Halloween–More Christian than Pagan…

I carved pumpkins with my kids this week. My son is finally old enough to wield his own knife, but my daughter had to settle for a marker. I, of course, had to clean out the insides.

The effort was well worth it (even with the mess on my patio) when we lit the candles and stepped back to admire the glowing, flickering faces.

According to a recent LifeWay Poll, however, I am among a slight minority (49%) of evangelical Christians who participate fully in Halloween activities. 51% of evangelical Christians either avoid Halloween completely (28%) or avoid the “pagan elements”
(23%).

As a historian, I find this poll disappointing. Not because I think everyone should participate in Halloween (I don’t really care that much), but because the very wording of the poll–“When you consider the pagan elements of Halloween, which is closer to your attitude?”–conveys that Halloween is still mostly regarded as a non-Christian holiday.

Yes, Halloween has similarities with (possibly accretions from) Samhain, the Celtic end-of-summer celebration.

But this does not make it a pagan holiday. As historian Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford University Press, 2002), states, “If Samhain imparted to Halloween a supernatural charge and an intrinsic liminality, it did not offer much in the way of actual ritual practices, save in its fire rites. Most of these developed in conjunction with the medieval holy days of All Souls’ and All Saints’ day.” Indeed, most of the traditions we associate with Halloween are medieval or early modern in their origin–not “pagan”.

First, we know that festivals commemorating saints (All Hallows Eve) existed in Europe by 800. We also know that these festivals were not created to supplant previously-existing pagan rituals. The Irish world (which provides the origin of the Celtic feast Samhain) celebrated a feast for saints in April  while the Germanic world (which did not recognize Samhain) celebrated in November. What does this tell us? It tells us that the actual chronology of Halloween “contradicts the widely held view that the November date was chosen to Christianize the festival of Samhain” (Rogers). In fact, John Mirk’s Festial (the most popular orthodox sermon compilation in late medieval England) actually explains the origins of “All Hallows Eve”. Pope Boniface IV converted the Roman Pantheon into a Christian church dedicated to saints and martyrs during the 7th century. This day was then commemorated as All Saints’ Day. While Mirk’s story does tell about the Christian appropriation of a pagan temple, his narrative is firmly situated in a Christian event (the dedication of a new church) far removed from the Celtic world of Samhain. From this medieval perspective, “Halloween” is a celebration of Christian triumph over paganism, rather than a pagan holiday masquerading as Christian.

Second, in the words of historian Ronald Hutton, we have “no idea” about what actually happened during the Celtic celebration of Samhain. Despite what you may have read from Pat Robertson’s website or from James Frazer’s The  Golden Bough (a classic social anthropology study from 1890 that explores the parallels between Christianity and ancient mythology), we have very little evidence about the actual practices of Celtic people or their festivals. Nicholas Rogers argues that James Frazer’s description of Samhain in The Golden Bough anachronistically projected medieval traditions onto the past (as Rogers writes, “there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship”). In fact, scholars really aren’t sure what “Celtic” culture entails. Some are even questioning the reality of the “Celts” as a coherent people group.

Let me say it again, we have very little evidence about the actual festivals of the people we know as Celts.

It is the medieval Christian festivals of All Saints’ and All Souls’ that provide our firmest foundation for Halloween. From emphasizing dead souls (both good and evil), to decorating skeletons, lighting candles for processions, building bonfires to ward off evil spirits, organizing community feasts, and even encouraging carnival practices like costumes, the medieval and early modern traditions of “Hallowtide” fit well with our modern holiday.

So what does this all mean?

It means that when we celebrate Halloween, we are definitely participating in a tradition with deep historical roots. But, while those roots are firmly situated in the medieval Christian past, their historical connection to “paganism” is rather more tenuous.

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  • John C. Gardner

    Thank you for this wonderful column. I shared it with my wife and we both found it enlightening. It provides good documentation, interesting discussion, and an eye catching initial paragraph.
    In Christ,
    John C. Gardner

  • John Turner

    Thanks for this, Beth. And a belated welcome aboard!

