Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
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Can Christians Celebrate Halloween? Part I
Argument #1: Christians should not celebrate Halloween because its customs and practices come from an ancient (over 2000 year old), pagan (Celtic) festival of the dead. Therefore to participate in Halloween is to serve the devil.
So the argument alleges. It then builds its case by making direct connections between present day Halloween customs and ancient Druid customs. Unfortunately, this is a grossly flawed argument because it is by no means certain that Halloween originates from an ancient Druid festival of the dead. The connections often made rest upon shoddy scholarship and therefore there are many myths about the origin of Halloween (For an excellent online, Christian analysis of this alleged Druidic origin of Halloween the reader is encouraged to check out Halloween: Myths, Monsters and Devils by W.J. Bethancourt III by clicking here. He also has assembled a bibliography second to none which you can get to by going to here).
Note to Readers of Family Christmas Online: The two references above are, as Dr. Bucher attests, based on legitimate academic research of the highest order. That said, they include content and images which may be disturbing to some. So don't go there unless you feel like you really have to get to the bottom of things. - Paul
Myth #1 — "Halloween was originally a Celtic festival for the dead, celebrated on the last day of the Celtic year, Oct. 31."
This is actually a quotation from the 1996 CD version of Grolier Encyclopedia, widely viewed as one of the most scholarly of the CD encyclopedias, since it gives a signed bibliography after each entry. But when one comes to the "Halloween" article, there are no signed bibliographical entries. This should be a tip off right away that something is amiss. Such is the case with many, if not, most, mainline encyclopedias. No references are given. But this doesn't stop many Christians from repeating this argument ad infinitum.
First, we need to be clear about sources of information about the ancient Druids and the Celts of the British Isles. We don't have much. Part of the problem is that the Druids, priests and guardians of Celtic religion did not put their learning in written form. So are there any historical sources that provide information about the Druids and Celtic culture from Roman or pre-Roman times? Yes. We have accounts of them from Julius Caesar, Strabo, and Diodorus. These records are supplemented by some early Irish/Celtic Literature.
But there are two problems with the Roman sources that inject an element of doubt into them. First, Caesar and the Romans were at war with the Celts of Gaul. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Caesar would make the Celts and Druids sound worse than they really were in order to justify the war. Recall how the Romans had accused Christians of practicing cannibalism, incest, and orgies. Therefore it is difficult to distinguish between truth and Roman propaganda.
Second, Caesar and the Romans dealt only with the Celts in Gaul (modern France), not those in the British Isles. But the practices and customs described again and again come from the Celts of the British Isles.
Thanks to serious archaeological digs of the last century, a great deal of information about the ancient Celts has been uncovered. This archaeological information is one of the most reliable historical sources available and it forms the backbone of a growing body of secondary literature that has come out in the past 20 years.
But there is nothing in these sources that proves that our present day Halloween is a direct descendent of a Celtic festival. We do know that the name "Halloween" comes from the Christian feast, "All Hallow's Eve" the night before all saints day, November 1, a universal feast in the Church since 834. We do know that the Christians of that time promoted "All Saints" to replace various pagan practices. We do know that the Druids and Celts had a festival that celebrated their New Year on October 31/November 1. But we cannot say with certainty that it has any direct connection with our Halloween.
Myth # 2 — The earliest Halloween celebrations were held by the Druids in honor of Saman, lord of the dead, whose festival fell on November 1. It was the Druid's belief that on the eve of this festival, Saman called together the wicked souls that within the past 12 months had been condemned to inhabit the bodies of animals. They were released in the form of ghosts, spirits, witches or elves, etc.
Nothing in the extant literature or in the archaeological finds supports the notion that there ever existed a god of the dead known as Samam (sometimes spelled, "Samhain," pronounced "sow -en"), though hundreds of gods' names are known. Rather, Saman or Samhain is the name of the festival itself. It means "summer's end" and merely referred to the end of one year and the beginning of the new.
Myth # 3 — During the Samhain celebrations, black cats were burned in wicker cages because they were believed to be friends of witches or witches transformed.
Again, there is no evidence for this before the time of Christ. In fact, cats were not even introduced among the Celts until after the Romans had conquered them. Research suggests that cats didn't catch on until about 1050 A.D., and there is very little mention of them before that. There is nothing about the black cat-witch connection from the period under study.
Myth # 4 — The practice of "trick or treat" and costumes originated with an ancient Druid practice. [Here follow three variations that I have seen in Christian writings] (a) The Druids, in costume, went door to door asking for contributions of food for their demonic worship services. Those who didn't give them a treat, they would play a trick on by killing them (b) Spirits of the dead would go from house to house haunting the living. Those who didn't set out food for them would be harmed by them; (c) Peasants dressed in outlandish costumes went from house to house asking for contributions to buy food for the Samhain festival in the name of a Celtic deity named Muck Olla. A feast was prepared for ghosts. At the end of the feast, the costumed peasants would lead the ghosts out of the village.
Uh . . . right! Again, we just don't have any evidence to back up these claims. The only mention of Muck Olla, reveals him not as a Celtic deity but as a mythical figure from a much later period in Britain. All major studies show that the earliest mention we have of dressing in costumes and soliciting food comes from Christian times. Throughout the Middle Ages we know of the practice of "masked guisers" dressing in horrific masks to scare off demons. We also know of beggars and later children going from house to house asking for "soul cakes" or performing and asking for something in return. Actually, the phrase "trick or treat" is a modern one, being widespread from the late 1930s on.
Myth # 5 — Carved pumpkins or "jack-o-lanterns" also go back to Druid times. The carved jack-o-lantern is an ancient symbol of a damned soul. They were named for a man named Jack who could not enter Hell or Heaven. As a result, he was doomed to wander in darkness with his lantern until Judgment Day.
First, folklore scholars tell us that this story about Jack and the "jack-o-lantern" is an Irish folk story from the 18th or 19th centuries, not from the Celts or Druids 2000 years ago. Second, pumpkins are a new world plant that were not even introduced into Europe until after 1500 A.D. Again, where are the primary sources to back up all the silly claims about carved pumpkins?!
In conclusion, then, there is no hard evidence that
can connect our Halloween with ancient Druidic practice for the simple
reason that we know next to nothing about such practices. It is much
more likely that Halloween, as we practice it today, took some features
from the Middle Ages, entered our country after the mass Irish
immigration of 1840, and is mostly an American phenomenon. Therefore
argument #1 is an argument based on fiction, not fact, and is no reason
at all to object to Halloween.
© Dr. Richard P. Bucher 1998, 1999