Why Halloween is as Christian as Christmas – sort of?

The bewitching month is here in force, an apparition manifested in everything from store displays, streaming service promos and activities ancient in origin. We do not often think of Halloween as a Christian holiday, but what if it once was? Was. And that’s only after it wasn’t. Here we go.

One could reasonably argue that Halloween is as Christian of a holiday as Christmas. This statement may sound blasphemous to some, but some do not know the origins of Christmas. Christmas, as the public knows it, is the descendant of pagan midwinter festivals, such as Saturnalia, the ancient Roman holiday. Saturnalia, held in the last half of December, honored Saturn, the agricultural god, and was the source of many of the traditions now associated with Christmas, such as gifts, feasting, wreaths and other greenery.

To illustrate the pagan-ness of the holiday, Saturnalia was somewhat of a hedonistic festival, and by all means a jolly one. Romans partied hard and the usual social order was turned on its head. Chaos was the order of the holiday season, not dissimilar to The Purge, only more Dionysian than deadly. It is worth noting that some of the ancestor festivals of Saturnalia involved human sacrifice. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Back to Halloween, which now seems a lot less scary by comparison.

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, observed on Oct. 31, the day before the new year – which the Celts celebrated on Nov. 1. This day marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that the night before the new year, the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead became weak and the spirits of the dead returned to the realm of the living. Though these spirits were seen as anything from mischievous to malevolent, the Celts believed their presence aided Druids, their priests, in divining the future.

Large sacred bonfires were constructed to offer sacrifices – crops and animals, not humans – to Celtic gods. During the festivities, the Celts wore costumes to ward off the aforementioned spirits. There was somewhat of a dichotomy in tone during the festival and its observance—a mixture of fear, respect and revelry.

Then came the church.

On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to Christian martyrs, and All Martyrs Day was born. Later, Pope Gregory III expanded the festival to celebrate all saints as well as martyrs—and thus it became All Hallows (saints) Day—and moved the holiday from May 13 to Nov. 1. By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic regions, where it gradually mixed and replaced older Celtic religion more in substance than in style.

In the year 1000, the Church made Nov. 2 All Souls Day, to honor the dead—thus making November 1st All Hallows Day and October 31st All Hallows Eve, the traditional day of Samhain. It is reasonable to assume the church was attempting to emend and co-opt Samhain to be a Christian festival. All Souls Day was celebrated much like Samhain with big bonfires and supernatural inspired costumes, usually angels, devils and saints.

Ultimately, Halloween is a Christianization of an older pagan festival, but in the over a millennium since it was coopted it has, for most of us in the United States, lost all ties to Christian faith. However, despite what it has become, it is still observed as intended by the Church all those years ago by some Roman Catholics. 

Is there a moral to be gleaned here? Perhaps one could argue that Halloween in the United States is today as pagan as Samhain, if one considers commercialism our culture’s “paganism.”  The only thing to be sure of is that the holiday was always a time fraught with mischief and supernatural energy of one sort or another.

Graphic: Jeffrey Hernandez, The Threefold Advocate