The Real (and Imaginary) Pagan Roots of Halloween
By Brian Saint-Paul
THE FIRST THING I NOTICED ABOUT JAY was that he was dressed like a woman. I also saw he was wearing combat boots and carrying a bag full of candy. But then I went back to that part about him being dressed like a woman.
Jay had always been a curious fellow. Like the time he lost his pet tarantula, sending the neighborhood kids into an arachnophobia that would last for generations. But Jay had outdone himself this time, standing at our door, dressed in what appeared to be an army nurse’s uniform, and slathered in enough makeup to make Tammy Faye Bakker wince.
Being a sensitive 9-year-old, I tried mightily to stifle my laughter (key word: tried), as I handed him a Snickers bar. Nevertheless, Jay was unfazed, marching off satisfied into the night, his candy bag a little bit fuller.
For many of us, Halloween is an anomaly: a celebration without a discernible purpose. Other holidays make sense. Labor Day offers some respite for workers, Veterans’ Day honors those who fought for their land, Presidents’ Day recalls those who have led our nation. Yet Halloween seems to do nothing more than guarantee a steady clientele for children’s dentists and give folks like Jay an outlet for exotic behavior.
A brief glance into the history of the celebration, however, raises a troubling question. Many Christians, when confronted with the pagan background of Halloween, wonder if it’s the kind of thing in which they should be getting involved. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that Christian bookstores (usually Fundamentalist) are full of inaccurate, sensationalistic accounts of the origins of the celebration.
Jack Chick, author of numerous anti-Catholic tracts, and hysterical Fundamentalist par excellence, gives his version of Halloween’s history in his tract, The Trick:
“[Halloween] came from an ancient Druid custom set up for human sacrifices on Halloween night. Druids offered children in sacrifices. They believed that only ‘the fruit of the body’ offered to Satan was for the ‘sin of the soul.’ The trick or treat custom was created by the Druids. “When they went to a home and demanded a child or virgin for sacrifice, the victim was the Druids’ treat. In exchange, they would leave a jack-o’-lantern with a lighted candle made of human fat to prevent those inside from being killed by demons in the night. When some unfortunate couldn’t meet the demands of the Druids, then it was time for the trick. A symbolic hex was drawn on the front door. That night Satan or his demons would kill someone in that house.”
There are about as many errors here as there are vowels. First, human sacrifice, despite the shrill claims of some, was rare if not nonexistent in Druid practice, and played no part in the Halloween tradition (Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, “Druids”). This goes for the candles “made of human fat,” as well.
Second, the Druids didn’t worship Satan. Theirs was a nature religion centered around the seasons, similar to modern day Wicca. Satan is a figure in Christianity, not paganism.
Third, the popular use of jack-o’-lanterns had absolutely nothing to do with the human sacrifice exchange program that Chick describes here.
So, with the fantasy aside, what’s the real history of the celebration? Halloween comes from the pagan feast of Samhain. From the evening of October 31 to the end of November 1, the ancient Celts would celebrate the beginning of winter and the conclusion of the harvest. During this time, it was believed, the curtain between the living and the dead was temporarily lifted, and the spirits of the past would roam the countryside, getting into mischief (Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, Jack Santino, University of Tennessee, 1994, XV). These supernatural creatures could be placated with edible treats or frightened off with bonfires and carved turnips. All the while, the people paid homage to Samhain, the god of the dead.
As time passed, the feast lost its religious significance and became the secular holiday we have today. It’s true, some of the old vestiges remain. Kids dress up like ghosts, goblins and Power Rangers, and go out looking for candy. The carved turnips have become pumpkins, and the bobbing for apples, an ancient method of divination, has become a popular party game. Nevertheless, October 31 is no longer widely held to be a day of religious observance.
So, how did the feast of Samhain become Halloween?
For hundreds of years, Christianity was persecuted by the pagan officials of the Roman Empire. Catholics were routinely rounded up and killed or tortured for the Faith. Over time, the persecutions ended and Christianity was recognized as a legal religion with the Edict of Milan in 313. A few years later, Catholics actually gained the upper hand, becoming the official state religion near the end of the fourth century.
