Blog Post

Does All Saints Day Have Pagan Roots?

LEB writes: “Every year I agonize over Halloween and what to allow my children to get involved in. It’s gotten so dark and occultish! Worse, some people say that the only option we have – All Saints Day – is derived from a pagan holiday! Are these our only choices?”

There’s an easy answer to this annual conundrum – celebrate All Saints Day without a qualm because it’s not even remotely derived from a pagan holiday.

Begun in the 4th century, the feast of All Saints was established by the early Christians to commemorate the martyrs who gave their lives for the faith during those first bloody centuries of Church history. Originally, it was celebrated on May 13, but it was changed to November 1 in the 9th century by Pope Gregory IV. The change was made to recognize the dedication of an oratory in St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of All Saints which was made on November 1. From that time forward, the faithful in Rome were celebrating the feast of All Saints on that day, so the Pope decided to make it universal.

Now here’s where the connection to Halloween comes in.

As Father William Saunders explains in his article, “The Origins of All Saints and All Souls Day," November 1st is the same day that pagans used to mark the celebration of Samhain, which was the beginning of the Celtic winter.

"Samhain, for whom the feast was named, was the Celtic lord of death, and his name literally meant 'summer’s end'," Father writes. "Since winter is the season of cold, darkness and death, the Celts soon made the connection with human death. The eve of Samhain, Oct. 31, was a time of Celtic pagan sacrifice, and Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes that evening. Ghosts, witches, goblins, and elves came to harm the people, particularly those who had inflicted harm on them in this life."

In order to protect themselves, people would extinguish their hearth fires and the Druids (who were pagan priests and spiritual teachers) built a huge bonfire of sacred oak branches and would offer burnt sacrifices of crops, animals, and even humans. They would then tell fortunes for the coming year based on an examination of the burnt remains. People would sometimes wear costumes of animal heads and skins to these events.

But the Celts weren't the only group to contribute customs to what is now known as Halloween.

In Ireland, people held a parade in honor of a god known as Muck Olla and would beg for food along the way. The Irish also created the legend of the jack-o-lantern which is a story about a man named Jack who was forbidden to enter heaven because of his stinginess, and could not enter hell because he played practical jokes on the devil. He was thus condemned to walk the earth with a lantern carved out of a pumpkin until Judgment Day.

The Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43 brought two more feasts into late October that still influence today's celebration of Halloween. One was the feast of Feralia which was held in October to honor the dead and the other was an Autumn festival in honor of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees, which some believe is responsible for the association of apples with Halloween.

In spite of the fact that Christianity had spread throughout the world, many cultures maintained some of these traditions, which is what set the stage for the collision between the Feast of All Saints and that of All Hallows Eve or Halloween.

LEB’s observation of the increasingly occult-ish themes associated with Halloween is accurate but shouldn’t be surprising. With the rapid secularization of our society, the place God once held in our lives is being replaced by paganism which is directly related to the occult. This is seen in the influx of occult themes in our literature, entertainment, and media. Best-selling books are based on sorcery, witchcraft, and necromancy (conjuring the dead), which is why we see children dressing up as these characters.

In my day, we went trick-or-treating dressed as ballerinas and princesses while my brothers ran around the neighborhood dressed as pirates, superman, or Zorro. Nowadays, girls are dressed as witches and boys parade around as the walking dead.

This is where anxious parents can make a few prudential judgements that can make the trick-or-treat season a bit more palatable for us all.

First, explain the rich tradition of the Feast of All Saints and point out how the culture has distorted it.

Second, don’t let them dress up in occult-based costumes such as witches, sorcerers, Harry Potter, etc. Explain that the occult is dangerous because it is connected to the devil. Because children’s literature is so full of occult themes that make these powers seem good, children need to learn from an early age that any time they resort to a power that is not sourced in God they are exposing themselves to malevolent spirits. Yes, this might scare them, but it’s a truth they desperately need to know especially because the library in their school is likely to be full of occult-fiction.

Third, instruct them on the value of praying for our dead, of the meaning of the Communion of Saints and the challenge of achieving sainthood in today’s world. They don’t need to do anything spectacular; just keep their hearts focused on Jesus and His Gospel. The teachings of Christ, if followed, can solve all of the problems in the world today. Maybe we can’t change others, but we can change ourselves, and if enough of us do so, then this world will be changed for the better.

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