The History of Halloween
What is the history of Halloween? What should a Christian’s response be? And what should a Clown Minister’s response be?
The Druidic feast of Samhain
Originally, it wasn’t known as Halloween at all. Roughly 2,000 years ago, Celtic priests (known as Druids) and their followers celebrated the feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-een, sow-in or sav-en), meaning “the end of summer.” In the Celtic calendar, November 1 was the beginning of the new year, denoting the end of harvest time, a time of growth and life, and the beginning of winter, a time associated with death. Celts believed that the last day of the year represented a time of weakening between the borders of life and death, where ghosts, fairies, and other supernatural creatures would walk the earth, causing mischief and havoc. To deal with this, the Celts did a variety of things. They wore costumes to disguise themselves (typically animal furs and heads), left out bowls of food to appease to “spirits,” put out the fires in their hearth to further confuse the spirits into thinking that nobody lived there, and attended the feast of Samhain.
At the feast, the Druids and ordinary people would try to fortell each others’ futures, as well as participate in a large bonfire, burning fruit and animal sacrifices to their various pagan deities. Although the Druids did perform human sacrifices, there are no records that they did so at the feast of Samhain. Although it certainly was possible. After the festivities, the people went home, with a burning ember from the bonfire to re-light their home hearths.
Roman festivals merged with Samhain
By A.D. 43, the Romans had nearly completed their conquest of the Celts, and began infusing elements of some of their own feasts into Samhain as well. Their feast of Ferallia, commemorating the dead, was a natural fit with Samhain, as was a feast honoring Pomona, the pagan deity of fruits and trees, a natural connection to the end-of-harvest of Samhain.
Christian influences, and the changing of Samhain to Halloween
By the 800’s, Christianity had spread throughout Europe, and Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 to be All Saints’ Day, in honor of the Church’s saints and martyrs. The day was known as All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day). The day before was All Hallows Eve. Later, in A.D. 1000, the church would designate November 2 as All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the celebrations were called Hallowmas.
The American practice of “trick or treating” probably has its’ roots in the All Souls’ Day parades in England during the middle ages. During the festivities, poor people would beg for food, and families would give them pastries, known as “soul cakes,” in exchange for their promise to pray for the families dead relatives. The Church encouraged “going a-souling,” as it was known, as a replacement for leaving food and drink for roaming spirits. The practice was eventually taken over by children, who would visit houses in their neighborhood and be given food and money.
Halloween comes to the United States of America
As European immigrants came to colonial America, they brought their Halloween customs with them. Such customs were originally shunned in New England but accepted more widely in Maryland and the southern colonies. An amalgamation of European, American Indian and colonial celebrations emerged over time. Early celebrations included public events to celebrate the harvest, with singing, dancing, and neighbors sharing stories of those departed. Festivities began featuring ghost stories and mischief making, and by the 1850’s, annual autumn festivals were common, although Halloween was not yet celebrated across the country.
A new wave of immigrants flooded The United States of America around this time, predominately Irish flooding their homeland’s potato famine, who helped to popularize Halloween nationally. Borrowing from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress in costumes and go house to house asking for money or food. Around the same time, young women began to practise divination on Halloween, trying to learn the name or appearance of their future husbands by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.
By the end of the 19th century, there was a move in America to turn Halloween into a holiday more about community and less about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. Parties focused on games, festive costume and foods of the season, and parents were encouraged to take the frightening or grotesque out of their Halloween celebrations. By the 1920’s, Halloween had become a community-based celebration, with parades and parties for the entire town. However, vandalism began to plague Halloween celebrations in many communities.
By the 1950’s, vandalism had been reduced, and Halloween activities had become geared toward children, with parties moving into the home or classroom.
Halloween in the present day United States of America
So, now that we have the history of Halloween, the question still remains: should a Christian participate? The answer, of course, is up to the individual. You must answer to your own conscience, and at the Judgement Seat, as do I. Perhaps the central question that needs to be asked, with due apologies to “In His Steps,” is “What Would Jesus Do?”