    I think I’ll still be cleaning out the insides for many years to come. In fact, my daughter said that if she gets married, her future husband will have to do the dirty work.

  • Clarke Morledge

    Beth,

    Can you help straighten me out on the history? Al Mohler wrote a piece that references Nicholas Rogers’ work, but without making an explicit statement as such, Mohler gives the impression that the pagan roots associated with Samhain, such as costume wearing, did make it into Halloween practices (quoting Harold Myra). I would possibly infer from Mohler that All Saints Day was somehow intended to supplant pagan practices, in some sense:

    http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/10/30/christianity-and-the-dark-side-what-about-halloween-5/

    I could be reading Mohler wrong here (please correct me if I am wrong), but I would appreciate it if you can clarify and set me straight..

    I am with the idea that James Fraser set us up to anachronistically import pagan readings back into Halloween, but I am just a bit confused as to whether or not Mohler has read Rogers correctly, or if Harold L. Myra is drawing conclusions based on insufficient evidence. Help! Thanks!

  • Beth Allison Barr

    Clarke,
    Thanks for this. I wouldn’t say Mohler is misreading Rogers. I think he is just emphasizing the aspects of Rogers that agrees with his interpretation of Halloween. Rogers argument is that the liminal nature and supernatural aspects of Samhain was perhaps the greatest influence from the Celtic festival on the later development of Halloween (which I agree with). He argues for caution about Samhain as connected to festivals of the dead (as I quoted) as well as the practice of human sacrifice (which Rogers argues could have been part of Celtic celebrations like Samhain but there is not direct evidence). My argument about Halloween is based on my knowledge as a medieval historian. I simply think that the pagan roots of Halloween are really over emphasized. We know that Halloween stems from All Saints’ Day (and All Soul’s Day)–which also had supernatural elements connected to it. We know that medieval Christians were celebrating festivals of the saints in circumstances completely unconnected to Samhain. We also know that most of the modern practices of Halloween are very similar to practices that developed during medieval and early modern times. I stand by my argument that the Halloween we celebrate today is much more an invention of medieval and early modern Christianity than it is a recycled pagan holiday. I think Mohler is simply putting a greater emphasis on the more tenuous Celtic connections than (as I argue) the more solid medieval roots.

  • Clarke Morledge

    Thank you, Beth. I know that you mention Rogers and Hutton. Can you recommend any other readily accessible book (or any other source) that specifically addresses evangelical concerns?

  • Shannon Menkveld

    As a Neopagan, I find it rather ironic that the harvest festivals that many Evangelical churches put on as an alternative to “Pagan” Halloween are in many ways more Pagan than the mostly-Christian holiday they’re trying to protect their congregations from.

    For what it’s worth, I and pretty much every Pagan I know celebrate Samhain and Halloween separately, and quite differently. For us, Samhain is a religious holiday, celebrated religiously, and Halloween is a cultural holiday, celebrated culturally. Granted, my tradition (ADF Druidry) is a liturgical, “high church” tradition, and Halloween doesn’t really fit into it very well, but this separation is pretty universal across Neopagan traditions regardless of their degree of liturgical focus.

    –Shannon

  • philipjenkins

    Complicating matters of course is the upsurge of Day of the Dead, which is a comparable pagan/ Christian mix, and which is very popular in California and border states. Maybe you pagan folks will soon be celebrating that together with Samhain and Halloween…. or do you already?

  • Vision_From_Afar

    Some of the ADR (African Diasporic Religions) do, if I recall. Most Pagans still view it as interesting syncretism and are trying to finish sorting out just what Samhain is to us before we start adopting yet another holiday, lol.

  • Shannon Menkveld

    I do see more “Day of the Dead” imagery than I used to. I suspect it’s more common among eclectic, neo-Wiccan traditions than in British Traditional Wicca or any of the Reconstructionist religions, but that’s a guess. I haven’t seen much, if any, in ADF ritual settings.