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Who stole Halloween?

15 October 2007

This is the time of year when a lot of people start talking about Halloween (or Hallowe’en, if you prefer), but what they say or think about it depends very much on their cultural background and theological background.

It’s a big American cultural festival, and so a lot of talk on it goes on in the USA, where children dress up. To a lesser extent it’s celebrated in the British Isles. Here in South Africa it is almost unknown, though adults occasionally use it as an excuse for having fancy-dress balls, and the TV stations seem to increase the number of “horror” movies that they show. These “horror” movies rarely have anything to do with supernatural horrors, however; they are more usually “slasher” movies. so that the season of All Saints is commemorated by showing all sinners.

The word “Halloween” is short for “All Hallows Eve”, or the “Eve of All Saints Day”, as celebrated by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Protestant groups regard it with some suspicion, not holding with cults of saints and the like, and some claim that it is “pagan” or even “demonic”.

All this is a bit remote from me. Halloween isn’t big in South Africa. And I’m an Orthodox Christian, and our Halloween is the Saturday after Pentecost, so the 31st October isn’t of much interest, as it’s a purely Western phenomenon.

Neopagans (or some of them) claim it as theirs, and celebrate it as Samhain (pronounced sow-in, I’m told), and say it is of Irish origin, but some of the Irish disagree about that.

So what can I say about it? Why not just give the synchroblog a miss this month, and leave it to those to whom Halloween means something?

But I read a very interesting book about it – The stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996). So perhaps I may find something interesting there. Hutton is a British historian, and his book is a very well-researched study of seasonal festivals in Britain. Some of his observations may be of interest to those who get their knickers in a knot over Halloween — either pagans who think Christians “stole” it, or Christians who think it must be “demonic”.

At the end of the nineteenth century, two distinguished academics, one at Oxford and the other at Cambridge, made enduring contributions to the popular conception of Samhain. The former was the philologist Sir John Rhys, who suggested that it had been the ‘Celtic’ New Year… Rhys’s theory was further popularized by the Cambridge scholar, Sir James Frazer. At times the latter did admit that the evidence for it was inconclusive, but at others he threw this caution overboard and employed it to support an idea of his own: that Samhain had been the pagan Celtic feast of the dead. He reached this belief by the simple process of arguing back from a fact, that 1 and 2 November had been dedicated to that purpose by the medieval Christian Church, from which it could be surmised that this was been a Christianization of a pre-existing festival. He admitted, by implication, that there was in fact no actual record of such a festival, but inferred the former existence of one from a number of different propositions: that the Church had taken over other pagan holy days, that ‘many’ cultures have annual ceremonies to honour their dead, ‘commonly’ at the opening of the year, and that (of course) 1 November had been the Celtic New Year. He pointed out that although the feast of All Saints or All Hallows had been formally instituted across most of north-west Europe by the Emperor Louis the Pius in 835, on the prompting of Pope Gregory IV, it had already existed, on its later date of 1 November, in England at the time of Bede. He suggested that the pope and emperor had, therefore, merely ratified an existing religious practice based upon that of the ancient Celts.The story is, in fact, more complicated. By the mid-fourth century Christians in the Mediterranean world were keeping a feast in honour of all those who had been martyred under the pagan emperors; it is mentioned in the Carmina Nisibena of St Ephraem, who died in about 373, as being held on 13 May. During the fifth century divergent practices sprang up, the Syrian churches holding the festival in Easter Week, and those of the Greek world preferring the Sunday after Pentecost. That of Rome, however, preferred to keep the May date, and Pope Boniface IV formally endorsed it in the year 609. By 800 churches in England and Germany, which were in touch with each other, were celebrating a festival dedicated to all saints upon 1 November instead. The oldest text of Bede’s Martyrology, from the eighth century, does not include it, but the recensions at the end of the century do. Charlemagne’s favourite churchman Alcuin was keeping it by then, as were also his friend Arno, bishop of Salzburg, and a church in Bavaria. Pope Gregory, therefore, was endorsing and adopting a practice which had begun in northern Europe. It had not, however, started in Ireland, where the Felire of Oengus and the Martyrology of Tallaght prove that the early medieval churches celebrated the feast of All Saints upon 20 April. This makes nonsense of Frazer’s notion that the November date was chosen because of ‘Celtic’ influence: rather, both ‘Celtic’ Europe and Rome followed a Germanic idea….

For what it’s worth, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that Pope Gregory III of Rome (d. 741) dedicated a chapel in the basilica of St Peter to “All the saints”, and Gregory IV ordered its universal observance. Sixtus IV (d. 1484) added an Octave, which was suppressed in 1955.

