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Pagan Origins of Halloween

All Hallows' Eve History


pumpkins - Halloween history classic

Even the pumpkins smile during the fun holiday of Halloween.

David Beaulieu

The pagan origins of Halloween (or "elements," at least; see below) are so palpable that there is little wonder the holiday has generated considerable controversy. Falling on October 31, Halloween history tells us that this celebration is only the herald of the holiday that medieval Christian Europeans were intended to celebrate -- All Saints' Day, November 1.

And thus the story behind the term itself, which is short for "the eve before All Hallows' Day," the latter referring to the fact that saints of Christianity were "hallowed" individuals. Some have argued that the Church decided All Saints' Day should fall on November 1 to make it coincide with its precursor, Samhain, the observance of which involved honoring dead ancestors. The proponents of this argument submit that, by overwriting the pagan origins of Halloween, perhaps the new religion could steal some thunder from their lingering influence in Europe.

All Saints' Day was instituted as a holiday in the year A.D. 609 (initially celebrated in May, it was later moved to the November 1 date). And what is the origin of All Souls' Day, which is a distinct holiday? On All Souls' Day Catholics are encouraged to pray for the souls in purgatory. In terms of the date of the holiday, it followed a path similar to that of All Saints' Day: it had been around in some form for quite some time before its official date was moved to November 2. Again, some would speculate that the move to a date so close to Samhain wasn't entirely coincidental.

It's important to learn more about this Samhain if you're interested in arguments for the pagan origins of Halloween. It was a Celtic festival of the harvest. The Celts had celebrated Samhain on November 1. They had inhabited large portions of Western Europe throughout ancient times. The Celts are perhaps most widely recognized for having been the people Julius Caesar fought in what is now France in his famous Gallic Wars (58-50 B.C.).

Incidentally, despite this ancient French connection, it is only very recently that France has begun to celebrate the spooky holiday, replete with the delights derived from dressing up in scary or bizarre costumes. About's French Language Guide, Laura K. Lawless, informs us about Halloween history in France.

Pagan Origins of Halloween: a Question of Semantics?

What of the argument above regarding the Church's intentions? Is this interpretation of history correct? I don't know, because I wasn't there. And intentions can be very difficult to fathom. A better question would be, Is the argument plausible? And I think it is.

It's plausible that, drawing on Celtic traditions, some lay people could have continued to evince interest in honoring dead ancestors (as the pagans had) long after the triumph of Christianity. Old ways die hard. It's also plausible that the Church would try to counteract such recidivism by juxtaposing their own holidays in honor of the dead.

Even if this interpretation of Church history is incorrect, Halloween as it is celebrated today -- with its very un-Christian witches and black cats -- clearly betrays pagan origins or, at the very least, "elements." The Catholic Education Research Center (CERC) says that the Catholic holidays in question evolved independently, but even they remark that "elements of pagan practices were perhaps 'baptized' by some cultures or attached themselves to the celebration of All Saints and All Souls."

In the end, the question, "Does Halloween have pagan origins?" may come down to semantics. Obviously, there would not be a 21st-century holiday named "Halloween" if not for All Saints' Day. But that's not the issue. The salient questions are:

  1. Somewhere along the line (be it at the beginning, middle or end), does paganism factor into Halloween?

  2. And if so, when?

I think the answer to #1 is yes (and probably at multiple points). I'll leave it to historians to figure out the answer to #2.

In the modern celebration of Halloween in the U.S., most people essentially enjoy the aspects of the holiday that derive from the pagan origins of Halloween -- albeit with a secular mindset -- as evidenced by the decorations and costumes for which it is famous. Some die-hards of Christianity, however, vehemently oppose the holiday. Nonetheless, the holiday celebrated by the great majority of people today is one of our most fun-loving holidays. It has nothing to do with nationhood and has lost its religious significance for most people. We celebrate it simply because it is enjoyable to do so.

For lovers of fall foliage and the bounty of the garden harvest, decorating the yard during this season holds an earthy pleasure that no other holiday can match. And in northern climes it is the last holiday of the year graced by live plants in the garden. Thus on Page 2 we move from the pagan origins of Halloween to outdoor decorations for fall....

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