Some of the most popular holidays we celebrate in America today are tied to or revolve around Christianity. Christmas centers around the birth of the savior Jesus the Christ, and Easter centers around his death and resurrection. Another popular holiday previously centered around religion is ... Halloween. How have its religious ties unraveled, and what does this tell us about society?
In many European pagan cultures, celebrations around the winter solstice were the most popular of the year (due to the inability to accomplish work outside in the cold weather). While the actual date of Jesus's birth is contested, part of the reason the determined date was set on December 25th was to coincide with the Yuletide pagan celebrations, in an effort to better assimilate them into Christianity. Some pagan influenced traditions enduring today include the use of the Celtic herb mistletoe to prompt kissing, gift giving practiced on the Roman holiday Saturnalia, and also on this same holiday, decorating temples with evergreen branches.
Easter has a similar origin. Its date is also in relation to a significant solar event, the vernal equinox. At the end of winter, concepts of death and rebirth were celebrated in relation to the death of winter and birth of spring. "Easter" is said to be derived from "Eostre," the Germanic goddess of fertility and spring. The transition to Easter was motivated by the same motivations as those of Christmas. And, you guessed it, there are Pagan influences still prevalent today including the Easter bunny (rabbits are ancient symbols of fertility) and eggs (ancient symbols of new life).
This brings us to Halloween. The ancient Celts celebrated Samhain to honor the harvest and mark the coming winter. This celebration occurred halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice -- the time when the boundary between life and the afterlife was believed to be most thin, meaning it could be easily crossed. To protect themselves from spirits, the Celts held feasts and offered food, disguised themselves, and built bonfires. In 1000 AD, the Christian holiday All Saint's Day was moved to November, and the night before it became "All Hallow's Eve" ("hallowed" meaning holy). This was yet another move by the church to assimilate pagan cultures into Christianity. Some pagan influenced traditions we still practice include dressing up and carving pumpkins (originally to ward off spirits).
The Western Church succeeded in turning the pagan versions of Christmas and Easter into Christian holidays -- what happened to Halloween?
The bubonic plague in medieval Europe singed ideas of mortality and the afterlife into the human conscience (hence the enduring expression of memento mori). The French explored these concepts with danse macabre, "dance with death," paintings featuring the devil leading people of all classes and professions into a tomb. On All Saint's Day, this was enacted with people dressed up as various characters (kings, popes, the sick, the poor) being led into the church as crowds watched. When the French mingled with the Irish in America, the idea of dressing up in general continued.
Other traditions meshed in America, such as "souling," begging for bread cakes in exchange for prayers in medieval Europe, and the English "trick-or-treating" on Guy Fawkes Day to torment the persecuted Catholics. In colonial America, "play parties" were celebrated around Halloween, inspired by a conglomeration of Native American and European traditions. Ghost stories were told and mischief was made. These traditions and practices grew and expanded with the influx of Irish immigrants and other groups over time.
In the 1800s, there was an effort made by many parents to make Halloween less frightening and more community and family-oriented, and the holiday lost much of its pagan and religious undertones of death and fear. By the 1920s, Halloween was celebrated with parades and town-wide Halloween parties. But by the 1950s, the tradition of trick-or-treating was revived, and Halloween continued to transition into the holiday we know and love today.
The efforts of those in the 1800s contributed to Halloween's status as a secular holiday. Also, the simple fact that a celebration of the souls of saints does not take precedence over the birth and rebirth of a central figure in Christianity could contribute to the reason Halloween is not a religious holiday today. Despite its textured history and current secular status, there is still backlash against the holiday, including "Jesusween," a movement to replace the traditions of Halloween with Christian ones (such as dressing in white for purity, handing out bibles instead of candy). So far this movement and ones similar to it have yet to make significant change or progress … but who knows?
In medieval Europe, Christmas was filled with wild drinking and carousing and only changed into the family-friendly event we know today through efforts similar to those of the American parents in the 1800s. Religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated today by many who do not practice Christianity, but rather participate in the fun and family-gathering aspects of these holidays. These holidays and times of the year will always hold some significance in society, even if their traditions, values, and practices change. This Halloween, make it how you want it to be and take it as you will: after all, that seems to be what humans do.