The idea that Christians “stole” it from pagans, therefore, seems pretty far-fetched. In fact the evidence seems to point the other way: the neopagans seem to have unintentionally “stolen” it from the Christians, as a result of a rather wild guess by Sir James Frazer.

What about the accusation by some that it (or at least the dressing up part of it) is “satanic”, “demonic”, or “evil”?

Well, I’ve never seen “trick or treat” in action, but from reading descriptions of it, and seeing films about it, the idea of kids going around saying “give us sweets or we’ll do something nasty to you” sounds a bit like a juvenile protection racket to me, and that is potentially, if not actually, evil. It’s only one step from that to going round to shop keepers with a gun and saying “give us X, and we’ll protect you from Y”.

Now I’ve been told by many Americans that it is not like that at all, and that it is all harmless fun, so I must have been misled by the films and the books I’ve read. But the idea still makes me a bit uneasy. I’m glad there was no tradition of that sort here when my kids were growing up. And I suspect that if they’d tried it in our neighbourhood the neighbours would have been astounded at the cheek of it, and probably offended when they had second thoughts. But that’s just our culture.

As I pointed out, for Orthodox Christians All Saints Day (All Hallows, or Hallowmas) is the Sunday after Pentecost, and this year it was celebrated on 3 June. The Vigil of the Feast (Halloween, All Hallows Eve) was Saturday 2 June. And here’s what is said about it:

The Sunday following Pentecost is dedicated to All Saints, both those who are known to us, and those who are known only to God. There have been saints at all times, and they have come from every corner of the earth. They were Apostles, Martyrs, Prophets, Hierarchs, Monastics, and Righteous, yet all were perfected by the same Holy Spirit. The Descent of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to rise above our fallen state and to attain sainthood, thereby fulfilling God’s directive to “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16, etc.). Therefore, it is fitting to commemorate All Saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost.This feast may have originated at an early date, perhaps as a celebration of all martyrs, then it was broadened to include all men and women who had borne witness to Christ by their virtuous lives, even if they did not shed their blood for Him.

Ikon of All Hallows

For more information about All Saints Day, see Questions about the Sunday of All Saints, and All Saints Day.

So what can be said about Hallowe’en?

That Hallowe’en was, and still is, a Christian commemoration. It wasn’t chosen to coincide with any pagan or Celtic festival, and has in fact been observed by Christians at different times of the year and still is. If neopagans want to observe the period 31 October to 2 November as Samhain, that’s fine too. There are only a limited number of days in the year for festivals and commemorations, and there’s no obligation on any one group to choose one that has not already been chosen by someone else.

As for the secular customs that have grown up around the Western date for Halloween, haven’t had much experience of that, except for the “slasher” movies. I quite enjoy real horror movies (if well done), but to me “slasher” movies don’t qualify as real horror. It has to be really spooky to be horror.

What should American Orthodox do about Hallowe’en?

This question was asked on an Orthodox forum, and a priest from New Zealand made this suggestion:

So what do you do when trick-or-treaters come to your door? Tell them you’re Orthodox and slam the door in their faces? Just don’t answer the door at all?

My suggestion, if you want to be really pro-active, is to set up a small “shrine” on your porch – a few icons and a sand box where candles can burn.When the kids come, make them welcome, ask them if they’d like to light a candle and say a small prayer. Give them an icon print along with the lollies.

This post is my contribution to the October synchroblog on Halloween. There are links to the other contributions below:

Follow-ups and spin-offs

While not actually part of the October Synchroblogs, the following are posts that either linked to it, or followed up on the general theme. Notes and comments by Steve Hayes.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 October 2007 11:34 pm


    The “Trick” part of “Trick or Treat” has pretty much gone by the wayside. Nowadays kids are usually supervised by parents as they go from house to house collecting candy. My mom gets about 600 (!) trick-or-treaters every year, and I really get a kick out of seeing the kids in their costumes. Some are very creative!

  2. 21 October 2007 8:26 am

    great article, thank you

    here :
    you will find more Orthodox English articles (all translations starts by the link to the original one)

    have a blessed Sunday

  3. sallysjourney permalink
    24 October 2007 12:39 pm

    excellent as usual Steve- thank you

  4. julieclawson permalink
    25 October 2007 1:26 am

    I’m curious here. I found the information you presented to be a novel approach to the idea which as a student of history I have never encountered before. Not having read his material, I did a search of Ronald Hutton’s work and was a bit surprised by what I saw. Most of the reviewers deride Hutton for his poor scholarship, for ignoring pertinent evidence that may disprove his theories, for using disreputable sources, and for being unprofessional in his blatant attempts to discredit any historical view that hints of feminism. Do you know of any other writers from a more academic and less obviously biased perspective that are presenting this position on pagan roots? I find the theory intriguing, but am not inclined to trust this particular source.

