No other holiday incites the imaginations of kids and adults alike as much as Halloween. But what inspires people of all ages to dress up in various kinds of costumes to go out collecting all sorts of sweet goodies from door to door? Now, it’s a bit of an oddity to tell kids not to take anything from strangers the entire year, and then on this one occasion scrap it all and allow them to take potentially harmful edibles from strangers, most of whom they will not see again for an entire year till next Halloween. Somehow it’s become acceptable to make an exception this one day out of the entire year. But besides this obvious inconsistency, one wonders still how this peculiar tradition came about. What is Halloween? How did Halloween begin?
To answer the question, we have to go back to a time and place in which the ancient pagan calendar was in effect and two festivals divided the year into Summer and Winter. Originally the day we currently know as Halloween, also known as the witches’ new year, was a celebration that was part of the Celtic Feast of Samhain (sah–ween), the grand celebration marking the beginning of the Winter season. The festivals were also known to have included animal sacrifices, offerings to the dead, and bonfires in memory of the departed.
The Druids believed that on that night the divide between the physical world and the spirit world was pierced; allowing witches, demons, hobgoblins and elves to be released from the world beyond into the world of the living to harass those who were alive. In response and for protection, the Druids would create costumes and dress up as witches, devils and various other ghoulish characters to supposedly blend in with the ghoulish entities from the world beyond. There was great concern to be as authentic as possible, so much so that they even went so far as imitating these supposed ghouls by taking part in demonic activities in order to be immune from attack. They believed that these efforts would ward off the evil spirits.
In the spirit of consistency and to further demonstrate the extent to which they were willing to go to placate the spirits, the ancient Druids were quite interested in creating an atmosphere that they thought would please these evil spirits. In addition to the costumes, they also carved grotesque faces on gourds, which they illuminated with candles. In hopes of escaping harm, they would further try to appease the spirits by providing a variety of treats. All of this and more the Druids carried out in hopes of making themselves immune from attack.
In hopes of overthrowing this Druid tradition of festivals that was so entrenched in the myth of ghouls and goblins, in AD 835 the Roman diocese, Pope Gregory IV, moved the celebration for all the martyrs (All Saints Day) from May 13th to November 1st. Thus, the evening before came to be known as All Hallows’ Eve, from which the name Halloween was later derived.
Eerily the ancient Druid tradition of costumes and treats remains today as Halloween in various parts of the world. Of course, today the celebration has lost the true meaning behind it and the original intent of the Druids has been phased out and understood to be based on myth. However, while Halloween is now undertaken with more joy and less fear of ghosts and goblins, it’s name has been somewhat redeemed by the church as Samhain is no longer known as such, but by the name of the rival celebration that was known as All Hallows’ Eve.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.