With this new situation, the Catholic Church sought to demonstrate in a dramatic way the victory of Christ over the false gods of paganism. The old shrines were emptied of their statues of pagan deities, replaced with symbols of Christian worship. The temples became churches and the practices of the former religion either discontinued or Christianized. Finally, the holidays and feasts celebrating pagan gods were replaced with days recognizing the victory of the True God. One well-known example of this is Christmas, where the feast of the sun god on December 25 was replaced with a celebration of God the Son.
It’s difficult for us nowadays to appreciate the powerful statement this Christian-ization process communicated. Imagine if, in the most frigid days of the Cold War, the United States had been invaded and defeated by the Soviet Union. Destroying the Statue of Liberty certainly would’ve been a blow to the American people, but the Soviets had a still more dramatic action available: they could bedeck the statue in the red and yellow of the Soviet flag, replacing American symbolism with that of the USSR. What stronger way to demonstrate the victory of one system over the other? Such was the case with the Church’s conversion of pagan shrines, temples and holidays.
And so it was with Samhain. As Christianity spread throughout the British Isles, it encountered this strange celebration of the dead. Following in the tradition up to that point, the Church chose to replace it with a Catholic holiday.
So, by the ninth century, All Saints Day had become a feast-day to be celebrated by the entire Church. Instead of honoring the dead spirits of pagandom, All Saints Day was a time to remember the faithful Christian departed of past ages. In fact, according to Pope Urban VI, the day was intended to make up for any deficiencies in the celebrations of the various saints’ feast days throughout the year (Catholic Encyclopedia, “All Saints Day”).
The night before All Saints was known as All Hallows Evening, which became shortened to Hallowe’en. While Christians took part in the festivities of the evening before, the primary focus of the celebration was November 1, the feast of the saints. In this way, the pagan core of Samhain was stripped from the event, and replaced with solid Christian practice.
The conversion of pagan holidays is actually quite biblical. The Jews, under the direction of God, appropriated numerous pagan feasts: feasts of the New Year, combined with the harvest (Numbers 29:1-6; Leviticus 23:23-25), the feasts of the New Moon (1 Kings 20:4-29; Numbers 28:11-15; Nehemiah 10:33-34), grain and fruit harvest feasts (Deuteronomy 16:9-12; Exodus 23:14-16, 34:22) and the rite of new branches (Nehemiah 8:14-15). The people of God have often planned their Jewish and Christian celebrations to coincide with pagan feast days. Obviously, as the verses mentioned above indicate, God didn’t think this was corrupting true worship, or giving into paganism. So the Christian who takes part in Halloween and All Saints Day is just following in the footsteps of God-approved practice. No problem there.
A few objections are often raised at this point. A claim is sometimes made that Halloween is the most important day of the “Satanic calendar,” and that Christian participation is tantamount to taking part in the Devil’s high holy day. In fact, Jack Chick, in another one of his tract masterpieces, Boo!, says, “to Satanists and witches, Halloween is no joke. It’s their most solemn ceremony of the year.”
Bob (1951-2003) and Gretchen (1953-2014) Passantino, Evangelical Christians and experts on Satanism, reject this argument, pointing out that the Satanist’s own birthday is, to him, the most un/holy day of the year (“What About Halloween?” a paper produced by their ministry, Answers in Action).
Next, we’ll hear that Halloween so trivializes evil, demons and the devil, that they are reduced to mere fairy tales — imaginary beings used to frighten and titillate children. While the danger of this is certainly present, it nevertheless can be remedied by a good Catholic upbringing. We ignore the real existence of Satan at our own peril, for he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The reality of evil forces should be foundational in the catechesis of every Christian. We can hardly blame Halloween if it isn’t.