  5. 25 October 2007 5:00 am

    “Do you know of any other writers from a more academic and less obviously biased perspective that are presenting this position on pagan roots?”

    Do you have any comments from more academic and less obviously biased reviewers?

    As far as I know, Ronald Hutton is a respected academic historian, and the opinions of reviewers who simply toss out ad hominems without engaging his material, like the ones you cite above, don’t seem to be worth taking seriously. I suggest that you read his works and judge for yourself.

    I have read only two of his works, The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles, and Seasons of the sun.

    The first one he wrote mainly to say what could be known about the topic from the available historical evidence, and what was mere speculation. This brought him into contact with a number of neopagan communities, towards whom he became sympathetic, and it was this contact that inspired him to write his Seasons of the sun.

    You can find out more about Ronald Hutton and his books here and here and here.

  6. 25 October 2007 5:57 pm

    Interesting. It just shows that history can and will be written and rewritten in many different ways. And, I love having a different cultural perspective on aspects of my own culture. Having taken the last year to travel internationally doing mission work I’ve learned quite a bit about my prejudices and cultural affinities.

  7. 25 October 2007 5:57 pm

    Excellent Steve!

    Most thinking Pagans have read Ronald Hutton’s excellent books, so we know that the retro-engineering of All Hallows’ Eve into Samhain was an error (but it does fit the time of year rather well – autumn going into winter). Of course, there’s still a lot of Pagans who don’t know that. And your very own Pope Gregory the Great did say that Christians should re-use Pagan buildings and holy days so that the people would come to their accustomed places & times to worship the new God. This has been the main source of Pagans complaining about Christians “stealing” our festivals.

  8. 25 October 2007 6:33 pm


    Yes, Pope Gregory did say that, and we cite it to show what a culturally sensitive missiologist he was 🙂

    And of course the 1 November date for All Saints seems to have been set by just such an exercise, when the Pantheon in Rome was rededicated from All Gods to All Saints. — Correction, that was 13 May. It was another church that was dedicated on 1 November.

    And, as I noted in my other post, Lammas also seems to be an example of such a thing.

  9. 26 October 2007 1:47 am

    Good post.
    I love the Orthodox idea of candles and prayers….and I’ll give out candy too. 🙂

  10. 26 October 2007 6:45 pm

    Hi, I posted some links to this and some Pagan Samhain blogposts at MetaPagan (in the interests of interfaith harmony):

    Pagans talk about Samhain
    Those Christians again!

    Happy Samhain and blessings for All Hallows.

  11. 26 October 2007 6:46 pm

    and we cite it to show what a culturally sensitive missiologist he was

    Yes, I know 🙂 Well it’s better than going round suppressing Pagan festivals. I read your article on Theandros, and I prefer the Orthodox approach to the Protestant one.

  12. 29 October 2007 9:39 pm

    We don’t celebrate Halloween

  13. 1 November 2012 3:06 am

    I’m now in my late 50s. When I was a kid, my parents kicked my brother and i out the door with a bag and we went door to door, saying “Trick or treat” but it was just empty words – we got the treat with no idea we were supposed to do something mean or silly to people who didn’t give us one. People who didn’t want to treat simply kept their porch lights off and there was no jack o’lantern on their porch. That was the signal – and we left them alone. One neighbour managed to turn it on its head and made us perform (the trick) some task – singing, dancing, doing *something* to earn the treat.

    I took my kids around until they were in Grade 3 (which was also the time I stopped walking them to school), and then they and their friends went out in groups by themselves.

    Very nice post – the most rational I’ve seen about this whole silly holiday (we don’t celebrate it just because we can’t be bothered anymore.)

  14. Aquila ka Hecate permalink
    19 October 2013 4:36 am

    Wow-only just seen this, Steve. Nice work!
    As you know, we in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate the seasonal Samhain holiday end of April/start of May, as that is the beginning of our Winter.
    That alone irritates me, when folks in Joburg start going all Halloweeny at the end of October.
    I still celebrate Samhain (and in a few weeks, Beltane), but it’s a lovely balanced timing: Beltane is halfway between the Equinox and the Solstice..this year on 7th November.
    T in J

  15. bryanhammersley permalink
    21 May 2020 10:05 am

    On your quotation from The Stations of the Sun, if look into this, you will find that Hutton simply misread what Frazer wrote. Hutton is an unreliable researcher. His attempts to discredit pagan beliefs have sometimes had no sensible foundation. I go into these matters in my paper “Ronald Hutton, Sir James Frazer and the Discrediting of Pagan Beliefs in The Stations of the Sun”. This can be read at Best wishes.


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