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What's the history of Halloween?

Halloween has become a festival both loved and dreaded. We look at how it came into being.

Read time: 7 minutes, 7 seconds

The contemporary celebration of Hallowe’en is controversial. For some, practices of trick or treat are seen as out of hand, with people being menaced in their homes with fears for the elderly or vulnerable. Others see it as a celebration of black magic. Some complain of the commercialisation. Yet others see it as a fun time to dress up, have a party and play traditional games and maybe watch a horror movie. It is perhaps not surprising there are so many different takes on Hallowe’en because the contemporary Hallowe’en has a complex background going back thousands of years, much of which is uncertain. The one thing we can be certain of is the name, Hallowe’en is a contraction of All Hallows Eve, and this refers to a Christian festival known in old language as All Hallows, that is All Saints day. So, what should we make of Hallowe’en and how might Christians respond to it?

The Christian history of Hallowe’en and its cultural adoption is not too difficult to trace, but there are claims of pre-Christian festivals behind it that are harder to prove. The Christian All Saints day on 1st November, coupled with All Souls Day on the day after, goes back to the 8th Century when it was celebrated on these dates in England and Germany. This date was officially ratified in 839 by Pope Gregory IV. From this dating we get All Hallows Eve, Halloween, on the 31st of October. Prior to this,
All Saints Day was part of the festival of Pentecost, a sort of ‘Birthday of the Church’ when the first followers of Jesus went out first to speak publicly to speak of Jesus’s resurrection at Easter. Eastern Orthodox churches still celebrate it at the festival.

Hallowe’en is a contraction of All Hallows Eve, and this refers to a Christian festival known in old language as All Hallows, that is All Saints day.

So why did Pope Gregory move the festival in the Western Church? The usual suggestion is that this was in line with existing pre-Christian celebrations of a day of the dead on this date. The problem is, as the case with other northern European festivals, we have only limited evidence before the Christian era to go on. What we do know is that as dates began to be set for major Christian festivals in the Roman solar calendar, as opposed to the lunar Jewish calendar, dates were chosen that fitted
the agricultural seasons and the solstices and equinoxes. This seems to be part of a strategy to Christianize these festivals. So, the idea that there was a pre-Christian festival honouring the dead on the 1st of November is plausible but not at all proven.

In Ireland a festival celebrated over these dates is called Samhain (pronounced sow ain). This festival marks the beginning of winter and marked the end of the harvest season. It was also the time the cattle were brought in to over-winter. This was a time of feasting before winter set in and old tales suggest it may have been a time that the gates to the otherworld were believed to be open and the dead, spirits and monsters came out. Again evidence is sketchy but in Christian Ireland Samhain customs continued and included lighting bonfires, wearing disguises and carving lamps out of turnips to ward off evil spirits.

Medieval Britain had a harvest season beginning on the 1st of August with Lammas, ‘loafmas’ when the harvest of grain was celebrated and ending on the 1st of November with the Apple harvest. This is the origin of the apple games associated with Hallowe’en. This was a time to store up food for winter and those without their own land or cattle would go round to their better-off neighbours asking for food to help them through winter. As the belief in purgatory grew, (purgatory was believed to be a place people’s souls go after death in order to be purified for heaven), prayers for the dead to help them in purgatory became part of the medieval All Hallows. This was combined with the practice of going round collecting food. In turn for the gift of food, those who received it would offer prayers for the dead relatives of the household. This often became combined with the use of turnip lanterns and costumes in a practice that became known as ‘souling and guising’. This was especially true in Ireland and Scotland.

After protestant Christianity was established in the reign of Elizabeth in England, the belief in purgatory was condemned and there was an attempt to stop these Hallowe’en practices, which were seen as Roman Catholic. However, they were maintained in Catholic Ireland and survived to some extent in other parts of Britain too. During the potato famine in 19th Century Ireland, Irish immigrants to America took with them the Hallowe’en customs of souling and guising and a belief in warding off evil spirits as well as honouring the dead. These were then Americanised, replacing turnips with pumpkins and gradually also commercialised into the contemporary practice of trick or treat. This then returned to Britain in its American form as part of the import of aspects of American culture.

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Christianity What's the history of Halloween?

In the late twentieth century several contemporary Pagan groups emerged, and many sought to recreate a pre-Christian calendar and revive pre-Christian festivals. This is, as we have noted above, not easy due to limited evidence. So, in many ways Pagans have also reconstructed their own festivals using what they see as pre-Christian elements in Christian festivals. Many Pagans have revived the celebration of Samhain at the 1st of November as both an end of harvest festival and a time for honouring the ancestors. Some Pagans refer to themselves as witches, especially if they follow the Wiccan tradition. However, this has little clear connection to any mediaeval notion of witchcraft or pre-Christian understanding of Samhain.

There are many ways Christians and others can respond to Hallowe’en; understanding the background to today’s Hallowe’en is helpful in doing so.

Contemporary Christian responses to Hallowe’en are varied due to the complex development behind the contemporary Hallowe’en. Some churches have maintained a remembrance of the dead at All Hallows and hold special services where those who have lost loved ones in recent years are invited to a special service at which names are read out and candles might be lit in their memory. Indeed, older practices may still occur in which candles are placed on the graves of loved ones maintaining and old Christian custom. Other Christians are worried that Hallowe’en has both become commercialised and associated with a celebration of dark spiritual forces represented in dressing up as monsters and horror characters. Some have therefore opposed Hallowe’en, whereas others have run what have been called ‘light parties’ where people celebrate All Saints by dressing as well-known Christian saints as an alternative to ‘traditional’ Hallowe’en costumes. In recent years, in response to increased interest in encountering God in Nature, the Forest Church movement has sought to revive the Christian elements of Hallowe’en and reconnect them with a second harvest festival, combining apple games and harvest celebration with remembrance of the dead and asking for God’s protection through the dark winter months.

With the creation of the unified Harvest Festival in the Victorian era this element of Hallowe’en has become separated from the festival but is still present in some elements of Harvest celebration. Take for instance the popular Harvest hymn ‘Harvest Home’. The opening lines make it clear this is a Hallowe’en harvest hymn.

Come, ye thankful people, come
Raise the song of harvest home
All is safely gathered in
Ere the winter storms begin

But as the hymn progresses it becomes about the harvest of humans at the end of time, combining the Hallowe’en themes of the end of harvest and remembrance of the dead. Indeed, there are allusions to the Catholic belief in purgatory and the purifying of people before the ‘final harvest’. And so, the final verse is as follows.

Even so, Lord, quickly come
Bring thy final harvest home
Gather thou thy people in
Free from sorrow, free from sin
There, forever purified
In thy presence to abide
Come, with all Thine angels, come
Raise the glorious harvest home

Hymns like this can form part of a revitalised Christian Hallowe’en and also be part of a renewed focus on the seasons and ecology.

There are many ways Christians and others can respond to Hallowe’en; understanding the background to today’s Hallowe’en is helpful in doing so.