils and other honorary events.
Eventually, as with many festivals, the holiday became more celebratory in nature, particularly given the time of year — after the harvest, when food was typically more plentiful.
When Did ‘Hallowtide’ Begin?
In the early seventh century, the pope of the Roman Catholic church was gifted with the magnificent Roman Pantheon, a massive cylindrical architectural masterpiece.
The Pantheon used to serve as a Roman temple dedicated to the gods of an earlier era, and Pope Boniface IV removed the heretical statues and converted it into a Christian church. He dedicated it to all the Christians who had died for their faith in the first 300 years after Christ.
The first All Saints Day celebration was in May, but the following year, the new pope, Pope Gregory III, changed it to November 1 — possibly because food was more abundant post-harvest for the many celebrants clamoring to the city that time of year.
Three hundred years later, people also began celebrating All Souls Day to remember not only the saints but all who had died. Many grim and death-focused traditions evolved during this time, such as the decorating of graves and other death-oriented superstitions involving witches or demons.
Is Halloween Connected to a Pagan Holiday?
Because Halloween is at the same time of year as Samhain, pronounced saah-win, many people have argued that Halloween has its roots in the pagan holiday.
Samhain is a Gaelic or Celtic festival that translates to “summer’s end” and marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of the darker (winter) time of year.
However, most scholars believe that Samhain and true Halloween are two very different occasions for a couple of key reasons:
First, the original All Saints/All Hallows Day was held in May, which is not the time of Samhain.
Secondly, very little was known by the church at that time about Samhain, as the Celtic people did not keep many — if any — written records before Christianity spread to their region.
So, it doesn’t seem likely that a church thousands of miles away, in Rome, would orchestrate a major religious festival simply to tie it to a seasonal celebration marked only by a handful of people in the Northern Celtic region of the world.
Still, while Halloween’s origins are Christian, as with many religious occasions, traditions over the years have commingled, and today’s Halloween seems to celebrate not only the departed saints — and souls — but also other customs, from the medieval to the secular.
Are There Christian Themes Associated with the Way We Celebrate Halloween Today?
Some of the more death — or demon-oriented aspects of Halloween are rooted not in celebrating evil but rather exorcising it.
This might make it more acceptable to Christians who worry that “celebrating” Halloween is, in essence, “celebrating” things of darkness. Instead, they choose to look at it as celebrating the triumph of light over dark and life over death.
That is, by spinning darker themes into the silly — from children masquerading as witches to using cheap, sugary candy “treats” to ward off supernatural “tricks”— it’s a way of making fun of evil, not glorifying it.
As the Apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the early church in Corinth, “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57, NIV).
Jesus destroyed the sting of death, and that is something all Christians can rejoice about.
What Are Some Scriptures We Can Use to Help Celebrate Halloween?
Anything that lifts up the awesome power of God over the grave is a good way Christians can honor our faith on Halloween. Here are a few Scriptures. Can you think of more?
- “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:9).
- “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
- “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
- “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).
How Should We Handle Christians Who Do Halloween Differently?
What should we do if a Christian does not want to celebrate Halloween? Or what happens if we do not personally want to engage with the holiday but a fellow believer does? For both of those Christians, I would love to point them to a passage in 1 Corinthians 8. Some people chose to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Others refrained. Neither chose incorrectly.
In more "gray areas", my best suggestions are to read what Scripture says, ask the Holy Spirit for discernment, and act accordingly. God may tell your family not to participate in Halloween this year. He may allow another family to do so in a God-honoring way. No matter what your decision, make sure not to look down upon or scoff at the decisions of other believers. If they choose to honor God with their actions, they have operated within the parameters of Scripture.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Inside Creative House
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.