Far from being a threat to the Christian faith, Halloween actually provides an excellent opportunity for witnessing to it. On what other day is one’s attire the subject of so much attention? Imagine a group of kids going out not as Barney or some sports hero, but as their favorite characters from the Bible or Church history. An army of Davids, St. Marys and St. Josephs can make an awfully big impression at a costume party. Another possible avenue for evangelization is at the doorstep itself. Try handing out a good Catholic tract along with the candy (just don’t forget the candy part, or there might be rioting). As Catholics, we are called to use every opportunity to share the Gospel, “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
In the end, the issue of whether or not to let one’s kids participate in Halloween comes down to personal discretion. The celebration in itself is fairly harmless: kids go out (under supervision, hopefully) dressed up as their favorite superhero/monster/politician and gather candy. Obviously, things can get out of hand. If a child wants to go trick-or-treating dressed as the Antichrist, it’s probably time to draw the line. This is where the parents’ guidance is essential. Nevertheless, whatever meaning Samhain used to hold as a pagan observance, it has no longer. Time has turned October 31 into a secular event, and Christians can take part with a clear conscience.
But we’re not done yet. Our brief look into the history of Halloween has uncovered some interesting dirt on the methods of some anti-Catholics. Numerous enemies of the Church charge that the Catholic Faith as a whole has been corrupted by paganism. Loraine Boettner, author of the odiously inaccurate Roman Catholicism, writes:
“After Constantine’s decree making Christianity the preferred religion, the Greek-Roman pagan religions with their male gods and female goddesses exerted an increasingly stronger influence upon the church . . . Many of the people who came into the church had no clear distinction in their minds between the Christian practices and those that had been practiced in their heathen religions. Statues of pagan gods and heroes found a place in the church, and were gradually replaced by statues of saints. The people were allowed to bring into the church those things from their old religions that could be reconciled with the type of Christianity then developing” (Roman Catholicism, Grand Rapids: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964, p. 136).
Fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others argue similarly today in trying to demonstrate the alleged pagan corruption of Catholicism. In looking at the methods by which they reach their conclusions, three prominent errors are found again and again:
1. Their scholarship is often poor, making their conclusions largely or even completely inaccurate.
2. They assume that if a Catholic doctrine or practice is similar to a pagan one, the Catholic Church must have taken it from paganism.
3. They neglect the fact that some pagan practices (like Halloween) can be Christianized and used in the service of the Cross.
Let’s look at examples of each error.
Fundamentalists like Jack Chick aren’t exactly known for their academic excellence. Too often, they begin with a conclusion and then go looking for historical or Biblical confirmation. We saw an excellent example of this earlier with Chick’s history of Halloween. Critics of the Church will often misrepresent Her beliefs in order to show a connection between Catholicism and paganism.
Alexander Hislop, author of The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife (Loizeaux Brothers, 1959), does this very thing with the Catholic understanding of justification. In order to link the Catholic Gospel with that of paganism, he wrongly claims Catholicism teaches one is justified by works in the chapter entitled, “Justification by Works”). Not content to merely misrepresent Catholic belief, he also lapses into some rather amusing blunders:
“Will any one after this say that the Roman Catholic Church must still be called Christian, because it holds the doctrine of the Trinity? So did the Pagan Babylonians, so did the Egyptians, so do the Hindoos [sic] at this hour, in the very same sense in which Rome does” (Ibid, 90).
Anyone with even a light familiarity with the pagan triads Hislop alludes to knows that they consisted of three different gods, not one God in three persons. The various pagan religions held a position very similar to modern day Mormonism, that there are three primary gods, distinct from one another in being, but joined in purpose. This is a form of polytheism, a view the Catholic Church has always condemned. Hislop’s statement that pagans held to the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is laughable. This claim would, incidentally, also condemn as pagan the Trinitarian doctrine of Evangelical Christians and the mainline Protestant churches. Oops.
