Halloween: Everything You Think You Know About it is Probably Wrong

Every year, somebody stoops down to instruct us ignorant Catholics about the real origins of Halloween.

According to that pop history, it was originally a pagan feast and then the Christians baptised it.

Depending on who you talk to, this proves that a) Christianity is really just warmed over Druidry (according to neo-pagans) or b) the Catholic Church is an evil pagan cult that drove Real Bible-believing Christians underground with their devil-worshiping ways (according to Protestant Fundamentalists).

Thing is, none of that is real.

Sure the ancient Celts of the British Isles had a little festival on 31 October called Samhain.

And it was about as important as Arbor Day. But the feast of All Saints or “All Hallows” had nothing to do with it.

In fact, All Saints was founded by Roman Christians way down in Italy for a practical logistical purpose: the 7th Century Italian Church was swimming in martyrs and saints and every feast day was a day off from work.

Solution: celebrate them all at once and get Italy back to work. So that’s what the pope did–on May 13.

It wasn’t for another century that All Saints got moved to November 1. And that was because it was the dedication day of All Saints Chapel at St Peter’s in Rome (not Britain or Ireland).

Indeed, it was not until a century after this that Pope Gregory IV commanded All Saints to be observed everywhere and not just in Rome.

And so this emphatically Italian holy day (finally!) spread to Ireland.

But here’s the thing: Ireland had already been thoroughly Christian (due to St Patrick) for three centuries by then.

So where does the Day of the Dead vibe come from?

Thereby hangs a tale. You see, about a century and a half later, the jumpingest joint in the Church was the monastery at Cluny (way over in southern France — not Ireland).

And the abbot there added a celebration of All Souls on November 2, which spread like wildfire, resulting in back-to-back feasts for all those in heaven and purgatory.

“Well, hey!” the superstitious Irish fretted, “What are the damned? Chopped liver? What if they get ticked about being stiffed?”

So it became an Irish folk custom to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Eve to mollify the damned.

The Church was not keen on this, but whaddayagonnadoo?

The Irish (alone) keep this up until the 14th and 15th centuries, when the colossal death toll of the bubonic plague gets most Europeans pretty focused on the afterlife, All Souls Day, and customs like the danse macabre, when the French would dress up in costume representing everybody from the pope and the king down to the fishmonger and have a fun time dancing their way to the grave.

Then came two other events: the Reformation and the discovery of the New World.

The Reformation made Catholics the persecuted enemies of the English and the New World made it possible for those persecuted minorities to mix and mingle among English colonists.

So the French and Irish Catholics started hanging out together and marrying each other in 17th-century America. Creepy Irish folk customs about mollifying the damned and creepy French masquerades went together like peanut butter and chocolate.

Protestants brought something to the mix as well: Guy Fawkes Night. Guy Fawkes was the English equivalent of the bogeyman or George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984.

He was executed in 1605 on the charge of being a Catholic Osama bin Laden and trying to blow up Parliament.

Instead of 15 Minute Hates, the crown settled on the wonderfully unifying device of Guy Fawkes Night on November 5, with all the fun of lighting bonfires, running around on a chilly fall night, and partying while an effigy of Guy Fawkes was hanged or burnt so that all Good English Protestants could thank God they were not like those Catholic vermin everybody hated.

And for extra special fun, in England and America in the 18th century, Protestants would put on masks and visit local Catholic houses in the dead of night demanding beer and cakes for their celebration — or else.

When they said “trick or treat!” they meant it.

This got amalgamated to the All Saints/All Souls partying of the Irish and French and by the mid-1800s, a largely made-in-the-USA Halloween was a fixture of American culture.

In short, Halloween is, in fact, as ancient, pagan, mystical, and druidic as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

And where it is most ancient, it is least pagan — and most deeply Catholic–which is why (in non-COVID times) it is a Holy Day of Obligation. Meanwhile, in Europe, until American cultural trends started cramming our customs down their throats, Halloween has never been a thing. Indeed, the irony is that Halloween has only recently started to drift across the Atlantic to the supposed land of its birth.

Europeans tend to see it, not as a resurgence of pre-Christian pagan roots, but as something recent and ersatz–like saying the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland is an authentic account of 17th century seamanship.

Anyway, if you are Catholic don’t let anybody talk you out of celebrating All Saints and All Souls Days with bogus “history” of their supposed “pagan origins”.

And have a fun time tonight!


9 Responses

  1. I’m not sure you are 100% right on this, Mark. There were four celtic seasonal festivals: along with Samhain, there were Beltane, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.

    One main point of Samhain was the belief that doors between the worlds were open on those nights. The people of the Sidhe were free to come to our world, and we could enter theirs as well, especially if we were so unlucky as to do so. Depending on which texts you read— i have to admit I have forgotten a lot of this in the 40 years since I studied it— “the lordly ones who dwell in the hollow hills” also included the dead of this world. ANYTHING might happen on that night, and mortal entanglements with the immortals was a common theme. Thus Fionn McUail did battle with a god on Samhain eve.

    In memoriam of Sean Connery, who just died, one should view Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Aside from the pleasures of looking at Mr. connery in his late 20’s, and despite its intensely romanticized and sillified views of gaelic/irish religious beliefs, it’s all there.

    1. Eh, most serious neo-pagans today are acknowledging that very little of the purported ancient history of their traditions and holidays is actually based in fact. Here’s a reasonable treatment on what’s known about Samhain, by the editor of Patheos Pagan: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2014/10/samhain/

      Certainly political/legal gatherings were common on all the quarter days (apparently a lot of leases still begin and end around May Day in Scotland!), feasts therefore seem likely, harvest celebrations are plausible (pure conjecture), and literature written post-Christianization in Ireland contain myths about otherworldly incursions – but who’s to say how much of that association is actually going the other way, being written back into the past because the new association with Hallowtide was so strong? We just don’t know much about it.

