In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First decreed that Christian missionaries should not attempt obliterate potential converts’ native beliefs and customs, but rather consecrate their sacred rituals to Christ, allowing them to continue their practices with a veneer of Christian worship. Theologians and religionists are still arguing about whether this was such a good idea, but there can be little doubt that the resulting mosaic of belief fragments is fascinating to see, and of all the holidays in modern Western cultures, Hallowe’en is probably the one that reveals the most about our ancient spiritual roots.
Natural cycles of life and death, light and darkness, warmth and cold, planting and harvest, are underlying themes of all religions. Hallowe’en, as it is celebrated in the United States of America, brings together ancient Celtic harvest feasts, invocations of the spirits of dead loved ones, and Christian remembrance of souls who have passed through this world and on to the realms of eternal reward or punishment.
Samhain was a Gaelic festival that marked the approach of winter. Cattle were brought in from summer pastures, and some were butchered to provide food for the barren winter. Bonfires were built to protect and cleanse the atmosphere and to hold back the dark of the coming months. Samhain was a time when spirits could more easily penetrate the veil between the living and the dead.
Bountiful harvests were enjoyed and celebrated with feasts, and attempts were made to communicate with the deceased who, it was held, came closer at this time of year. Places were set at tables to welcome them home, and unpredictable spirits and fairies were offered food and drink to ensure health and fortune for the living family.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as the day to honor all the saints, or All Hallows’ Day. In 1000 AD, November 2 was set aside as All Souls’ Day to remember all the dead.
Traditions and rituals from many cultures, along with commercial innovations have accumulated through the centuries to characterize the many ways the holiday is celebrated today. Living people, especially children, in costumes act out the visitation of spirits and disembodied souls for a few hours, some of them with earthbound grudges and unresolved conflicts. Jack-o-lanterns and bonfires create light against the gathering and terrifying darkness. There are many origin stories to explain the incorporation of sweets, treats, and mischief into the holiday, but my guess would be that they persist because people enjoy an excuse for having some fun.