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October 31, 2006



Great article, Amy -- thanks for this from one who has sometimes harbored mixed feelings about today.

John Jansen

I'm puzzled by the trend in recent years on the part of many Christians (Catholic and Protestant alike) to shun anything having to do with the trappings of Halloween.

Articles like this one, therefore, are a welcome dose of sanity.


John Jansen, I wouldn't say that I "shun anything having to do with the trappings of Halloween," but my family does do an All Saint's party instead of trick-or-treating. We started this for purely practical reasons: the creepy neighbor who answers the door with a live snake around his neck, the older kids in truly gruesome costumes, the kids being dropped off in our neighborhood by parents who drive them all over town, etc. Besides, while it's true that Halloween isn't evil, I'm not very fond of some of the current practices. Years ago, for instance, Halloween decorations were rather cute: black cats, witches, pumpkins etc. My local grocery store hung up zombie heads in the baked goods department--not exactly an encouragement to buy cupcakes, in my book! My kids didn't even want to go near that area of the store. I think the reason so many parents end up looking for alternative celebrations is that today's mainstream Halloween stuff is way too ugly and scary for young children.

Kathleen Lundquist

I recommend to one and all a cool little book by my friend Lint Hatcher, The Magic 8-Ball Test: A Christian Defense of Halloween. He's a Catholic convert and Halloween aficionado, and an able defender of this festival of our faith - as well as being possessed of a sharp wit. (Several, actually.) :^)

His reminisces of Halloweens past are worth a read and will warm the hearts of anyone who loves the crisp scent of fall, the beauty and poignancy of falling leaves and the earth's walk into winter, classic horror films starring Boris and Bela, and dressing up like Cornelius from Planet of the Apes.



"It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on October 31--as they did on the last day of most other months of the year."

Sorry, but this sounds very third-hand.

1. We have no direct evidence of the holiday dates for the ancient Celts of Britain and Ireland.

2. It sounds like he's talking about the Coligny calendar, but all muddled up

3. The Coligny calendar was was found in what is now eastern France, not Britain or Ireland

4. We don't know for sure how the months and dates on it line up with the Roman calendar

5. If (as I think is true) there is good circumstantial evidence to link modern Samhain to the text on the Coligny calendar usually interpreted as Trinouxtion Samonii ("three nights of Samonios"), then it is fairly certainly a major festival, as it is (a) marks the turn of the year (b) is three nights long and (c) is one of the few named holidays on the calendar.

I would love to be convinced that the establishment of All Saints on 1 Nov has nothing to do with pre-existing pagan holidays, but I've yet to be convinced.


It seems that Halloween has something to offend everyone. It's too pagan for some Christians. Some Jews I know go out for the evening to avoid participating, because they think it's a Christian holiday. And now I learn it has an anti-Catholic aspect also -- the trick or treat part derives from celebration of Guy Fawkes Day.

My objection to Halloween is the common one that it has become so commercialized and over-celebrated in recent years. When I was a kid in the 1960s, there was no run up to it like there is now (at least not that I remember). It was in that respect much more low key. But the night itself was more festive in those days because there were a lot more kids around (although I'm comparing apples to oranges because I live in a very different kind of neighborhood than the one I grew up in).

I suspect that one reason Halloween has become more popular in recent years is that celebrating traditional holidays fills a void that has been created by the abandonment of traditional religion.

Rich Leonardi

I would love to be convinced that the establishment of All Saints on 1 Nov has nothing to do with pre-existing pagan holidays, but I've yet to be convinced.

Why would you love to see it? The notion that the Church accculturates and "baptizes" the (pre-)existing pagan culture is a good thing in and of itself, no?


