10 Christian Holidays and Beliefs Steeped in Pagan Traditions

An Irish Halloween in the 1830s, known as snap-apple night. Wikimedia


It is easy to forget that Halloween (a contraction of All Hallows Evening) is part of a religious observation of Allhallowtide, which consists of All Hallows Eve, All Hallows Day, and All Souls Day. In the Catholic Church All Hallows Day is known as the Feast of All Saints. The date was set for All Hallows Day by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century, though the date for All Souls Day was not established until the eleventh century. The three day Christian observance was and is intended for the remembrance of the saints and martyrs of the Church (All Hallows) and the souls of the faithful (All Souls), with such importance placed on the observation of All Hallows that it was assigned a vigil, Halloween.

Whether the timing of the day now known as Halloween was a deliberate attempt to Christianize a pagan festival or not is a matter of conjecture and debate. What is fact is that All Hallows Day was originally established to be observed on May 1. Two hundred years later it was moved to November 1, making it coincident with the Celtic pagan festivals of Samhain in Ireland and Calan Gaeaf in Wales. The Celts had the curious practice of counting sunset as the beginning of the day, rather than its end which made All Hallows Day begin at sunset on October 31. October 31 was the day of Samhain, which means Summers End in Old Irish.

Samhain was the most important of the four days of the Celtic year which marked the quarters of the year. Samhain was the beginning of the dark season, a time when spirits could more easily cross from the spiritual realm into the physical. The spirits were acquiesced to with food and drink left outside of homes, and the spirits of deceased family members and ancestors were welcomed into the home with places for them set at the table, or by the hearth. Games were played which were said to foretell the future, and included bobbing for apples, and roasting nuts on the fire. Bonfires were lighted and their ashes were used for the telling of fortunes.

The Church tried to eliminate these activities as it spread the Gospel through the Celtic lands, including the outright banning of some of the bonfires, but it could not completely dispel them. All Hallows Eve (which means All Holy) was intended by the Church to be a day of vigil for the following day which celebrated all of the holy saints and martyrs, and tried to stay the practices of superstition and fortune telling of Samhain, but with little success. The Celtic festival continued to expand, by the sixteenth century it included a practice called guising, in which people would call on neighbors while disguised to receive gifts of food and drink.

Virtually all of the customs of Halloween, which is a Christian observance, are descended from the rituals of the Celtic festival, with additional pagan practices from others (such as the Jack’o’Lantern derived from the Druids). It became over the years an almost entirely secular holiday, though the Church resisted, and still resists, its being so considered. Beginning around the middle of the nineteenth century, with expanding immigration of Irish and Scots to America, it emerged as a major holiday in the United States and Canada. It was the immigrants who at home had carved Jack’o’Lanterns from turnips who discovered that the pumpkin provided a more satisfying substitute.