Old Tricks, New Treats

Halloween Origins and Current Practices

Ever wonder where Halloween traditions came from? Are they evil? Pagan? Holy?

Fire Festivals
The ancient Celts celebrated seasonal feasts to honor the gods of nature. Halloween’s pagan origin was a fire festival known as Samhain . It took place from Oct. 31 – Nov. 2 and marked the end of summer, the beginning of winter, and a new year.

Being “in-between” seasons, Samhain was a time of “no time”—chaos reigned. People did crazy things, pulled pranks, and disguised themselves. It was considered “a magical time when the dead walked among the living and veils of past and present were lifted.”

Along come the Christians…
The word Halloween, however, is derived from the Christian celebration of All Saints day (“hallow” = to make holy). Every major feast day in the Church is preceded by an evening vigil, which is where we get “All Hallow’s Eve.”

Since the first disciples of Jesus died for the faith, the Church has been honoring martyrs and holy people. The first reported commemoration of them was in May. The feast of All Saints was put on the Church calendar as November 1 in the fifth century. Most scholars agree that the placement was to counteract the pagan festival of Samhain (just as Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth was moved to December 25 to supplant another pagan feast).

Tradition brew
Mixing pagan and Christian holidays like Halloween, Christmas, or Easter, made it possible for old pagan symbols or stories to adopt Christian tones.

  • Trick Or Treat:
    pre-Christian traditions involved farmers going door-to-door collecting food and materials for the village feast and bonfire. In the Middle Ages, there was a Christian superstition that those who died the previous year without being reconciled to you might rise to haunt you. Christians were taught to pray for such souls, but they also tried to appease them with “soul cakes” lest the ghosts play “tricks.” The term “trick or treat” blended all these customs in the 1930s.
  • Jack-O-Lantern:
    Many old Irish stories describe a man named Jack, who tricked the devil in various ways for personal gain. All of the stories end with Jack being denied entrance to Heaven and Hell. He roams the earth with a single candle to light his way. In Ireland, the custom was to keep a candle in a turnip, but Irish American immigrants adopted the pumpkin for its ease in carving and spectacular display.
  • Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead):
    This is a popular Mexican holiday now taught in the United States as a joyful alternative to Halloween. “Day” is actually a misnomer because the festivities last from October 31 – November 2 incorporating ancient Aztec roots together with All Saints and All Souls Days. Cemetery visits, marigold wreaths, paper banners, sugar skulls, bonfires, and Ofrendas (altars for the deceased) are some of the traditions that honor loved ones.

New Halloween traditions
“Halloween brews” are actually being born all the time. Take a look at a few practices being “scared up” in Christian communities.

  • Writing an obituary, epitaph, or planning a funeral to reflect on one’s own mortality to confront fears of death with Christian faith.

  • Carving crosses in pumpkins as symbols of Christ’s light in the darkness.

  • Works of charity or donations in honor of a loved one replace pranks and vandalism