The Pagan and Christian Origins of Halloween

By Nathaniel Parry

With roots in Europe’s Christianization, Halloween is something of a hybrid holiday strongly influenced by ancient pagan beliefs, and for this reason, its celebration has long been somewhat controversial within the Christian faith. The Puritans of early New England despised the holiday, with Reverend Increase Mather calling it an “abominable shame” and lamenting that anyone would celebrate “so vile a piece of heathenism.” The Puritans not only considered Halloween to be rooted in paganism and, like Christmas, to be essentially an invention of the Catholic Church, but also believed that the Devil was intimately involved with the Halloween revelries.

A good deal of this animosity towards the holiday has carried over into modern times, with an article at, for instance, arguing that Halloween is “a holiday that generally glorifies the dark things of this world, rather than the light of Jesus Christ.” The Catholic Company Magazine, on the other hand, highlights the holiday’s roots in the observances of All Saints’ Day dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries, and proudly proclaims that “the true substance of Halloween belongs to the Catholic Church.”


The varied perspectives on Halloween stem from its development during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and broader efforts of the Church to repurpose pagan customs as Christian feasts. The first All Saints’ Day occurred in the early seventh century, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all Christian martyrs. Originally, the date for this observance was May 13, a date that coincided with the Roman pagan festival of Lemuria, in which rites were performed to exorcise malevolent spirits from homes. It wasn’t until the 730s that the date of observance for All Saints’ Day was moved to November 1. By 800, churches throughout the British Isles were holding feasts to commemorate the occasion.

Interpretatio Christiana

Scholars disagree about precisely why the date was moved to November 1, but it seems likely that it was done to supplant the Celtic festival known as Samhain. This would be in keeping with the Church’s practice of Christianizing pagan traditions, a strategy that was deemed more effective than conquering heathenism by force alone. Known by its Latin name Interpretatio Christiana, this approach was articulated by early Church Father Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century: “Do not kill the heathens – just convert them; do not cut their holy trees – consecrate them to Jesus Christ.” Pope Gregory the Great, who was the bishop of Rome from 590 to 604, expanded on this idea in the early seventh century, stressing that pre-Christian practices should be converted from “worship of devils to the service of the true God.”


With this in mind, Samhain was seen as a suitable occasion to appropriate as All Saints’ Day. Samhain was important on the calendar as a “quarter day” between the vernal equinox and the winter solstice, and in pre-Christian times, marked both the end of summer and the beginning of Yule. Ushering in “the dark half of the year,” Samhain was celebrated with copious amounts of alcohol, as well as generous portions of pork, which Celts thought helped them commune with the otherworld.

A depiction of a Samhain bonfire warding off evil spirits.

Lasting for three days, Samhain was the time of year when the sun was believed to descend into the underworld and uncanny forces were on the rise. Unfettered from celestial control, the lord of the underworld walked the Earth accompanied by other creatures such as ghosts and fairies. Samhain was a period of intense supernatural activity, with forces of darkness said to be abroad, emerging from the ancient mounds of the countryside. To ward off these spirits, the Irish invoked the help of the gods by sacrificing animals and perhaps humans as well.

Day of Obligation

Following Samhain’s replacement by All Saints’ Day, and particularly after Emperor Louis the Pious declared in 835 that November 1 would be a day of obligation throughout the Frankish Empire, the holiday became one of the Church’s most important feast days. Designated as one of the six days of obligation, alongside occasions such as Christmas and Ascension Day, All Saints’ Day was marked by high masses, prayers, and other rituals.

The day preceding the feast day was known over the centuries alternatively as All Hallow’s Eve and Allhallond Eve, and the following day was known as All Souls’ Day, or the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Altogether, these days were known as Hallowtide. As night fell and All Saints’ Day gave way to All Souls’ Day, bells were rung for the souls being purified by purgatorial fire, as well as to keep away demons. It was also common to build bonfires in graveyards to ward off malevolent spirits. There are accounts of people setting a lighted lamp or candle and a meal on the table before they go to bed for the wandering spirits to enjoy.


