All Saints’ Day
Dressed as Dracula or as devils, neighborhood children were happily “trick or treating” last night in the United States and some other countries. But would it surprise you to know that “Halloween” (by that name) started out as a holy Christian celebration?
Hallow, in Old English, means “holy” or “sacred.” Therefore, “Hallows’ Eve,” or “Halloween” simply means “the evening of holy persons” and refers to the evening before All Saints Day, which is this day, November 1 on both Anglican and Catholic calendars. Halloween is a mixture of Celtic religious ideas and Christian martyrology.
In the early years when the Roman Empire persecuted Christians, so many martyrs died for their faith, that the Church set aside special days to honor them. For example, in 607 Emperor Phocas presented to the pope the beautiful Roman Pantheon temple. The pope removed the statues of Jupiter and the pagan gods and consecrated the Pantheon to “all saints” who had died from Roman persecution in the first three hundred years after Christ. Many bones were brought from other graves and placed in the rededicated Pantheon church. Since there were too many martyrs for each to be given a day, they were lumped together into one day. In the next century, All Saints Day was changed by Pope Gregory III to today’s date–November l. People prepared for their celebration with a night of vigil on Hallows’ Eve — Halloween (possibly because of the strong holdover influence of the Celtic Samhein festival which many Christians in Ireland, Britain Scotland and Wales had continued to observe).
In the 10th century, Abbot Odela of the Cluny monastery added the next day–November 2nd–as “All Souls” Day” to honor not just the martyrs, but all Christians who had died. People prayed for the dead, but many unchristian superstitions continued. People in Christian lands offered food to the dead–as it had been in pagan times. The superstitious also believed that on these two days, souls in purgatory would take the form of witches, toads, or demons and haunt persons who had wronged them during their lifetime. As happens so often in Church history, sacred Christian festivals can absorb so many pagan customs that they lose their significance as Christian holidays.
But think of it positively. Who are your favorite heroes in Christian History? Can you think of any whose example has inspired you? Why not use All Saint’s Day to think of and give thanks for as many Christians from the past as you can remember, whether they are famous or not, especially if their lives and teaching contributed something to yours.
Diana Severance, Ph.D.
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- “Celtic Mythology” and “Halloween.” Encyclopedia Americana, 2005.
- “Celtic Religion” and “Halloween.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002.
- Hatch and Douglass. The American Book of Days. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1948.
- Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Oxford, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991.
- Primiano, Leonard Norman. “Halloween” in Encyclopedia of Religion. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2005.
- What Life Was Like Among Druids and High Kings: Celtic Ireland, AD 400-1200. by the editors of Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia : Time-Life Books, c1998.