by Fr. Benjamin Naasko
I want to clear up some misconceptions about Halloween
We are often told that Halloween is of pagan origin. We are told that it has its roots in the ancient Irish festival of Samhain, and we are told that the ancient pagan Irish performed human sacrifices on the night of October 31 to commune with the ungodly spirits of their dead ancestors. We are told that Christian missionaries tried and failed to "baptize" these ancient pagan rituals by moving the commemoration of All Saints to November 1 but that they failed to convince the Irish pagans to attend Vigils at the Church on October 31 and they persisted in their pagan festivities.
None of this is true. Much of it is based on anti-Catholic propaganda from the 19th century. Many of the traditional practices of Halloween have historical antecedents as popular expressions of Christian piety and most of the objectionable practices connected with Halloween are developments of our American Culture of the past century. Much like how commercialization has ruined the spirit of Christmas, it has ruined the spirit of All Hallows. Much like our contemporary pagans have lied about the early history of Christmas calling it a Christian takeover of earlier pagan solstice celebrations (another lie that originated in anti-Catholic propaganda), so too our modern pagans have laid claim to Halloween, a holiday which had never previously belonged to them.
The first thing to know about Halloween, or more properly Hallowe'en, is that it is an abbreviation of a longer name: Hallows Even, or Hallows Evening, or Hallows Eve. It was the beginning of a Christian festive period of Hallowtide, which is centered around the feast of All Hallows or All Saints and the feast of All Souls.
In the Christian East, we celebrate All Saints on the Sunday after Pentecost and we remember All Souls on a number of Saturdays. In the West, All Souls comes directly after All Saints; first the Church Triumphant is celebrated and then the Church prays for the deceased. It is important for Orthodox Christians to know that the Feast of All Saints in the West was moved to November 1st by Pope Gregory IV in the 8th century, prior to the division of the churches. The celebration of All Saints on November 1 and its Vigil the evening prior has been found by historians to have reached Northumbria, Scotland and Ireland by the early 9th Century. The celebration of All Saints in Ireland therefore predates the Christinization of Rus.
When March comes along we all, both East and West, appropriately remember St. Patrick the Enlightener of Ireland who very successfully brought Irish paganism to an end. Within a few generations of Patrick's death in 461, there was nothing whatever of left of Irish paganism. By the time the Feast of All Saints on November 1st reached Ireland in the late 8th or early 9th century, paganism had been gone for centuries. The only reason we know that there was some pagan festival called Samhain is because of the records of Monks, who noted the Holiday, but failed to mention anything whatsoever about the practices of such a day. We know absolutely nothing about the pre-Christian Samhain. Nonetheless, the word does survive in modern Gaelic and means something close to our word "autumn." This is not unlike the English word "Easter," which now only designates the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, even though St. Bede tells us it once referred to some unknown Anglo-Saxon pagan festival. The earliest records we have about the content of Irish pagan rituals only date back about 200 years. It is not possible that they are anything other than speculation, propaganda, or outright fiction.
As concerns the traditions of Halloween, most of them are of a pious Christian origin. Trick-or-treating is connected to the tradition of "souling" a customer where children would beg alms (in the form of little cakes) in exchange for the promise to pray for people's deceased loved ones. It was a charitable exchange all around. Its connection to Halloween has more to do with the prayers and masses offered for the deceased on All Souls Day. It was in America that it was changed to trick-or-treat, maybe a less charitable exchange of goodies for the promise of good behavior, but this was more acceptable in Protestant America than praying for the dead.
Costumes are historically connected with Halloween, but also other Christian Celebrations. This became more common after the Black Death, the great bubonic plague of the 14th Century. Dressing as the dead and the "Danse Macabre" (a direct allusion to the scriptural story found in 2 Maccabees and the martyrdoms recorded there), depictions of which adorn a number of Churches and Holy Places. The depictions, personification of death, and the dressing up as dead ones are aimed at bringing a moral message to believers. As we remember all of the Saints and pray for all of those who have died, we need to reflect on our own mortality and live in the knowledge that death will come for us. The point of it all is to encourage repentance.
Of course modern costumes rarely convey this message and many go too far and seem to celebrate evil and death. Some revel in sin and exalt pagan themes, perverting the Christian celebration of All the Saints. Of course such things are problematic and must be avoided just like those frenzied pre-Christmas sales that have resulted in the death of some shoppers and pervert the Christian meaning of Christmas and must be avoided. However, it is clearly still possible, especially for Western Christians to have a pious and holy celebration of Halloween. I pray that Christians of the Western Rite are successful in reclaiming their holiday and their heritage from those who would commercialize or subvert it.
Fr. Benjamin Naasko