Popular activities at All Hallow’s Eve included divination and fortune-telling practices that were carried out by those who were associated with witchcraft, often widows and other solitary women living on the margins of society. These rituals, however, were frowned upon by the Church, with numerous biblical passages warning against divination, necromancy (the conjuring of spirits), fortune-telling, and sorcery. Nevertheless, it was a common practice to consult magicians well into the Christian era in Europe. As Bishop Hugh Latimer lamented in 1552, “A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men … seeking aid and comfort at their hands.”

In this engraving, a witch concocts an evil brew in the company of strange beasts. “The Witch (Night Piece),” 1626. Artist: Jan van de Velde. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

While the early Church had generally coexisted with witches, throughout the Middle Ages, they became more closely associated with the Devil and were increasingly persecuted. Their gatherings on Halloween and the divination rituals that they practiced were seen as not just magical but satanic, and even their pets were considered suspect. The black cat was cast as a demonic figure, with Pope Gregory IX declaring them “Devil’s servants” in 1233. Because suspected witches were often found to have black cats as living companions, a popular belief developed that the felines were the witches’ “familiars” – supernatural creatures that assisted in dark magic.


Trick-or-treating has been linked to both Samhain and medieval customs in the British Isles. During Samhain, it was believed that ghosts disguised themselves as beggars and that denying their pleas would result in a curse. This prompted people to give away goodies during the festival, which morphed during the Middle Ages into a practice called “souling,” in which children and poor people dressed up in disguises and knocked on doors asking for treats.


The jack-o’-lantern tradition also emerged from the Christianized version of Samhain, believed to have originated with the legend of a man known as Stingy Jack. Jack had foolishly played a number of tricks on the Devil, and when he eventually passed away, he found that God would not allow him into heaven and the Devil, still smarting from being tricked, would not allow him into hell. Jack was then sent off into the dark night with just a burning coal to light his way, which he placed into a carved-out turnip.

Condemned to roam the Earth with this makeshift lantern, the Irish began referring to the ghost as “Jack of the Lantern,” or, simply, “Jack O’ Lantern.” They started carving their own turnips and potatoes and placing them in windows and doors to keep away Stingy Jack and other wandering spirits. When immigrants brought the tradition with them to the United States, they discovered that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o’-lanterns, and began using those instead of turnips.

The Christmas Connection

Traditionally, All Hallow’s Eve inaugurated the season of mumming and misrule that characterized Christmas celebrations in the Middle Ages. A 16th-century account notes that the Lords of Misrule “begin their rule at Allhallond Eve, continued the same till the morrow after … Candlemas Day,” in other words from October 31 to February 3. During this time, choristers would become boy bishops, mock-mayors would replace urban leaders, and mummers decked with ribbons and bells would parade through towns and the churchyards “with such a confused noise that no man can heare his own voice,” according to a contemporary named Philip Stubbs.

Much like the wassailers of Christmas time, Hallowtide mummers demanded tributes from townspeople and those who refused were “mocked and flouted at shamefully … and otherwise most horribly abused.” Closely associated with the role reversals and social inversion practices that had been passed down to Christmas from the pagan celebration of Saturnalia, Hallowtide was, as Stubbs describes it, a time of “subtle disguisings, masks, and mummeries” in which a “Ground Capitaine of mischeef whom they innoble with the tide of my Lorde of Misserule” would engage in “Heathenerie, Devilrie,” and “Drunkennesse.”

This 1847 engraving depicts disguised Christmas mummers, wearing bells, waving rods, and dancing in the streets. Public domain

Over the centuries, practices that were once associated with Christmas misrule such as aggressive wassailing and home invasions were absorbed into the Halloween celebration. In this way, Halloween is not only a hybrid between Samhain and All Saints’ Day but Christmas and Saturnalia as well.

Nathaniel Parry is the author of How Christmas Became Christmas: The Pagan and Christian Origins of the Beloved Holiday, from which this article has been adapted.

Top Image: Photo by Jason OX4 / Flickr