"I would love to be convinced that the establishment of All Saints on 1 Nov has nothing to do with pre-existing pagan holidays"

Why? Such Christian conquests of times and seasons is part of our history. The date we celebrate Christmas is around the time of the winter solstice--when the pagans had quite the whoop-de-doo. And the feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist is 6 months prior--the date of the summer solstice. It's part of the Christian tradition to take nature and endow it with new meaning. And pagan religions--which are natural religions--have an element of truth which Christians historically have tried to redeem by reinterpreting it in the light of revelation in Christ. It's not just the same old thing in a new key. It's something entirely new, but something which enfolds the old rather than abolishing it altogether.


Not everybody associates trick or treating with the occult. My son and his friends are dressed tonight as the Nixon administration (he's Kissinger).


Rich, JFP, I think the part of my brain that handles irony got in a tangle with the part that handles frustration. I totally agree with you both, and I meant something more like "Go ahead and try to prove it, make my day."

Dan, I suspect that Guy Fawkes customs were influenced trick-or-treat was more influenced by pre-existing Samhain-related customs that vice versa. There are too many examples of food-offering / food-collecting customs in Celtic and ex-Celtic areas that are associated with either Samhain-time (or New Year's), such as souling for soul-cakes, or the Welsh "hel bwyd cennad y meirw", hunting food for the embassy of the dead.


Ancient pagan cultures celebrated weddings with festal clothing, flowers, music, and processions, too. (Ancient Roman bridal veils were of a saffron-orange color, though.)

Does that mean that all wedding celebrations are of pagan origin?

Good grief. If that's the rule then, I guess, let's see, . . . language, writing, arithmetic, fire, the wheel, the catapult, the bow and arrow, music, painting, song, drama and theatre, clothing, cooked food, cities, all sports and games, handtools, the institution of laws, kingships, taxation, marriage, motherhood, the nation-state, and . . . oh, yes, apple pie, are all of pagan origin.

Well, let's chuck everything and go live like Tom Hanks in Castaway, lest we do anything that's of pagan origin. Because that's what it would take to avoid it.



Oh, and bathrooms

The Romans invented indoor plumbing with heated water and built the first indoor baths.


Out they go!

Joe Marier

I just find it hard to believe that they would move the date of All Saints Day, in 740, to coincide with Samhain! And that they would plan out the construction of the chapel, to make sure that the dedication would coincide with Samhain? And the Pope would then make sure to have the dedication... the day after, because that's how clever he is?

Seems to me that they finished All Saints Chapel at some point in October, and the Pope thought it would be nice to have the dedication on the first of the month and move the feast day, and the rest is history. You can't read too much into these things.

Tom K.

It seems that Halloween has something to offend everyone.

In a department store last month, I overheard a black man tell the woman he was with that he didn't celebrate Halloween, because "first, it's a white man's holiday."


Well, okay... But my usual objection to the "your Christian holiday used to be a pagan celebration" claim is "show me the evidence" (which is never there). Where is the evidence for this series of exculpations?

And this claim: "So too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was Druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration" doesn't make any sense. When I lived in Glasgow as a girl, kids went guising with carved-out turnips. This was before the American version of Hallowe'en crossed over the pond and affected the Scottish Hallowe'en (and made it an English holiday also). If the article is incorrect in this, what am I to think of the other claims?

Finally, I used to be persuaded that the Church had "baptized" all sorts of pagan practices and celebrations. Until I read Bede and Patrick, and discovered that the early Christians were not nearly so ecumenical about pagan celebrations and rites as people now imagine, and discovered how shoddy the evidence for the ancient pagan origin of Christian practices was--the fervent imaginations of 19th-century folklorists, the purveyors of "Babylonian mystery religion," and the eagerness to believe that minor customs, rhymes, and holiday practices have origins shrouded in the mists of time (when in fact they are nearly always recent) are responsible for much of the hooey.


The next person who suggests that I am celebrating a "pagan holiday" at Hallowe'en or Christmans, I'll inform them that if they had or plan to have flowers, a procession, or a wedding veil at their church wedding, that they are imitating ancient pagan rites, also.


Actually, the Irish liked to stay in on Halloween night, eat their heads off at dinner, and then pray.


"It was the eve of All Saints...

