Doug Johnson: A look at the origins of Halloween traditions

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 22, 2023

Halloween continues to be extremely popular with kids of all ages — 73 percent of the U.S. population will go trick-or-treating or engage in other Halloween festivities this year. 

In the United States, Halloween is second only to Christmas in total consumer dollars spent. According to the National Retail Federation, the holiday is expected to bring in about $12.2 billion in sales this year and is now the sixth most popular card-sending occasion in the United States.

So what does Halloween really mean? The name ‘Halloween’ is actually a shortened version of “All Hallows’ Even,” the eve of All Hallows’ Day. 

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All Hallows’ Day, or All Saints’ Day, is celebrated on the first day of November. It is the day on which Catholics commemorate all the saints. Taking from the Jewish tradition, Christians have traditionally observed holy days from sundown on one day until sundown on the following day. This is where we get the practice of celebrating Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, etc. 

Therefore, the celebration of All Saints’ Day began at sundown on Oct. 31. At some point, people began referring to All Hallows’ Even as “Hallowe’en” and then simply “Halloween.”

Most of the traditions of Halloween date back to Samhain, the ancient Celtic New Year. 

Samhain, which translates to “end of summer,” occurred around the end of October, when the weather started to get cold. Celtic tradition held that turning points, times when things change from one state to another, had magical properties. 

Since Samhain marked the biggest turning point of the year, the Celts believed this magical time opened up a sort of connection to the dead – and that the spirits of the dead traveled again among the living. A lot of the activities of the Samhain festival were connected to this belief, and many of those practices evolved into modern day Halloween traditions.

In any case, the Catholic Church began to incorporate Samhain traditions into the All Saints’ Day activities. This helped bring descendants of the ancient Celts into Christianity, but it posed some problems for the Church.

Despite some unease in the Church, many supernatural ideas persisted in All Saints’ Day Eve celebrations, making the occasion a combination of Christian and pagan beliefs. 

Conceding that they could not completely get rid of the supernatural elements of the celebrations, the Catholic Church began characterizing the spirits as evil forces associated with the devil. This is where we get a lot of the more disturbing Halloween imagery, such as evil witches and demons.

In medieval times, one popular All Souls’ Day practice was to make “soul cakes,” simple bread desserts with a currant topping. In a custom called “souling,” children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters. For every cake a child collected, he or she would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven.

There is also some evidence of trick-or-treat type activities in the original Celtic tradition. Historians say the Celts would dress up in ghoulish outfits and parade out of town to lead the wandering spirits away. It is for these reasons that some Christians do not celebrate Halloween. 

My suggestion is: whether you celebrate Halloween or not, Christians can turn this holiday into a means of sharing the Good News of Jesus’ love. 

Simply go to your local Christian bookstore, buy some kid-friendly gospel tracts, and give them out to everyone who comes to your door on Halloween along with some candy. And do it with a smile on your face because you’re representing Jesus… not the Devil!  

Rev. Doug Johnson is the senior pastor at Raven Assembly of God in Raven, Virginia.