One error that occurs over and over again is the faulty assumption that a similarity between Catholic and pagan practices implies a connection between the two. Ralph Woodrow’s book, Babylon Mystery Religion, is full of such “parallels,” one of which links the roundness of the Eucharistic host to the roundness of the sun, which pagan Mithraists worshipped. Add to this the apparent sun beams shooting out of some monstrances and you have a fine example of Catholics inadvertently worshipping the sun god. (Babylon Mystery Religion: Ancient and Modern, Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, Inc., 1966, p. 121).
(Note: Interestingly enough, Woodrow has recently come out with a new book, The Babylon Connection, wherein he recants much of his former material, showing the inaccuracies in the first book. For this, he should be given much credit.)
This method of finding parallels, if followed consistently, ends up coming back to haunt those who use it.
For example, among some of the ancient pagan tribes of the middle east, there was a fascinating ceremony performed by the nomads. They would slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on their tent posts, so that those who slept inside would be protected from the destroying angel who came in the night (A Feast in Honor of Yahweh, Fides Publishers, Inc., 1965, p. 37).
Sound familiar? Of course, this ceremony bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Passover, where the blood of the pure lamb would be poured onto the door posts of the Jewish homes, so the angel of death would pass over onto the homes of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:1-13). According to the methodology of our Fundamentalist friends, this must mean the ancient Jews stole their Passover ceremony from the pagans. If Passover is corrupted by its apparent pagan origins, then down comes the whole notion of Jesus as the perfect Passover sacrifice. You see where faulty methodology takes us?
But there’s more. The famous comparative religionist, Sir James George Frazer, in his classic work, The Golden Bough, found some interesting similarities between Christianity and paganism. Apparently, numerous pagan religions have a god who dies and is resurrected. One notable example is the Egyptian god, Osiris, who is murdered, buried and resurrected from the dead (The New Golden Bough: A New Abridgment of the Classic Work, Sir James George Frazer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961, pp. 183-185). Does this mean the Christian Faith derived its belief in the death and resurrection of its God from the pagan religions of Egypt? Of course not. Despite what some anti-Catholics would tell us, just because two beliefs are similar doesn’t mean there is any relationship between the two.
Another excellent example of this is the symbol of the swastika (also known as the gammadion). This symbol has been found to exist in the ancient cultures of India, Denmark, Greece, Belgium, Tibet, Gaul, Macedonia and just about anywhere else where people had hands with which to write. However, in each place, the symbol was understood differently. The meaning behind the swastika of the Third Reich is vastly different than that understood in ancient Tibet. Just because these cultures share the same symbol doesn’t mean they’re interrelated. Nazi Germany had very little to do with ancient India. We cannot, then, assume that just because Catholicism shares some symbol or practice with paganism, that the thing necessarily has a pagan beginning.
Still, while it’s true that some Catholic practices do have pagan precursors (we’ve already seen how the early believers Christianized the pagan holidays and temples, just as the Jews did in the Old Testament), this was born out of Christian victory over paganism, not compromise with it.
Additionally, there are other Biblical precedents for God endorsing the use of some pagan practices. Among the Jewish people, we see the casting of lots (1 Chronicles 25:8; 1 Samuel 14:40-45; Nehemiah 10:34) and the offering of water libations (1 Kings 18:33-36), both prominent in the paganism of the time (Maertens, 28, 72-74). If indeed God frowned upon any practice that was pagan in origin, He wouldn’t have prescribed them for His people. But, as the Bible proves, He did prescribe them.
For Christians, paganism is a dirty word, and it should be. Any religion that denies the One True God in favor of idols, nature-worship, or self-worship is a religion to be avoided. But this is all the more reason to bring paganism to the foot of the Cross. Jesus has won the victory over the false gods of this world, and so their practices and traditions should be brought into service for Him. Those who disagree do so in the face of the Scriptural and historical evidence. It’s time to let God use whatever means He wishes to further His own glory. Our God is sovereign, and He can do whatever He wants.
[N.B.: This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 1998 edition of Envoy Magazine and is reposted here with permission of the editor of Envoy, who happens to be me.]