It is very popular, these days, to simply wave the Vigil of All Saints Day (or “Halloween”) off as “pagan” in general, or a recasting of Samhain in particular. While it is true that, as far as popular celebration among the public is concerned, it is often the case that “Halloween is quite shamelessly secular, without any explicit Christian referent,” the subject is nonetheless more nuanced than many realize.
What About Samhain?
James George Frazer’s wildly successful late 19th century work, The Golden Bough, popularized the alleged connection between Halloween and Samhain. Since then, a great many have come to take the explanation for granted. One can easily find the claim repeated on numerous websites and television shows, thus it seems to be common knowledge. However, when one is pressed on the evidence for such a conclusion, it seems extant evidence is lacking.
Perhaps it is worth pointing out, as a Professor of Religious and Cultural Education at Glasgow University has, that “the only intact pre-Christian Celtic calendar to have so far been discovered —the second century Coligny Calendar from Gaul— makes no mention of Samhain”. The earliest text to mention Samhain is apparently the Tochmarc Emire (which calls it Samuin), a text which may date to the eleventh century, though some feel it contains language bearing signs of portions therein going back to the eighth century. The text apparently does not say when, precisely Samuin is, much less how it was understood (or, if it is celebrated, how it is celebrated). It is not even clear if Samuin night was determined according to a lunar or solar calendar.
Meanwhile, regarding Halloween (the eve of All Saints Day), note the following:
«By 800 churches in England and Germany, which were in touch with each other, were celebrating a festival dedicated to all saints upon 1 November, instead. The oldest text of Bede’s Martyrology, from the eighth century, does not include it, but the recensions at the end of the century do. Charlemagne’s favourite churchman Alcuin was keeping it by then, as were also his friend Arno, bishop of Salzburg, and a church in Bavaria. Pope Gregory, therefore, was endorsing and adopting a practice which had begun in northern Europe. It had not, however, started in Ireland, where the Felire of Oengus and the Martyrology of Tallaght prove that the early medieval churches celebrated the feast of All Saints upon 20 April. This makes nonsense of Frazer’s notion that the November date was chosen because of ‘Celtic’ influence; rather, both ‘Celtic’ Europe and Rome followed a Germanic idea.»
In short, it is far from clear that the date of Halloween has anything to do with Samhain, and it is not even clear that Samhain fell on the relevant date before Halloween did.
A Brief Segue on “Pagan” Dates
The above aside, for the sake of argument, what if a Christian feast day did fall on the same day as an older “pagan” celebration? It’s certainly a question which can come up for other feasts (e.g. the Feast of the Nativity). For some insight on this question, consider the books of Maccabees (considered Scripture by Catholics and Orthodox, appearing as an appendix to the Old Testament in some Protestant Bibles, and considered to have historical value by the early Reformers).
The opening chapter of the first book of Maccabees covers the forces who sided with Antiochus desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem, and trying to force the believing Jews to embrace a “pagan” system of religious practice. In the midst of that discussion, one comes across the following verses:
[1 Maccabees 1:54,59 (NRSV)]
«Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah […] On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering.»
So, according to that text, on the 25th of Kislev, “pagans” were performing a sacrifice inside the Temple. That just happens to be the date of the start of Hanukkah! This is something acknowledged by the relevant work itself. Note the following, which is referring to the Jewish believers, after they had reclaimed and rededicated the Temple, a few years later:
[1 Maccabees 4:52-54,56,59 (NRSV)]
«Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and _on the very day_ that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. […] So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. […] Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.»
This is mentioned again in the second book of Maccabees:
[2 Maccabees 10:5 (NRSV)]
«It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev.»
Ergo, for those who recognize the books of Maccabees as part of the Bible, it could be said that, from a Biblical perspective, it is permissible to establish a new feast on the same day that a “pagan” celebration had previously occurred. For those who do not consider such texts to be Scripture, it can at least be said that ancient forms of Judaism recognized this permissibility. The books of Maccabees aside, Josephus acknowledges the same, writing the following in his Antiquity of the Jews:
«And on the twenty-fifth of the month Chasleu, which the Macedonians call Apellaios, they kindled the lights on the lampstand and burned incense on the altar and set out the loaves on the table and offered whole burnt-offerings upon the new altar. These things, as it chanced, took place on the same day on which, three years before, their holy service had been transformed into an impure and profane form of worship. For the temple, after being made desolate by Antiochus, had remained so for three years; it was in the hundred and forty-fifth year that these things befell the temple, on the twenty-fifth of the month Apellaios, in the hundred and fifty-third Olympiad. And the temple was renovated on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apellaios, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, in the hundred and fifty-fourth Olympiad. […] So much pleasure did they find in the renewal of their customs and in unexpectedly obtaining the right to have their own service after so long a time, that they made a law that their descendants should celebrate the restoration of the temple service for eight days. And from that time to the present we observe this festival, which we call the Festival of Lights»
King James and Halloween
While criticism of Halloween (in particular the accusation of redressed “paganism”) comes from non-Christians, it also comes from quite a few people who identify as Christian, as well. Interestingly, a good portion of them are fans of the King James Bible (some are even KJV-Onlyists), so it seems worthwhile to explore the attitude of King James and his translators towards Halloween.
Many do not know that the 1611 King James Bible had a calendar listing feasts and fasts of the Anglican Church. The following image is made up of portions of scans from that calendar (if it is initially unclear, links to scans of the full pages for each month will be provided in subsequent discussion, immediately below).
