As most folks are aware, “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve.” “Hallows” is an archaic form of “holy.” So the word Halloween (the night set aside for demons, witches, vampires, and goblins) means “Holy Night.”
Most modern Christians will tell you that the holiness of this night has been co-opted over the years by evil influences. Historically, it’s actually the other way around. It was the Catholic Church that tried to change what they saw as an “evil” festival into a good and holy Christian celebration. It didn’t work.
Like most of our religious holidays, Halloween was established by Catholic canon (or law) between 400 and 1000 A.D. According to the Catholic calendar, October 31st is set aside as a holy night that preceded the annual “Feast of All Saints.” This feast is a celebration of all the good, saintly people who were mutilated, tortured, and killed to show the world how powerful the Christian message was. One might logically assume that the ones doing the killing and torturing should have been the ones who got to celebrate it, but for some odd reason the early Church decided that the murder of their best and brightest warranted a day of feasting and celebration. It was a theological thing.
Originally each martyred saint had his own feast day. However, by the ninth century the guys doing all the murdering and torturing had done such a good job that they had killed more saints than there were days in the year. Since the Christians felt it was important to honor all the flayings, stonings, and crucifixions, Pope Boniface IV instituted a single day, November 1st, wherein all of this bloodshed and cruelty could be properly venerated. This greatly disappointed the Romans, Celts, and Greeks who had been responsible for killing a lot of these saints. Until the Church actually set aside this day of partying, they thought they had been doing bad things to the Christians by killing their saints. That it was cause for feasting was all very confusing to them.
According to Christian lore, the evening before All Saints’ Day was a night wherein the souls of the saints would drive evil from the world so all the good and holy Christians could celebrate the Feast of All Saints on November 1st. This explanation for the existence of Halloween is believed by millions of Catholics and Christians around the world. It’s the official explanation given by the Vatican for having a holiday on October 31st-November 1st, and remains on the Catholic Calendar to this day. However, to fully appreciate the depth and meaning of this Christian holiday, we have to examine what October 31st was before the Christians converted (read: “decimated”) the original Celtic culture.
Long before Christianity arrived in Ireland and England, October 31st was celebrated as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts divided the year into only two seasons; the light and the dark. Beltane, on May 1st, was the passage from the dark winter to light spring/summer. For the Celts, October 31st was where the summer season touched the beginning of the dark, cold winter. More importantly, it was where the Celts believed that, like the summer and winter, life and death touched and were closer than at any other time of the year. On Samhain, the lines between life and death blurred. It was believed that this was the night where the spirits of those who had died over the previous year would have their last, best chance of reaching the living.
This belief brought with it a lot of superstition and ritual. Druids, or Celtic priests, would use this night to make predictions about the future because the “otherworld” was closer. For a people entirely dependent on farming and crops, these prophecies became an important part of the culture. On Samhain, the priests would wear animal skins, dance around a bonfire, and try to tell each other’s future. It was essentially like any given night at a biker bar.
The Celts would also wear costumes to disguise themselves on the way home from the party, just in case one of their dead relatives (who would wander around on Samhain eve) saw them and decided to follow them back. They also left out wine and food for the spirits, assuming that if the ghost was drunk and had a full belly he’d be less likely to seek revenge for anything that may have happened while he was alive.
The modern idea of “trick-or-treating” wasn’t part of the Samhain ritual, though. It dates back to the All Souls’ Day parades in England in the 17th century. During the parades, the poor would beg for food from the rich folks who had come out to celebrate. Not wanting to give them money, the rich took to giving away pastries called “soul cakes”–if the poor person promised to pray for the family’s dead relatives. These soul cakes eventually replaced the idea of leaving food and wine out for lost souls. Eventually the practice moved from the parade to the neighborhood, with teams of local children visiting the houses of wealthier neighbours and asking for food or ale in exchange for praying for the family’s dead relatives. This house-to-house prayer-for-food arrangement was known as “going a-souling.” The idea of wearing costumes came from the Celtic tradition of disguising yourself from dead relatives, and was picked up by the children who had seen it done in the All Souls’ Day parade.
When Europeans made it to North America, these traditions travelled with them. From the earliest settlements, October 31st was always set aside to celebrate the harvest and remember the dead. Early Colonists held what they called “play parties” where they would tell stories about dead relatives, tell each other’s fortunes–and generally scare the hell out of each other. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the “play parties” had evolved into being “autumn festivities,” which were basically the same thing without the costumes or the soul cakes.
It wasn’t until the second half of the nineteenth century that North America started to see what we now call Halloween. Millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846 brought back a lot of the old Celtic traditions, adding them in to the “autumn festivals” to re-create the Samhain flavor. It was the Irish who restarted the tradition of wearing costumes and going house to house asking for food or money.
By 1900, Halloween parties became the “in” thing, but the Christians were doing their best to stave off the Celtic flair. Newspaper articles and sermons were put out telling the parents to get rid of anything “frightening” or “evil” in the celebration of Halloween. By 1940, the Christian idea of October 31st being the “All Hallows Eve” before “All Saints’ Day” had been firmly entrenched in North America. This is really the only era in which Halloween was truly thought of as a Christian holiday. Not surprisingly then, it was also the era of the most boring Halloween celebrations in history.
It was the baby boom and the 1960s that saved Halloween from becoming a stodgy, sedate holiday devoted to a bunch of dead Christian saints. When the baby boomers reached the age where they wanted to party there were just too many of them for the adults to control. So, come October 31st, the baby boomers leapt at the chance to revive the tradition of dressing up, partying, and having scary, creepy fun. The church leaders warned them about hell, damnation, and the cost to their eternal soul, but this of course just made the idea that much more intriguing. Halloween became part of the counterculture revolution; a way for the baby boomers to revolt against the establishment. As the baby boomers had children, the practice of going door to door asking for treats was reintroduced, and it all came full circle back to the original Celtic tradition. The Christians scowled about this, but there was little they could do.
By the early 1970s, commerce stepped up and drove Halloween to new heights. Sales of costumes, flashlights, party favors, and candies reached all time heights during the Halloween season. UNICEF boxes were added to capitalize on the tradition of giving away money, and the holiday was firmly entrenched from then on. Today, Americans spend an estimated $7 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
And the Catholics? They’re still sitting around trying to convince everyone that October 31st is now and always has been the evening before the Feast of All Saints.