What Is the Origin and History of Halloween?
- Hope Bolinger Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2019 27 Sep
The word Halloween itself is derived from the word “Allhallow-even” or “All Holy (Hallow means holy) Evening.” What was once a religious holiday before All Saints Day on November first, has transformed into a secular holiday involving costumes and candy.
Similar to Christmas Eve, it originally was supposed to be a celebration before All Saints Day, a Catholic holiday which celebrates the saints (Christians who have died) in heaven.
Now, known in some Christian circles as Satan’s holiday, how did this holiday evolve overtime from All Hallows Evening to children dressed as ghosts and goblins? Does the holiday span further back than when Pope Gregory III instituted All Saints Day?
Let's look at the different cultures throughout history that have had a hand in molding our current Halloween traditions. Starting with the Celtics, Rome, and then Medieval Christianity.
What Is the Origin of Halloween?
The origin of Halloween may, in fact, span farther back than the ninth century when All Saints Day was created. Linked to the Celtic holiday Samhain, this could indicate where some of the odder Halloween traditions such as jack-o-lanterns and costumes. Although the original date of this holiday isn’t easily found, historians have ventured guesses that the tradition is several thousand years old—at least two thousand years old. During Samhain, a feast of the dead, participants would light community fires, perform animal sacrifices, carve turnips (and later pumpkins in Medieval times), eat food, and throw wood at each other.
Even though these Celts were ruled by various kings, the real power behind the throne was in the hands of the Druids. They were a secret, bloodthirsty priestly society who ruled by terror, sorcery and witchcraft. Even the various Celtic kings feared their black powers.
The most important religious day for the Druids was the celebration of Samhain, Lord of the Dead. The Celtic New Year began on November 1st. The night before, October 31st, was the night to reverence Samhain. It was the time of the falling of leaves and general seasonal decay—so the appropriate time to celebrate the Lord of the Dead.
They believed that on that night the Spirit world came into its closest contact with the human world. As such, it was a night when the souls of the departed dead returned to their former homes to be entertained by the living (much like ancestor worship is practiced today by many religions).
It was also a time when demonic and evil spirits came out of their shadowy nether world. If proper food, shelter and provision were not provided, these evil spirits would cast spells, wreak havoc on man and beast, and generally torment the living! If the proper "treat" was not awaiting to appease them, then they would respond with an appropriate "trick"—thus our custom of "trick or treating."
Others, in order to fool and evade the invading spirits, would themselves dress up and masquerade as evil spirits, witches, ghosts, and ghouls. Again we can see the origin of our custom of dressing up as fiendish characters and creatures.
The perverted climax of this dark night was animal and human sacrifice to placate this Lord of the Dead. It was carried out by the priestly Druids who would rip the hearts out of their victims and use the blood for religious rites. They would also use the entrails and other body parts to divine the future and forecast the New Year. The remains were then burned in "bone fires," from which we get the popular "bonfire."
Samhain celebrated a broken barrier between the physical world and the spiritual one, hence why items such as ghosts have made their way into common Halloween lore. The festival evolved throughout the middle ages, until Christianity took hold of the tradition.
History Timeline of Halloween as a Holiday
Christians may have heard other believers talk about how Halloween began as a Christian holiday. That is and isn’t true. The origin of the name Halloween does come from the Allhallow-even mentioned above. But the holiday itself has a much longer timeline.
More than 2,000 years ago: (Possible 4-5,000 years ago) the Celtic peoples and their predecessors celebrated Samhain at the end of the harvest season, to welcome the winter.
Winter, a time often associated with death, gave birth to this celebration of the dead. Family members would have feasts and “invite” dead people to commune with them and give them the latest news of the year.
27 AD: Rome celebrates harvest yearly in the fall in honor of Pomona, the goddess of fruit. The origin of bobbing for apples may have come from here. Roman general Agrippa builds the Pantheon and it is used for worship to the Gods.
43 AD: Rome conquers the Celtic lands and incorporated Feralia, a version of Halloween, as part of their tradition.
100 AD: Roman Emperor Hadrin rebuilds the Pantheon and dedicates it to Cybele, the goddess of nature. Here teh Romans worship their gods and honor and pray to the dead.
609 AD: Pope Boniface IV dedicates the Pantheon in Rome in a celebration which Gregory III later expands to be All Saints Day (and Allhallow-even) and dedicates it to the virgin Mary. It was a transition from Cybele, goddess of nature, to Mary, mother of Jesus. Every May, a major celebration was held in the Pantheon to the Virgin Mary.
400-100 AD: The Dark Ages see a rise in witchcraft and many of our modern halloween traditions. One of the most important aspects of witchcraft was the number of celebrations held each year called "Witches’ Sabbaths." The most important of those was known as the "High Sabbath," or the "Black Sabbath," which occurred on October 31st.
It was generally a night of feasting and revelry. It was that feast that gave us many of the common paraphernalia of our Halloween like witches on broomsticks, black cats, death’s skulls and pumpkins. So much of our Halloween folklore today stems directly from this High Witches’ Sabbath that was celebrated in Europe during the Dark Ages.
