The Odd Couple—Halloween and All Saints’ Day
HALLOWEEN got its name from the old English term All Hallows E’en, the eve of all the holy ones’ day, or All Saints’ Day, which falls on November 1 in the Church calendar. But just how did a night full of ghosts, witches, skeletons and a host of other things of the dark ever get tied up with a day for the “saints” of the Roman Catholic Church? It is a story that betrays how thin is the line separating pagan folklore and Church practices.
Where Halloween Got Started
Under the heading “Halloween,” the “Encyclopædia Britannica” says: “Oct. 31 was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and one of the ancient fire festivals. . . . Since November ushers in the darkest and most barren half of the year, the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, fairies and demons of all kinds roaming abroad.”
The festival was held in honor of Samhain, the Celtic lord of the dead, who it was believed, allowed the souls of those who died in the preceding year to return home that evening. Festivities included building huge bonfires to chase away the witches and demons. Sacrifices of crops, animals and even humans were made to appease the souls of the deceased. The people also engaged in fortune-telling and wore costumes made of animal heads and skins.
The Romans also contributed some of their pagan rituals to the customs of the Celts whom they conquered. One of their autumn festivals held in honor of Pomona, the goddess of trees and fruits, probably accounted for the prominent use of apples in Halloween festivities—apple-bobbing and apple-on-a-string, for example.
What About All Saints’ Day?
For centuries, the Romans prayed for their dead at the Pantheon, the temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele and other Roman deities. Then in about 610 C.E., Emperor Phocas presented the temple as a gift to Pope Boniface IV, who rededicated it to Mary and the martyrs of the Church on May 13, the date of a feast observed by the Church for its martyrs. Thereafter, Roman converts could come to the same temple to pray for their dead, only now in the name of Mary and the martyrs instead of Cybele and the deities. For some 200 years the anniversary of the dedication became the major celebration at the “Christianized” Pantheon, and this observance, many authorities believe, became the predecessor of All Saints’ Day.
How the Two Got Together
The needed linkage was the Roman conquest of the Celts, who subsequently became “Christians.” However, they persisted in many of their customs, including their October 31 festival of the dead. So, in 837 C.E., Pope Gregory IV, in line with the Church policy of absorbing and “Christianizing” the customs of the converts rather than abolishing them, ordered that November 1 be observed throughout the Church as a day for all the “saints.” Thus, in a single stroke of ecclesiastical diplomacy, a totally pagan festival with all its paraphernalia intact was married to the Church’s own centuries-old pagan worship of the dead. And ever since, the odd couple, Halloween and All Saints’ Day, have inseparably stuck together.