Under the Roman Empire, early Christians faced great persecution for believing in Christ and for not following the Roman religion. Romans tortured and murdered Christians throughout the first three centuries. Then, in A.D. 313, Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and in 380, Emperor Theodosius I declared Catholic Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The persecution in the Roman Empire stopped, but Christians throughout the world still faced danger and death because of their belief.
Early Christians honored those who died for their faith and considered these martyrs saints. Churches were dedicated to a particular saint, or saints, and that dedication day, or consecration day, was celebrated each year. The Pantheon had been a Roman temple to all the gods, but in 609 Pope Boniface IV dedicated it to the saints and made May 13th a yearly celebration. Pope Gregory III (731-741) dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to all the saints on November 1st. Later, in 835, Pope Gregory IV added this celebration of All Saints Day to the Church calendar for all Christians to celebrate.
The word Halloween comes from the initial celebration of All Saints Day. In early Christianity, Christians attended Holy Mass beginning the evening before the day. Thus, the celebration of Christmas begins on Christmas Eve. “Hallow” means “Holy” in Old English. All Hallow’s Eve (or Even) refers to the day before All Holy Day. Masses occurred one day before All Saint’s Day, in the evening. A blending of these three words (All Hallow’s Eve) gives us the word Halloween.
Pagan Influences or Origins?
Celebrating or honoring the dead was common among pagan peoples of the world, as well as marking the transition from one season to another. One challenging aspect in reporting about ancient pagan practices is the lack of primary sources. Most pagans were illiterate, and we have to rely on oral histories that are not as reliable or on accounts from observers.
Over 2,000 years ago, Celts lived in Central and Northwestern Europe and celebrated “Samhain.” Celts were pagans, people who believed in many gods. They believed that they could communicate with good and evil spirits. The Celts celebrated November 1st as the New Year. The night before was remembered as the end of fall, the end of harvest, and the end of the season where there were more hours of sunshine than dark. Samhain was the night when Celts believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth, damaging farms, causing trouble and communicating with humans.
To honor the ghosts, Celts built huge bonfires, burned portions of their crops, and offered animal sacrifices. The Romans reported the Celts offered humans as sacrifices. The Druids were Celtic priests, in charge of the ceremonies. On the night of Samhain, Druids believed they could communicate with the dead, and told the fortunes of others. After the ceremony was finished, the Celts took fire from the bonfire and lit their hearth fires, believing their home would now be protected from evil spirits.
Also pagan, Romans celebrated the end of fall with a festival geared towards worshipping gods. The Roman Goddess of the harvest was Pomona, and her day was celebrated on November 1st. Pomona was also the goddess of love and fertility. It is believed that on November 1st, single Romans over a certain age were compelled to “marry” someone for a year. The Christian Church ended this practice of marriage for one year. Instead, on November 1st, Christian Romans would draw the names of saints to try to emulate or be inspired for the year.
Pope Gregory I and Converting Pagans
In early medieval times, Church leaders and missionaries accomplished the enormous task of evangelizing pagan peoples throughout Europe and parts of Asia. One issue in changing pagan practices was how to deal with shrines that had been dedicated to various gods, and how to end pagan ceremonies. Some Christians argued the need to destroy the shrines. Pope Gregory I, however, argued that these pagan shrines be consecrated as Christian places of worship. In a letter sent in 601 to the missionaries to the Angles, Pope Gregory I writes, “For those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of God.” Pope Gregory I also writes, “For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off every thing at once from their rude natures; because he who endeavors to ascent to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, not by leaps.”
It is evident that the early Christians used natives’ buildings and local customs for the purpose of conversion. Regarding Halloween, we do not have a document from Christian leaders explaining that October 31st was chosen as All Hallow’s Eve because of the Celtic celebration of Samhain or because of the Roman holiday of Pomona. It appears that there is at least some tie between the pagan celebrations and the Christian holiday, but, it may never be completely clear to what extent these are connected.
Post Reformation Europe
After the Reformation in some countries of Europe, the celebration of Halloween was seen as Catholic and was outlawed. However, in Protestant England, the English celebrated their victory over Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who tried to blow up the Protestant-sympathetic Parliament in 1605. He was caught and executed. On Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th) every year, the Protestant English would reenact Fawkes’ punishment by parading a scarecrow, the Pope in effigy, and other unpopular political figures, through the streets. Boys would dress up in costume and beg for coal to burn the scarecrows. Then, the scarecrows would be set on fire. Also, boys would play tricks on their neighbors.
Halloween in America
In America, Halloween evolved over the last four hundred years and is still evolving. Originally, Halloween was outlawed in many Puritan colonies, but in these colonies many celebrated Guy Fawkes Day and became fascinated with witchcraft and evil spirits. In colonies with religious freedom, Catholics celebrated All Souls Day and All Saints Day.
The American Revolution brought forth a huge wave of religious toleration and civic participation, and Halloween started to evolve more into a secular community event instead of a religious one. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, Halloween became a time for parties, games for children, and matchmaking.
In the 1900s, American magazines promoted how to throw the best Halloween parties and large candy manufacturers promoted the idea of giving out candy to those who want to play tricks. As America became modernized and mass media reached all households, it appears that the current Halloween customs were strongly endorsed by candy makers as a way to make more money. Most recently, department stores create and promote Halloween decorations and Americans spend great amounts of time, energy, and resources decorating their homes.
Other Americans, however, still celebrate the Christian meaning of Halloween, by attending church, saying prayers, remembering the saints, and recalling the martyrs of the faith. These Christians are inspired to live as heroes for the Christian faith. Other church communities hold carnivals as a way to evangelize and to keep kids off the street from participating in Trick or Treating.
*Christian Origin of Halloween: http://www.celebratingholidays.com/?page_id=1116
*A copy of Pope Gregory I’s missionary letter regarding how to deal with pagan shrines:
https://www.ccel.org/ccel/bede/history.v.i.xxix.html : CHAP. XXX. A copy of the letter which Pope Gregory sent to the Abbot Mellitus, then going into Britain. [601 A.D.]
- What was the Celtic celebration of Samhain?
- What was the Roman celebration of Pomona?
- What was the early celebration of All Saint's Day?
- How did the English celebrate "Guy Fawkes Day" in the 1600s?
- About when in American history did the celebration of Halloween become more a community one and less of a religious one?