I’ve been doing some of the more familiar witches fairy tales as a segue between the fairy tales and Halloween, but now we’re here, the big dog itself. So, definitively, is Halloween a pagan or a Christian holiday? Yes.
So, Halloween as we know it today is a curious amalgamation of different traditions stemming primarily Celtic (mostly Irish) traditions and early Medieval Christian. Throw in some Puritanism and some good old Yankee know-how, and we get Halloween. Yes, Halloween, in its modern incarnation, was invented in the good old US of A. It’s as American as pizza. Yes, strictly speaking there was a version of pizza made in Italy well before what came about in NYC, but the basic concept became the real deal on this side of the Atlantic.
The same is true with Halloween. I’ll start very close to the beginning. The Irish Celts celebrated (and modern pagans still do) a holiday called Samhain (pronounced sawhen). It was a harvest festival, and was also believed to be a time of great spirituality, when the boundary between the world of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Spirits could be seen, heard, talked to, play Scrabble, etc. The Irish believed strongly in the faeries, and believed that they, too, were more likely to cross over or leave their mounds to cause mischief.
Interestingly, know, that’s not where trick or treat comes from. We’ll get there.
Enter the Roman Catholic Church.
I like how ominous that sounds as its own paragraph. Anyway, the Church, in an effort to convert the pagans, decided to introduce a new holiday called All Saints Day on November 1st. Yep, November. Oh, incidentally, this is also known as All Hallows Day. The practices introduced by the church began to mingle with those of the Celts to produce some interesting and fun traditions.
The faerie mischief soon began to be carried out by people. The mischief was largely innocent, just inconvenient, and never harmful—my favorite is a story about how an entire family’s furniture was moved on top of the room of the house while they slept.
They also practiced what was called guising, dressing up in another guise to mingle among the faerie kind. This is where we get the tradition of dressing up on Halloween.
Now, tricks and treats. Yes, tricks and treats, not or. This went along with the guising, and these tricks were never mischievous. It was the price of earning a treat. Guisers would knock on doors and perform a trick (dancing, juggling, singing, etc.) in order to earn a treat from the household. Jack O’ Lanterns were also popular back then as a way to see in the night and ward off evil spirits . . . but most were carved from turnips. Europe didn’t have pumpkins, and they had lots of turnips. Go figure. I’ll get to the pumpkins, don’t worry.
Now for some linguistic math. Night before All Hallows Day = All Hallows Evening.
All Hallows Evening – ing = All Hallows Even. All Hallows Even – All = Hallows Even. Hallows Even * contraction = Hallows E’en. Hallows + E’en = Halloween. Isn’t language math fun!
Now, Europe, for the most part, exported the believers in Halloween with the Puritans and other colonists to the Americas. Over here is where the practice of using pumpkins came into its own because they were more plentiful and easier to carve than turnips. Because most of the Halloween celebrators left Europe, the traditions fizzled out. It became huge over here. There are accounts of it being celebrated well before the Revolutionary War.
Then, something curious happened. The States kept celebrating, all the way up to WWII. Then, the US sent thousands of troops to Jolly Old England to prepare for D-Day. And in that time, the American soldiers took their traditions of Halloween with them, reintroducing it to the British. The holiday has been growing in popularity in the UK ever since.
So, the answer is yes and no. This is a unique holiday that wouldn’t exist if not for the combination of both the Celtic and Catholic traditions before being ported over to the colonies. Maybe next year I’ll tackle the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead.