The end of October is nearly upon us, and with it comes the most feared holiday for our pancreases: the sugar-carb explosion that is Halloween. If you’re a kid, then this is a holiday truly divinely inspired. A day that includes staying up late, dressing in fun or scary costumes and getting as much free candy as one can get their hands on. This is borderline ethereal for children and is probably why Halloween typically ranks second or third on people’s favorite holiday lists.
While children may think this holiday is “literally the best thing ever,” adults, being unfun crudes, decide to make mountains out of molehills when they push their thoughts of Halloween being a devil’s holiday; a day of evil pagan rituals. Of course, as with everything in existence, there is a longer, more detailed story than that. Allow me to explain here Halloween and the difference between the holiday we enjoy today and religious festival it came from. These two versions of the holiday are incredibly different, but have a long and rich history of influencing each other.
Before I go on, I would like to point out that paganism is not used in a pejorative sense in this article. Pagans are/were people who have valid religious beliefs that are no more right or wrong than any other religion. They had different beliefs from the major ones today, and they had different traditions, but that does not mean they were wrong.
The earliest holiday generally agreed to have been the originator of our modern Halloween traditions is a Celtic pagan holiday called Samhain. This festival marked the end of the harvest season and was celebrated with harvesting of crops, slaughtering of animals, playing games, and having a feast. Since this was the end of the harvest, that meant that fall was underway and winter was quickly approaching, so people would make the necessary preparations to their houses for winter as well.
Now, if you lived in the year 450 on the isles of Britain and Ireland, then agriculture and raising livestock was very important for you in two respects: getting enough food for your family to live off of and producing excess to sell off. Farming fulfilled basic necessities and would also aid in satiating desires through some expendable income or bartering. With such an important part of their lives being something as unpredictable as harvests, we can understand why the Celts applied a religious emphasis on harvesting.
There is a liminal aspect Samhain would have on the year. One half was bountiful, lively and warm, the other darker, cold and stifling growth. Samhain straddles these two sides and is possibly why they believed that that day is when the barrier between the material and spiritual world broke down, allowing spirits to walk among mortals.
By the 700s, however, Christianity was dominant in Britain and Ireland. Christianity had its own versions of celebrating the dead. The Christian version was a three-day event that consisted of All Hallows’ Eve on the first day, All Saints’ Day on the second and All Souls’ Day on the third. These days correspond to the calendar days of October 31, November 1 and November 2, respectively; though, this is the modern dates set for the holidays. Before the 800s, Christian celebrations were done early in the year, sometimes around April or May; but when Christianity came to dominate the Celts, the dates were moved to coincide with Samhain, the holiday they were more familiar with. Though this change definitely happened, it’s not quite certain if this was done to erase the pagan holiday by celebrating a Christian holiday in its place, or if it was more practical with the harvest being able to feed pilgrims traveling to Rome.
Samhain and All Hallows’ Eve, the precursor to modern Halloween, have different origins but came to occupy the same day when Christian conversion of the British Isles took place. If you will notice, neither of these celebrations had anything to do with glorifying demons, Satan, or evil. They are celebrations of those who have passed on, or of harvests. The connotation of Samhain being a devil’s holiday might in large part come from one British surveyor/amateur historian in the 1700s who mistranslated Samhain to mean the Celts “Lord of Death” and not “Summer’s End” as its actual meaning. Of course, misinformation has a way of spreading so fast and be so impervious to the fact that it lasts for hundreds of years.
I’ll finish off this holiday’s fascinating history with how trick-or-treating came into the mix. During the three-day holiday span, Christians would make “soul cakes” which were usually filled with spices like cinnamon or nutmeg and dried fruit. These were made to commemorate the holiday and the dead. Children would then go “souling” going door-to-door and beg each home for cakes. This tradition was celebrated from the medieval period up to the 1930s and is still celebrated in smaller places around the world. Souling would then be replaced when trick-or-treating became popular in North America in the 1930s, giving us the modern practice. Dressing up in costumes is a more recent development, coming into widespread popularity in the 16th century.
The holiday we celebrate with children and candy is meant to be fun with events like dressing up in costumes, eating sweets and spending time with family; the three-day Christian festivals of All Hallowtide is a time of reflecting, of remembrance of the Christians who have departed. By dressing up in costume and trick-or-treating, you are not playing with the devil, nor are you celebrating pagan holidays; you are simply involving yourself in a fun, family-friendly activity that has a long and rich history. Halloween and All Hallows’ Eve are related and have a long history with each other, but over time they have drifted, one becoming essentially a secular celebration, and the other remaining an important religious holiday. To celebrate Halloween is not blasphemous or satanic; if anything, it is religiously neutral and saying otherwise is ignoring the fascinating journey the holiday has taken to reach us today.