"In the middle of [the sitting room] stood a small table, covered with a snow-white cloth; and upon it were two lighted candles, and a large amber-headed rosary with silver decades, and a massive silver cross attached to it. Close by the table knelt the father of the family. A prayer-book was in his hand, from which he read the office for the dead; and his wife and children knelt around him, and joined in the responses...

"...the group arose from their knees...The candles remained burning, as was usual... because it was expected that any person who might enter the house before the hour of repose, should kneel down at the table and pray for the dead."

Jim McCullough

We need a comment by Sanda Meisel on this.

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B.

The Church's liturgy never refers to All Souls Day as a feast.

The current "Missale Romanum" designates the observance as:
"In Commemoration of All the Deceased Faithful" (and the Latin "fidelium" is a reference to Christian believers).

It is a commemoration that makes use of the same liturgical texts as funerals.

Curiously, our current U.S. "Sacramentary" doesn't call the day anything. Just "All Souls".

All Souls Day is not a feast and never has been.

It is a commemoration ... of Christian believers who have died.

Joe Marier

Eat their heads off? That's the scariest thing I've heard all day!

Tim Ferguson

Sandra Meisel is certainly erudite and her comments would be most welcome, but I don't think that Fr. Augustine is a slouch either. His credentials are impeccable and his research habits are quite thorough. Though this particular piece was written for "popular" consumption and therefore doesn't have the academic complexity that would meet the standards of comboxers like o.h. and Atlantic, I'm quite certain that his research into this topic is quite complete and his assertions are not mere speculation.

And to be honest, I don't understand o.h.'s objection. She questions Fr. Augustine's assertion that jack-o-lanterns, as found in American halloween celebrations, have as their origin the Celtic custom of placing lights in turnips. Then she cites her own experience, as a child in Glasgow, of children using lamps in turnips whilst parading in costume. That seems to prove Father's point, rather than refute it. It was the custom in Celtic areas (of which I'm fairly sure Glasgow would qualify), spread to the US, got transmorgrified due to the availability of pumpkins and gourds, and then transplanted back to Scotland pumpkinly, where the children were still using the original turnip-version of a jack-o-lantern.


The other big deal on Halloween, in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, et al., was games. Bobbing for apples (or coins) apparently was found in all kinds of places. Bonfires were always good. Throwing nuts in the fire for making wishes or divinations was big. All kinds of stupid reasons to go outside and sneak around in the deserted harvested fields to scare yourself or others -- also big.

Now, All Soul's Day was the soulcakes and stuff. It was the visiting graves and maybe even eat there or leave food and candles there day. Also the "set the table and stay up late waiting for either your dead sweetheart or your future one", or just plain "your dead relatives are bound to visit, so leave the chairs out for them so they'll know you still remember them". (I was really surprised to find out that such dumb suppers were all over Northern Europe. I guess girls really want to see their guys.)

However, the really overlooked by moderns thing about Halloween celebrations all over Europe was this:

Fall housecleaning.

It was a grave insult to your dead, and maybe even an invitation to evil and bad luck for the whole next year, not to clean the house. (Especially if you were going to have a party on Halloween.) So it was like spring cleaning, except with spookiness to enforce Mom's will upon you.

Please, don't anybody ever tell my mother about this old Halloween housecleaning thing. It scares me already!


Fall housecleaning!

Hup! A pagan ritual!

That cans it! I'm never, never doing Fall housecleaning again. Why, it's of pagan origin

To think - all this time with my Fall swiffering I have been playing straight into the hands of Satan!

Come to think of it, maybe housecleaning at any time of year could be considered a pagan ritual. Plenty of pagans must have cleaned their huts and cottages in a ritualistic fashion, after all. . .

Not doing that any more!


So, I can wear my flamingo hat, after all?


Tim Ferguson,

Maybe I misread the article, but I was understanding it to say that folklorists noticed that the ancient Celts had used turnips in celebrations, and so started using them in American celebrations of Hallowe'en. The implication (which still seems to me pretty clear) is that the use of hollowed, lighted turnips bypassed the modern U.K. altogether. The evidence of my experience was meant to indicate that this couldn't be the case.

