Many Christians struggle to decide how (or if) to celebrate Halloween. After all, it is a holiday that seems to emphasize darkness, superstition and fear. Furthermore, there is the claim that the holiday is pagan in origin – an assertion that simply is not true.
The name Halloween is a blending of the words All Hallows’ and Even or E’en (referring to the evening before All Holies Day, or All Saints’ Day, which is November 1). The term hallow means “holy” – you may recall reciting it in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9).
Early in church history, Christians began to celebrate the “saints” (heroes of the faith),* and by the 7th century, All Saints’ Day was celebrated annually throughout the Christian world – Orthodox churches celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost, and Roman Catholic churches celebrated on May 13th. Without a doubt, the origin of All Saints’ Day and its Eve (Halloween) was entirely Christian.
The supposed connection to paganism comes with the fact that the Roman Catholic Church moved the celebration of All Saints’ Day to November 1st in the 8th century. Many scholars claim that Christian leaders were attempting to Christianize a pagan holiday called Samhain (pronounced sow-in; “sow” rhymes with “cow”) which was celebrated on the same day. However, there are several reasons to dispute this claim.
First, it should be noted that nothing is known about Samhain with any certainty. It seems to have been a celebration limited to the Northern Celtic people (particularly in Ireland and Scotland) who, prior to their Christianization, had no written records. Regardless, scholars have made wild, though totally unsubstantiated, claims about Samhain as a day dedicated to the dead on which human sacrifices and other dark rituals were practiced. In reality, all we really know about Samhain is that it marked a change of season. In fact, the name Samhain is derived from an Old Irish word that roughly means “summer’s end.”1
Second, by the time that All Saints’ Day came to be associated with November 1st, Christianity had been well established in the Northern Celtic region for at least 300 years. There is no indication that pagan practices persisted on Samhain in a way that concerned Rome (which was 1500 miles away across land and sea) enough to change the date of a holiday.
Third, Irish Christians originally celebrated the saints on April 20th. So, it is more likely that they remembered the dead in April than during Samhain on November 1st. When All Saints’ Day was transferred to November 1st among Roman Catholic churches, the focus on the dead shifted with it.
Lastly, as one scholar suggests, November 1st may have been chosen simply so that the many pilgrims who traveled to Rome to commemorate the saints “could be fed more easily after the harvest than in the spring.”2
So why do so many scholars draw the connection between Halloween and Samhain? In the nineteenth century, cultural anthropologist Sir James Frazer studied the practices of the Northern Celtic people on Hallowmas (a term that has come to describe the three day period of October 31st, Halloween, November 1st, All Saints’ Day, and November 2nd, All Souls’ Day). He asserted that the traditions of Hallowmas were rooted in Samhain, and he claimed that the ancient pagan festival had been a day to honor the dead. Though Christianity probably brought the focus on the dead to Samhain, Frazer claimed the reverse. It seems that every cultural anthropologist after Frazer, has repeated, and even exaggerated his claim.