All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day, is upon us again, along with a plethora of social media stories about the supposed pagan origins of Halloween. A quick Google search gives you countless reports of Halloween originating from an Irish Celtic new year festival, Samhain, and being connected to ancient pagan worship practices. I remember first hearing this story given by a well-meaning local pastor who visited a Christian college fellowship back in the 1980s.
Admittedly, I can understand why many Christians today have serious misgivings about Halloween. As a high school teenager years ago, I was part of the problem. When I could hear young trick or treaters walking down our street, I would put my Pink Floyd Echoes album on my turntable, and crank up the speakers to scare the kids. Halloween has indeed become a time of mischief, and the glorification of the occult.
However, if you take a closer look at history, the development of these darker traditions and celebrations popularized by contemporary Wiccan and neopagan groups actually originated in a mishmash of superstitions and religious practices that have arisen since the 19th century, primarily here in America. Contrary to the popular idea that Christians “stole” Halloween from pagan cults, like the Druids, the real origin of Halloween goes back hundreds of years prior to today’s “trick or treating,” when Pope Gregory in the 9th century instigated the move of the Western date for All Saints Day from the springtime to November 1st. This had nothing to do with the Irish Celts. If anything, the Irish more probably picked up the November 1st date from the English, as the Irish were known for celebrating All Saints Day on April 20, which is actually closer to the Christian practice in the springtime, more common in the Christian East.
Christian apologist and YouTuber Michael Jones at Inspiring Philosophy has a helpful short video sorting out fact from fiction about Halloween. For a concise and highly educational article summarizing the same, I would recommend a new blog post by Tim O’Neill at HistoryForAtheists, who specializes in debunking bad history being promoted by atheists and other skeptics.
In the meantime, have a wonderful All Saints Day (and its eve), which might better be remembered as Reformation Day!
October 31st, 2021 at 8:52 am
I have already had one detractor write me an email, complaining about the content of my post. It is probably worth saying that the popular Irish Celtic Samhain –> Halloween story was once the dominant idea in 19th century scholarship, such as British scholar Sir James Fraser.
However, Fraser (and others) were not fully aware of the existing sources, and therefore assumed that the adoption of November 1 date for All Saints Day was based on the Irish Celtic pre-Christian practice of Samhain; hence, the popular idea that the Christians “stole” Samhain to invent Halloween. But we also know now that the November 1 date was selected in England and Germany, PRIOR to the traditional practice of April 30 for All Saints Day in Ireland, which indicates that the All Saints Day practice moved from England to Ireland, and NOT the other way around.
Unfortunately, the works of Sir James Fraser are scattered across the Internet, in the public domain, as they have exceeded the length of copyright protection, which explains why such stories about Halloween never seem to die on the Internet. Newer works that refute Fraser are still copyright protected, and therefore do not enjoy the popular exposure on the Internet.
See Ronald Hutton, _Stations of the Sun_, chapter 35.
Interestingly, the same situation can be said for why Jesus Mythicism is so popular today. Certain 19th century scholars felt confident that Jesus did not exist, and their works are readily available on the Internet, as having exceeded their copyright protections, contrary to the bulk of contemporary scholarship that discarded Jesus Mythicism long ago.
November 2nd, 2021 at 4:35 pm
More on Jack-o-Lanterns and turnips here: