Halloween today: religion and culture

By on October 27, 2004

Trick or treat! Halloween is a holiday that many Americans celebrate, regardless of their religious faith. Halloween is commonly connected with ghosts, trick or treating or apple bobbing; however, there is a religious history to the holiday. Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 is a time that has been celebrated for many centuries by different religions and cultures of people.

Halloween stems from the Celtic observation of Samhain. Nov. 1 kicked off the harvest festival when Druids in Ireland and Britain would dance around fires and offer crop and animal sacrifices to symbolize the end of the season of sun and beginning of the season of darkness.

These fires were a big part of the celebration and were ignited with the bones from cattle or other animals, these fires were called “bone fires,” hence the modern word “bonfire.”

The Celts believed that on the night before Samhain, what is now commonly called Halloween, the world of the dead dissolved and would return to earth to cause trouble and damage crops. These “spirits” helped Celtic priests predict the future of the harvest. On this evil night the spirits roam the streets and villages. Lord Samhain, the lord of darkness, would arrive in search of the spirits to take them to the underworld.

By the Eight century, Catholic Pope Boniface IV designated Nov. 1 as All Saint’s Day to honor the saints and martyrs that do not have their own special day. Although it is unclear whether it was by coincidence or intentional, the Catholic Church designated their remembrance of the dead day on the Pagan Day of the Dead.

This is not the only holiday that overlaps with Pagan or Wicca holidays, Christmas Day, for example, is also the Pagan day for worship of the sun god.

Quinnipiac’s Director of Campus Ministry and Catholic Chaplin, Father Jonathan Kalisch, said, “When we look back at history, we can see it was originally a Celtic or Pagan festival, whether or not the church moved to baptize it or reclaim it, we don’t know if that was the case.”

In the Catholic Church, Nov. 1, All Saint’s Day, is a day of holy obligation, when most Catholics attend mass and read the readings of the saint’s and martyr’s heroic actions. All Soul’s Day, Nov. 2, is a day when the Catholics remember all those that have died and pray in remembrance. On All Soul’s Day, most Catholics will go to the cemetery and people will light candles at graves and pray.

November is a month that is dedicated to the remembrance of the dead.

The Halloween that most people celebrate, making costumes, bobbing for apples and scary sights, does not fit into the religious aspect of these celebrations.

“Today, it has become such a cultural phenomenon it is a devoid of Pagan or Wicca worship. Some pious families would rather have their children dressed as saints but the church would not say not to celebrate in a cultural event,” Father Kalisch said. “The church doesn’t say this is a time to celebrate devils or witches, it is just a fun moment for children to dress up.”

While some Christian groups connect Halloween to All Saints Day and as a time to remember the deceased, other religious Christians consider Halloween a Pagan holiday and “the most evil day of the year.” Some children are not allowed to celebrate in costumes or act out the “traditional” Halloween festivities due to their strict religion.

For the most part, regardless of their religion, Americans partake in the contemporary aspects of the holiday,

“People don’t think twice about it. I think a vast majority considers it a hallmark holiday,” Father Kalisch said. “[Halloween is] time to meet neighbors and take their kids around.”

“In a benign sense, it is really only in our culture, a cultural phenomenon, a hall mark holiday, but at the same time it can remind us of the church,” Father Kalisch said. “We celebrate saints, but do not condone evil spirits.”

The festivities such as trick or treating and costuming are commonly celebrated on Oct. 31; however, the days around Halloween are important in the Catholic Church and have little to do with goblins and ghouls.


About Nicole Silva