800s: Christians change All Saints Day to incorporate October 31-November 1st, perhaps in an effort to convert the pagan holiday. Similar traditions were known to happen with Christmas trees and their association with Druid celebrations.
1000 AD: November 2 gets incorporated into the All Saints Day celebrations, known as All Souls Days. Christians would dress up in angel, devil, and saint costumes.
1556: Allhallowtide, a three-day celebration (Oct 31-Nov 2) involved Christians dressing in all black to mourn the dead and go door to door asking for food for the dead. The origin of trick or treating started here.
1600s: When our Puritan ancestors came to America, they were far too Biblically oriented to allow such occult practices. They knew that all forms of witchcraft were strictly forbidden by God as an abomination. The Puritans ban Halloween, claiming it’s a Catholic holiday. Catholics continue to celebrate the tradition for the next two hundred years. Carved turnips turn into pumpkins, and participants ask for treats instead of food in their door to door inquiries.
1800s: Due to the Potato Famine in Ireland, many Irish Catholics flee to America and bring the Halloween traditions with them. As is the case with most holidays in America now, various traditions have evolved since then. With them came many of their ancient pagan observances and practices, including Samhain, the Festival of the Dead, or Halloween. This pagan practice took firm root in American soil and has been a widely accepted cultural tradition ever since.
Is Halloween a Religious Holiday?
Yes, and no.
It’s safe to say the original holiday doesn’t have a Christian origin. The holiday stemmed from Celtic traditions, which involved a pantheon of gods and spirits. However, overtime, the church attempted to repurpose the holiday, so it could, in some ways, redeem it.
For instance, not all Christmas traditions stem from the New Testament. Consider the following pagan elements we have incorporated into our Christmas celebrations:
- Saturnalia: This Roman holiday, celebrating the god Saturn during the Winter Solstice, involved a great deal of food and exchanging presents. Although we do exchange gifts because the Magi presented gifts to Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12), Saturnalia does have some influences over our modern take on the holiday. Along with this, holly was exchanged during this festival, which later became a symbol of Christmas. They also hung ornaments on trees outside, which Christians later incorporated into Christmas tradition.
Mistletoe: The Ancient Druids believed this plant had the power to ward off evil spirits.
Santa Claus: Although, yes, Santa Claus does have origins with Bishop Nicholas, a saint during the time of persecution under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, some historians have pointed out that Santa Claus does look similar to the Norse god Odin. Some have supposed Christians repurposed this character over time to fit into the holiday.
- Caroling: Wassailing has its roots before we were able to create songs like “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Joy to the World.” Wassailers, before the time of Christianity, would go from door to door, somewhat drunk, to sing fertility and health over their neighbors.
Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?
There’s no right way to answer this question. We could very well analyze other holidays we celebrate, such as Christmas mentioned above, and purge all elements that don’t have roots in Scripture.
One could also point to the fact that Christians did attempt to repurpose Halloween (and other pagan traditions when it comes to holidays like Christmas) and give them a purer meaning and purpose.
For instance, when Paul was speaking with a Greek audience, he notices that they have a statue dedicated to an unknown god (Acts 17:22-31). Instead of chastising them for engaging in clear idolatry by worshiping a pantheon of gods, he repurposes this statue.
He tells them about a God they do not know and gives a Gospel presentation.
Perhaps Christians can repurpose Halloween and use the holiday for Evangelistic efforts. They can include Bible verses in candy they hand out or hold Trunk or Treat events at their churches.
However, we do have to keep in mind Scripture also speaks out against witchcraft, demonic activity, divination, sorcery, and several other items associated with Halloween. If a Christian feels a conviction this his or her family should not engage with this holiday, they should follow through on those convictions.
On a personal note, my own family did celebrate Halloween until I’d reached fifth grade. During then, my sister’s seventh grade teacher had her do a paper on why Halloween was a sin.
Whether we agreed with the entirety of the paper or not, we decided to stop celebrating the holiday because my sister felt a personal conviction to do so.
I’ve known Christian families throughout my years who do not engage with the holiday and those who do. In either case, we can know the holiday has pagan and Christian origins.
No matter what your conviction, go into the holiday as informed as possible. If the pagan roots to the holiday do deter you, consider analyzing other traditions you might celebrate which do have origins other than the Bible.
*excerpts provided from UnMasking Halloween
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a recent graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 400 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, Blaze, (lluminate YA) released in June, and they contracted the sequel Den for July 2020. Find out more about her here.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Ehud Neuhaus
This article is part of our larger Halloween articles resource centered around helping you understand the history of Halloween and how it relates to the Christian faith. When deciding if celebrating Halloween is right for your family, reference these articles for some advice and tips from theologians, Bible teachers, and other Christians navigating faith today.
The Origin and History of Halloween
Reformation Day and It’s Connection to Halloween
What Does the Bible Say About Halloween?
Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?
How Should Christians Handle Halloween Video
3 Reasons Halloween is Not The Devil’s (Satan’s) Birthday
Why We Don’t Celebrate Halloween - How to Explain to Kids