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The Christian and pagan roots of Halloween

In ancient practices associated with All Saints’ Eve, people put candles inside carved-out pumpkins to represent souls still trapped in purgatory.

Halloween has its roots in both the ancient Roman Catholic tradition of All Saints’ Day and Celtic paganism.

Traditionally, All Saints’ Eve or All Hallows Eve from which we get the term Halloween has been celebrated on Oct. 31 by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.

All Saints Day was first commemorated by Pope Gregory III (731-741) on Nov 1, to honor the construction of an oratory for Saint Peter.

The day was set aside to commemorate all who had died, particularly the saints and martyrs.

All Saints’ Eve was celebrated the night before on Oct 31.

Since the Roman Catholic Church believes in praying for the souls of the dead, this quickly became the main feature of the All Saints’ Day/Eve celebration.

Roman Catholic theology believes in purgatory, which is a place where people can go to pay penance for their sins, before continuing on to heaven. The prayers for the dead are intended to shorten a soul’s stay in this intermediary state.

The practice dilutes Jesus perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world, suggesting it was not sufficient to cover everyone’s sins.

There is also no reference to praying for the dead in the Bible, and the only description is found in the apocrypha, (2 Maccabees 12:39-45), where after a battle, Judas Maccabee offered prayers for the Jewish soldiers who had died in battle.

But today many of our modern Halloween practices date back to the All Saints Eve tradition.

In a practice referred to as ‘souling’, children would travel to the homes of the rich offering to pray of the souls of their dead relatives in exchange for sweet soul cakes, that were often previously blessed by a parish priest.

This also used carved-out pumpkins or turnips with a face displayed on the front. A candle was often placed inside that was intended to represent a soul still stuck in purgatory and needing prayer.

The pumpkins were also used to light the paths of those travelling from home to home and to also ward off evil spirits.

Since the focus was on trapped souls, it led to the tradition of ‘guising’, where adults and children wore either black or white robes disguising themselves as one of the souls still trapped in purgatory.

Today, we still have costumes reflecting those ancient beliefs including those portraying skeletons and ghosts.

While this celebration became a strong Roman Catholic tradition across Europe, it took on more occultic overtones in the British Isles, because it also coincided with an ancient Celtic pagan festival in Ireland and Scotland.

Since the two celebrations, one supposedly Christian and the other pagan, were similar the two quickly blurred together.

The Celtic pagan festival, Samhain, held on Oct 31, marked the beginning of winter, the start of the darkest time of the year.

According to tradition, it was also the day when the barrier between the spirit world and the physical world was at its thinnest.

This made it the easiest time for spirits, fairies, demons, and the souls of dead people and even animals to cross over into the real world.

It was believed that if the souls of the dead entered the real world, that they would desire to return to the original homes. It became a tradition for families to leave food and cookies at night for their dead relatives.

But it also quickly took on occultic overtones and people began having divination parties believing this was also the best time to contact dead relatives.

For the same reason, other practices were introduced to contact the occult world and gain their support for good luck and also to appease them to ward off spiritual attacks.

In their article, “What are the pagan roots of Halloween?” on Charisma, authors John Ankerberg, John Weldon, and Dillon Burrough cited this quote from Encyclopedia Britannica describing that ancient Celtic Festival:

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic Festival of Samhain was observed on October 31, at the end of summer…. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, goblins, black cats, fairies and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes.

So what should be a Christian’s response to Halloween?

Well, we probably have as many opinions as there are believers.

At its very best, the celebration has very questionable, and I would argue, unBiblical Christian roots and at its very worst, occult ones.

So celebrate with care.

READ: What Are the Pagan Roots of Halloween?

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