You seem very annoyed that I should question the author of the article. But when a claim is made, and my direct experience contradicts it, yes I question it. Sorry.


"So, I can wear my flamingo hat, after all?"

I don't know, Jeanette. . . let us consult the 2006 edition of Atlas of Pagan Beliefs and Practices that We As Christians Better Not Imitate . . .

(Reading) F. . . F . . . Flambé, Flamingo! Oh! It says here that the ancient Phoenicopteri people of the Near East used to hold special rituals during the annual Return of the Flamingos, and part of this pagan ritual was observed in the "weaving and wearing of headresses elaborately adorned with the flamboyant rosy-colored plumage of these long-legged avians."

(Snaps book shut.)

Sorry. Flamingo headdresses. Associations with a pagan ritual.

That's a non-starter.

Tim Ferguson

o.h., your apology is accepted, but not really necessary. I'm sorry if I came across as annoyed, which I wasn't. Combox postings have the lamentable habit of failing to convey emotions properly - I initally saw in your statement, "If the article is incorrect in this, what am I to think of the other claims?" a haughty poo-poohing of the scholarship of the article, based on the notion that one minor premise of the article was seemingly contradicted by your personal experience, but then I realized that your personal experience doesn't really contradict Fr. Augustine's statement, and so there wasn't really the haughty dismissal I originally read.

I disagree with your inference - that Fr. Augustine wasn't including the British experience in his brief, popularized article. I think it eminently logical to posit that if American folklorists "introduced" jack-o-lanterns based on ancient Celtic customs, it would also be possible that those ancient Celtic customs had perdured in Celtic lands. I don't see how your direct experience contradicts what he wrote.

Eileen R

I just find it hard to believe that they would move the date of All Saints Day, in 740, to coincide with Samhain! And that they would plan out the construction of the chapel, to make sure that the dedication would coincide with Samhain? And the Pope would then make sure to have the dedication... the day after, because that's how clever he is?

Add to that the fact that the Pope was in Rome, where even if the Celts had still been celebrating Samhain, which they hadn't been for a few hundred years, there weren't any Celts.

This is so funny, because I came to this realization earlier in the day, that the Samhain=Halloween equation *must* be complete bollocks.

It gets even funner. 740 is when the Pope moved All Saint's Day from May to November, but this change wasn't even observed in a lot of places for a long time afterward.

So to believe that All Saint's Day's date is attached to Samhain, you'd have to believe that the non-Celtic Pope moved All Saint's Day to a day which might have coincided with the Celtic feast of Samhain which hadn't been celebrated in Europe for a few hundred years.


Ah this thread should be more widely read. "Folklore" invented a century or so ago has been steadily deconstructed in the past decade. Much of "Wicca" with that.

Btw, the Commmemoration of Faithful Departed has the *rank* of a solemnity in the universal calendar.

Laura Gonzalez

"today's mainstream Halloween stuff is way too ugly and scary for young children."

I know you said "mainstream," but I find Halloween getting too sexy. Costumes are what strippers used to wear, and the idea is to show what ya mama gave ya. Being a pimp was fairly popular a few years ago, and there were kids coming to school dressed that way. Good grief!


"Btw, the Commmemoration of Faithful Departed has the *rank* of a solemnity in the universal calendar."

Liam, what's your source for that? My books say that it's a commemoration, which is as low a non-ferial day as you can get. It's not optional, of course, but the reason it is so low is, obviously, that it's not a celebration of the the Church triumphant but prayers for the Church suffering. I'd be very surprised if it is a solemnity.



I'm assuming you're referring to All Souls Day, right?

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B.

In the "General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar", All Souls Day is not called a solemnity, however, it is placed in "their order of precedence" so that even if November 2 is always observed as All Souls Day even if it falls on a Sunday.

