Halloween is shortened from “All-hallow-evening,” the eve of All Hallow’s Day, which is now known as All Saints Day. (All Saints Day was moved to November 1 by Pope Gregory IV in 835; All Souls Day on November 2 in 998.) Millions of childrencelebrate Halloween each year with costumes, parties, and hi-jinks. But what are they celebrating? Where did these customs arise?
Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain; from the Old Irish samain). The festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, and is sometimes regarded as the "Celtic New Year". Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, now known as Halloween, the boundary between the alive and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them.
In pagan times, October 31 was New Year's Eve, a night of evil and terror when all hell broke lose. Goblins and ghosts were abroad that night, while witches celebrated their black rites as the spirits and souls of the dead roamed the earth. To frighten the evil spirits and to bolster their own sagging spirits, our ancestors created a din with bells, horns, pots and pans, (just as we still do at midnight on December 31st), and built fires to frighten the witches or perhaps burn them if they might get caught. On the afternoon of October 31st, village boys would go from house to house collecting fuel for the midnight fires. Everyone was expected to contribute some peat or "coal pieces" to help burn the witches. Those who did not, received dire warnings of the evil consequences that might follow.
Over 1,000 years ago, Christians confronted these pagan rites of appeasing the lord of death and evil spirits. But the early Christians didn't simply speak out; they tried to institute a Christian alternative. All Hallow’s Day (November 1) was a celebration of all "the holies" – those people who had died faithful to Christ. All Hallow’s Day, the feast of All Saints on the first of November, used to be celebrated in the spring. But in the eighth century it was transferred to November on the Western calendar, where it became the climax of the autumn season, a harvest festival celebrating all whom God has called to glory.
Halloween in our culture today has become an odd mixture of tributes to Dracula and roaming spirits, TV superheroes and comic characters, and participation in innocent harvest festivals and costume parties. Literally, of course, it is the eve of All Hallows - a preparation for the observance of the Feast of All Hallows or All Saints. That feast gives the assurance that there is a state of being that stretches beyond our life here on this earth – an affirmation of the essential spiritual nature of human life. People are made for more than can be experienced over our lifetime spent in this world.