What is being highlighted, here, is that, for the translators of the King James Bible, there were fasts which preceded major feast days. So notice that for February, on the 2nd the Feast of the Purification of Mary is noted, and the day before that (1 February) is a fast. Likewise, in March, the 25th is the feast of the Annunciation, and the day before that (24 March) is a fast. So too in December, the 25th is Christmas, and the day before that is also a fast.
With that in mind, note that in November, the 1st lists the Feast of All Saints, and the day before that, the 31st of October, is a fast. This would mean that, just as the KJV translators assigned some significance to Christmas eve, so too they did for the eve of the Feast of All Saints, or what was also called in English, “All Hallows Eve” (colloquially, Hallows Even, or Hallowe’en).
Distinguishing a Festival from Popular Celebrations
Now, it would be fair to argue that just because King James and his translators observed the vigil of the feast of All Saints, that doesn’t mean they were dressing up as ghosts, monsters, demons and witches. Moreover, being that it was a fast, one can say with certainty that they were not stuffing their faces with sweets (though sweets might have come out at midnight, or whenever they believed the feast of All Saints day began). The material presented in the previous section only shows that they didn’t have a hostility to Halloween, simpliciter.
Such a point, however, raises a question relevant to a more nuanced approach to the subject: should one simply object to Halloween as a whole, or more specifically to certain behaviors which some engage in on Halloween? For an analogy, consider the example of Purim, a holiday mentioned in the book of Esther. Today, the relevant holiday is celebrated with costume parties, though there is no indication such was the case in Biblical times. Beyond that, some less observant Jews will celebrate Purim by dressing up as devils, a practice one can be sure orthodox Jews object to. For example, see this video, in which Tel Aviv based make-up artist Sivan Ganzi provides visual tips on how to dress up as Satan for Purim (the title literally refers to Satan), and there are other videos like that.
If a person is able to distinguish between Purim itself and a person who dresses up as Satan on Purim, it would seem one should likewise be able to distinguish between “Halloween” itself and some person who dresses up as a devil or a witch for Halloween. The Vigil of Omnium Sanctorum has been observed for centuries, and it is far too simplistic to reduce it to how secular folk celebrate it, today.
A Northern European Approach to Vigilia Omnium Sanctorum
Dressing up as demons aside, one might wonder what, for example, pumpkins have to do with the relevant vigil. The answer is that such is a likely an accretion from a distinctly northern European handling of the vigil in Autumn.
As one former professor at the University of Hamburg noted, “in der Kirche ist ein Erntedankfest seit dem dritten Jahrhundert belegt,”
which translates, “in the Church, an erntedankfest
has been held since the third century”. But what does “erntedankfest
” mean? Ernte
means harvest, dank
means thanks, and fest
means feast or festival. In other words, Teutonic Christians have held harvest-time thanksgiving feasts since ancient times, and both Halloween and the North American celebrations of Thanksgiving find their origins in variations of an erntedankfest
. Similar themes can be seen in Праздник Урожая
), the Slavic Harvest Festival.
As the late Notre Dame professor George Minamiki once put it, “Christianity was not meant to totally supplant another culture, but rather to be implanted into the matrix of that culture.” Ergo, certain cultures will approach an observance with some of their own unique cultural expressions, and it just so happens that some of those expressions will become popular among others. The appropriateness of each expression or accretion can be examined on a case by case basis.
(1) Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 164.
(2) Robert A. Davis, “Escaping Through Flames: Halloween as a Christian Festival,” in Malcolm Foley & Hugh O’Donnell (eds.), Trick or Treat: Halloween in a Globalising World, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), pp. 29-30.
(3) See Kuno Meyer’s translation of the text in vol. I (1888) of The Archaeological Review. On page 68 the relevant text is dated to 1050 A.D. The references to Samuin appear on pages 232 and 303.
(4) See the discussion in Gregory Toner, “The Transmission of ‘Tochmarc Emire’,” in Ériu, vol. 49 (1998), pp. 71-88. It is unclear, at this time, if the relevant portions include the two passing references to Samuin.
(5) On page 303, foot note 4, of the above-mentioned volume of The Archeological Review, Meyer asserts that Samuin night corresponds to the eve of the first of November, but the text of the Tochmarc Emire itself does not state such (thus it seems Meyer was retroactively speculating based on later practice?).
(6) Note that the oldest known Celtic calendar was lunar (more properly lunisolar, like the Rabbinic calendar), with each month being determined by the moon. However, also note that “the idea of a precise and all-pervasive Celtic calendar must be treated with considerable caution” [cf. Clive Ruggles, Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005), p. 76].
(7) Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 364.
(8) Josephus, “Antiquity of the Jews,” book XII, chapter vii, no. 6, as found in Ralph Marcus, Josephus, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), vol. VII, pp. 165-169.
(9) Hans-Christoph Goßmann, Offener Himmel – Weiter Raum: Inhalte Christlichen Glaubens, (Steinmann Verlag, 2013), p. 224.
(10) George Minamiki, The Chinese Rites Controversy, (Loyola University Press, 1985), p. 22.
(11) Exempli gratia, in John Milton, L’allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas, (New York: American Book Co., 1894), p. 15, n. 3, it is noted that the “Jack-o-lantern” may have also been called the “Friar’s lantern,” and symbolized the souls who were in purgatory, et cetera.
Categories: Catholicism, Christianity