If you turn to November 1 and 2 in the "General Roman Calendar", you will see that All Saints has the word "Solemnity", but All Souls has nothing.



Re-reading my original post, it does sound snottier than I meant it too. I blame the hordes of cute little children who keep swarming on my doorstep in search of candy for my failure in tone.

I still disagree about what the article said, though. it says
(a) Folklorists thought (wrongly) that Hallowe'en was druidic in origin.
(b) They knew that ancient Celts had used turnips in some celebrations.
(c) Therefore they introduced the jack-o-lantern as an American Hallowe'en item, but using pumpkins insted of turnips.
I read this to say, quite straightforwardly, that these folklorists made the turnip-Hallowe'en connection because of the ancient Celtic connection, though they were wrong that Hallowe'en had such a connection. They only thought to use hollowed, lighted vegetables because they thought that would make Hallowe'en more authentically druidic, and this idea was introduced as an American Hallowe'en innovation. Therefore the existence of lighted turnips as a British Hallowe'en custom means that some point of the article's assumptions are wrong.

It's not a big point, and I have no doubt that the writer has impressive credentials. But the article is, I believe, incorrect, or at the least very misleading, on this point. And since it's the only point I had any prior information about, it did make me more skeptical toward the other claims.


Well, the good Father will no doubt write with more clarity next time.

The thing that interests me is that, in some parts of Germany anyway, they seem to have candlelight parades with hymns to St. Martin on Martinmas Eve. The candles are enclosed in paper lanterns. Said paper lanterns used to have pictures of St. Martin (or the goose they eat on that day) on them, but now seem to have branched out into all kinds of designs. Anyway, you can apparently make them yourself as well as buying them.

Man, I'd be up for a candlelight parade for St. Martin. I bet the late Roman reenactors would love to be asked, or you could get the Knights of Columbus in on it, and parish veterans. It'd be a great tie-in to Veteran's Day. You could throw in St. Maurice, St. Joan, et al for some supporting characters. And let's face it -- Fall holidays go better with fire! :)

Pictures of a "Martinszug"

I'm not really sure if I want to eat Martinmas goose two weeks before Thanksgiving turkey, though.... :)


Another *darned* university professor and medievalist confirms Fr. Thompson's conclusions:


Sandra Miesel

Since my input was requested, may I point readers to Ronald Hutton's PAGAN RELIGIONS OF THE BRITISH ISLES? He says that Samhain was an important festival in pagan Ireland (the most important of the "quarter days") but not among the other Celts. Lots of supernatural things happened both on 31 October and 1 November. The dead were not the focus of these stories. He doubts the significance or relevance of the Coligny Calendar. He points out that the folkloric explanations of turnip-candles have gotten horribly muddled, wishing that folklorists would actually listen to the folk and the folk not listen so much to folklorists.
Hutton's SEASONS OF THE SUN is also excellent on popular seasonal customs in the British Isles.

Now as for Christianizing, non-Celtic European peoples have ancient customs involving the dead on All Saints-All Souls. Inviting the ancestors to share a meal as in Poland or imagining that the dead bring gifts as in Italy (where they eat Beans of the Dead and Bones of the Dead confections) look very ancient. And the Mexican Day of the Dead is manfestly syncretic. I used to bake Bread of the Dead but won't be doing that this year.


Ron Hutton is a fine historian and is excellent on recent folklore, but he's not a Celtic or Indo-European scholar (he doesn't know any of the Celtic languages and therefore has no access to original sources). And in Stations of the Sun, he clearly makes the assumption that the first date of written evidence of a custom is probably quite close to date of origin; this is fine in highly literate periods for which the historical record is dense, but not reliable for a lot of the time we're talking about.

Furthermore, although discussion of this topic often centres on Celtic customs, it is unsurprising that similar customs are found across Europe, because it is fairly likely that there is a shared pattern across the Indo-European world - the Hindu feast of Diwali, which also falls at this time of year, is probably a distant relation.

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