Every year, the interwebs come alive with the true story about the real origins of Halloween.
According to that pop history, it was originally a pagan feast and then Christians baptised it.
Depending on who you talk to, this proves that a) Christianity is really just warmed-over Druidry and a Christian appropriation of pagan religion or b) the Catholic Church is an evil pagan cult that drove Real Bible-believing Christians underground with their devil-worshiping ways.
Thing is, none of that is real.
Sure, the ancient Celts of the British Isles had a little festival on 31 October called Samhain (a fact not recorded till the 9th century).
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 Christianized (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) became popular folk customs.
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 on Sunday!