Halloween has roots in Celtic culture
By Loretta Shea Kline
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - Halloween has its roots in what was "really a very beautiful ancient holiday," an authority on ritual and the development of holidays said.
Joe Cory/Key file photo
Come Halloween, pint-sized pirates such as this will haunt neighborhoods across the Diocese.
William McInerny, professor of theology and religious studies at Rockhurst College, said the origin of Halloween goes back to the Celts, an ancient people who once inhabited much of Europe. There were six major "fire festivals" in Celtic culture, and one of those was Samhain, the celebration of the Celtic New Year.
Samhain was a harvest festival that marked the cycle of one year turning to the next, McInerny said. It was a time when contracts were agreed upon, marriages were announced, fortunes were told for the coming year and games were played. The celebration was also characterized by huge bonfires that burned in villages throughout the night.
"This was the last major celebration before they retreated to their huts and waited out the winter," he said.
The celebration also had religious overtones, McInerny said. The Celts believed that on the night of Samhain spirits of the dead were allowed to wander free, and that those spirits could create mischief, causing trouble for individuals. Part of the practice of the evening was to wear masks and costumes to disguise oneself for the purpose of protection, or to scare the spirits away, he said.
Much of what is known about the Celts is from Greek and Roman writers, McInerny said. Although most of the highly developed Celtic culture was annihilated by the Roman Empire, some of it was reconstructed in Britain and Ireland, particularly the latter because Rome never conquered Ireland, he said.
One of the traditions that survived in Ireland was Samhain, McInerny said. As Ireland was Christianized, missionaries astutely reinterpreted the holiday, making it the evening before a major Christian holy day, All Saints Day - hence the name Allhallows Eve - and giving it a Christian flavor. In the Christian tradition, the evening before a holy day, such as Christmas Eve, is a "high occasion," he said.
Halloween became an American tradition through the massive immigration of Irish to the United States in the 1800s, McInerny said. The Irish and Scots, with their fun-loving natures, "basically brought Halloween to the U.S.," he said.
They also introduced pranks or "the tricking part," McInerny said. If small groups of people who went out on Halloween were not properly treated, they would pull a minor prank such as overturning an outhouse or setting a wagon atop a barn, he said.
Over the years, Halloween (celebrated Oct. 31) lost its religious significance and today is purely a secular holiday, McInerny said. The value of it is that it's "just fun for little kids," he said.
The holiday's identification with the supernatural could be "echoes of ancient Celtic beliefs," McInerny said. But associating Halloween with demons, witchcraft and evil is "pure superstition," and has no basis in the holiday's historical origins, he said.
Unfortunately, a few extremely conservative Christian groups have attempted to portray Halloween as having a sinister origin, McInerny said. There is information on the Web and elsewhere that claims a connection between the Celts and practices such as human sacrifice, he said.
Those claims are based mostly on reports which were propaganda for a Roman war effort, and are taken out of historical context, he said.
"I see no credibility to these extreme accusations," McInerny said. "The connections they make have no historical basis. The Celts did not worship demons."
While it is up to parents to decide whether or not to let their children participate in Halloween activities, McInerny said there is no religious basis for opting out of the celebration. He plans to take his three children - ages 10, 8 and 6 - trick-or-treating in the neighborhood, while observing the necessary safety precautions.
Parents could even incorporate a religious history lesson by explaining the holiday's association with All Saints Day (Nov. 1), McInerny said. Some parishes have hosted celebrations in which they invite children to dress up as their favorite saints.
For children, the celebration of Halloween is "big stuff," McInerny said. "That's the fun for the adults, watching the kids get a kick of it," he said.