      I think the whole thing actually really falls apart once you step out of the British-Isles-centric mindset of the US, because at the time the Catholics were remembering the dead in November, the Irish were just one little relatively-recently Christianized island off to the west. Not influential enough for all of Christendom to have to baptize and start celebrating their “start of winter” quarter day. Doesn’t make a lot of sense except to those of us steeped in Irish/Scottish/Britishness already.

      1. @ dove

        I don’t disagree with the word you’re saying. I didn’t mean to imply that it was the only interpretation possible. I only went so far this morning with what I wrote, because I have other things to do today. Probably, had I finished a longer dissertation, I would have said exactly what you said. Our experience of Halloween in 2020 is the result of a number of cultural mash ups, some relatively recent, some very old indeed. As you Noted, our more Briton-gaelic-centric views are just that. Apart perhaps from Brittany, Less Britain as opposed to Great Britain, the Gaelic influence on The Celts wanes rapidly outside of Britain.

        My point was more that we shouldn’t dismiss the syncretic influences out of hand. When I was in the far west of Ireland a few years ago, I saw at presumably Christian houses, smaller leprechaun houses. In Brazil, it is not unusual to see a small chapel on the grounds of a Catholic church, usually dedicated to Mary, a chapel dedicated to Iemanja, an orixa of the candomble religion. Mary is also known as Stella Maris. Iemanja is a sea goddess, always holding a mirror.

    2. Much of what we “know” about Celtic beliefs was made up in the 19th century by Romantic recreationists, who filled in the many blanks by making guesses from folklore. The rest was taken up by neo pagans in the 20th century.
      This was the fate of many oral pagan traditions after Christianization. Old beliefs were abandoned and later forgotten.

  2. I’ve been meaning to ask this, but somehow got tangled up in a lot of stuff.

    What should be the response of a Catholic to Halloween customs? Both trick-or-treating and Halloween parties. I’ve read tons of bullshit about Halloweeen being dangerous to one’s soul.

    Last year, my daughter’s (currently my two daughters’) Catholic school sent out a warning to parents concerning Halloween. I’ve actually used this text of yours (which I’ve found on the web on some Australian Catholic page) that you reposted here to bring down a lot of the points that were being made (or actually reiterated from a book). I pointed out that, while many Halloween customs have their origin in Christianity, or at least you cannot make a clear line to origin in paganism, by contrast, a lot of Christmas customs are clearly documented pagan customs that were first denounced by the Church and only Christianized later. So if there is any danger in Halloween customs, then in order to be consistent, the school should not put up a Christmas tree.
    There used to be a custom on the 30th of November, on the Feast of St. Andrew, to make parties and do some light-hearted fortune-telling, which was not only tolerated, but actively encouraged by Christian communities. Interestingly, even though there was far less resistance to that, despite it being clearly dangerous, it seems that practicing it waned to almost nothing over the last twenty years.

    Anyway, concerning Halloween, this year it’s been quiet, but only due to the pandemic. I expect this to return in force next year.

    So while I’ve written to the school to clarify these matters, I also pointed out that I’m against trick-or-treating and Halloween parties because of three reasons:
    1. Trick-or-treating is pure unadulterated consumerism at its finest. It only exists to sell candy and to force people to give out candy by the boatload. In addition, it is liable to cause diabetes in the long run.
    2. Halloween parties would supplant the traditional visits to the graveyard to pray for the dead, receive indulgences and pay respects to them. These visits are traditionally followed by family gatherings that are at least somewhat solemn. While I understand that many people don’t care for the religious aspect at all, and many don’t even enjoy visiting or hosting, and only do it out of some feeling of duty, I still feel that replacing this with the banality of Halloween parties just feels wrong.
    3. Year by year, Halloween costumes are encouraged to be more slutty than the last year. This further adds to the banality, and is clearly sinful. I’m listing it third because I feel it’s probably the least dangerous, but on the other hand, if left to its own devices, this would become more and more predominant and a lot of people would feel obligated, if not to participate, then at least to tolerate this trend in their own Halloween parties.

    Based on the fact that the book this was from was published in the early nineties and because of the lack of any reference to more recent developments, the whole tirade against Halloween read like a Protestant tract from the seventies encouraged by the surge of interest in Wicca and based on 20th century recreation of paganism instead of actual one.

    I’m fully aware that this is a battle in the culture war that Catholics are going to lose eventually. The “All Saints balls” are simply not going to be attractive to anyone.

    At worst, Christians will replace praying for the dead with banal Halloween customs. At best, non-believers are going to be curious about the origins of Halloween and discover Christ.

    Just one final question, though, in all of that, dressing up as characters from horror movies was strongly denounced. I don’t know the actual source material (the original American one), maybe somebody was mortified by Morticia Addams’s cleavage in 1973 cartoon series and predicted that all women’s costumes are going to end up slutty, but maybe it’s not that.
    Anyway, it was said that dressing up as horror movie characters was disrespectful (well, to everything from our ancestors, to the image of God in our bodies), and I’m wondering if you could share what you think about that.

  3. Here in New Zealand, over the last 20 years, the custom of Hallowe’en night trick-or-treating has begun to appear, albeit very mildly. Some the Baptist church up the street from us does a kind of kids’ costume party on Hallowe’en – parents bring their kids. I’m glad that there is very little of that here.

    What we have is Guy Fawkes – 5th of November – quite a big deal for fireworks and very popular. Fireworks get pretty out of hand at times – but no one has suggested there is any spiritual danger to it 🙂

  4. I celebrate Samhain as the solemn festival and Halloween for fun. I don’t try to presume what anyone else’s religion should mean to them or try to forge historical connections where there aren’t any, or they are complex.

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