Holy Evening, Fall Festival and Celtic Celebrations, Some Thoughts
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A friend in another country wondered in a Facebook message how Christians could take part in Halloween. He lamented the tolerance pastors have for the evil background of the celebration and the satanic worship of it. I saw the matter as more complex and less sinister, and see various diverse practices arising from different sources, but largely related to the time of year, harvest time.
There are different celebrations that take place at this time of the year. Some customs and practices reflected in Halloween have a derivation from the ancient Celtic practices. But is the meaning the same?
I have never met anyone with those ancient Celtic beliefs, have you? I have not seen anyone worshiping Satan on Halloween. Many of the activities and costumes actually seem to be making fun of the ancient superstitions that modern rationalists no longer believe in.
There are some practices on Oct 31 that we don't observe and did not observe with our children. Some practices of this time of the year, however, have nothing to do with pagan aspects of pre-Christian Celtic culture. The Celts did not even have pumpkins! They are a squash (cucurbita) native to North America.
Well, actually, it's a little more complex than that. The tradition of "jack-o-lantern" (Jack of the Lantern) is an Irish custom, but not pagan. It is related to the tale of a man named "Jack" who took away the devil's power over him by a trick.
They used to carve Jack's face into turnips or other tubers, in memory of Jack, who carved a cross into a tree to keep the devil from getting him and roams the countryside with a glowing coal in his turnip lantern. This is only one of the cultural customs that has come to be part of our Halloween. When the pumpkin was discovered in North America, it became the favored lantern!
In the UK, Thanksgiving is in September. One year when I was visiting in London, I attended a Methodist Church in Redhill the Sunday they were celebrating Fall Festival/Thanksgiving in their church. The decorations and celebration included aspects of the harvest we associate with both Thanksgiving and with Halloween. The focus was on thanks for the food, the good harvest and life in general.
Halloween was specifically started or declared at one point in Christian history as an alternative to various seasonal pagan practices among European peoples. The name itself presents a Christian alternative to those old pagan practices. Holy Evening. (In the old language, "Hallowed Evening.")
One source focusing on Europe's celebration of Halloween, notes that the early holidays related to the time of Halloween were pagan, first primarily Roman, then later Irish. This article comments on the intentional placement of the Christian celebration as an alternative.
"Halloween didn't take its present form until All Saints Day was declared by Pope Gregory IV to replace the pagan festival. The night before became All Hallows Eve and people went door to door begging for food (or soul cakes) to feed the poor. Of course, things were tweaked a bit during the time between then and now...." -- GoEurope
A related source explains that all the major Christian celebrations in the worship calendar were determined in reference to common cultural and pagan worship celebrations to provide an alternative, though that did not automatically eliminate all the previous practices. But it did change the focus and formal meaning of the holiday.
It is pointed out also that the Christian holiday, All Saints' Day, and the evening before, was originally placed in May to counter the Roman day of the dead, but with waning Roman influence and growing Irish influence, in the 700s AD, the date was changed to their Irish time of Samhain, seen as a more needful force to counter.
No doubt this was related to the tremendous Irish cultural influence with the great Irish mission movements across northern Europe and the east and into what is now Russian territory, after the conversion of Ireland under the zeal of Patrick.
"Since around the middle of the 4th century Christians set aside a special day in honor of all saints. And Saint Chrysostom fixed the date as the first Sunday after Whitsuntide. Pope Boniface IV in 609, however, converted this moveable feast into a fixed date, May 13th. But Pope Gregory III moved the feast again, this time to November 1st ...
"In Britain All Hallows was celebrated with a procession ... of children dressed up as saints, angels and devils. And they were rewarded for their enthusiasm with 'soul cakes', sweet biscuits. And in Brittany All Hallows was connected to pranks, some of them quite macabre." -- GoIreland
GoIreland goes on to explain the diverse sources of various customs observed around the time of Halloween or on Halloween. Various ethnic groups brought their traditional customs and celebrations to the USA, and these have all become part of the modern holiday called Halloween, coalescing in the evening before All Saints Day, November 1.
I have observed that there has been a revived interest in old Celtic and other paganism. The churches here have again responded with alternatives, just as the Christians originally responded to their pagan surroundings in the Middle Ages, by offering various alternative activities with Christian meaning and values, in a safe environment.
Most American churches still have a fall festival, even in the city, though it was originally an agricultural celebration. It is a family fair or various events on or around 31 Oct. It is an important time of witness and outreach to the community.
Many churches offer such an event on October 31 as an alternative for the darker and more questionable aspects of the neo-pagan approaches. However, even those practices that reflect pagan origins, I think you'd have to admit, are mostly tongue in cheek, and often in have the character of safe satire of older superstitious beliefs of our northern European ancestors.
I would think it is always appropriate for a church to perform an evangelical service by providing a Gospel focus for the family and community on all general public celebrations. This is in keeping with the early centuries of the Christian movement as it encountered the pagan cultures around it in its spread throughout the geography and culture of human societies.
A lot of different activities occur at this time of year. Though there is a specific day of Thanksgiving for harvest success, there is much of that associated with Halloween, also, just due to the time of the year. And the original ancient European celebrations were harvest related, before the Christians introduced Halloween as a worship alternative. The biblical faith celebrates life and the cycle of the seasons, with joy and thanksgiving and worship.
It is the time for Fall Festival, and Holy Evening is a common time for those community celebrations. A lot of different things are observed on the day still called by its Christian name from the original Christian celebration in ancient Europe, Halloween.
This is a specific Christian name given with the intent to focus attention on God's goodness and holiness, and the victory of Good over Evil.
We have to evaluate which practices and programs or celebrations we are considering and what they do or can mean today. They are not all the same. Many cultures contribute to the various customs.
Holy Evening (evening before All Saints Day Nov 1) in 2013, we personally went to our grandson's American football game. We thought it was funny the high school league had the final game of their football season on Halloween. (Our grandson's team won the game.)
But this was a healthy and happy use of the time, and negated the opportunity for mischief that some get into. It was a great (but very cold) family evening with the school community supporting the team, wrapped in our blankets against the cold north wind!
Our house is usually dark anyway on Halloween night.
It is interesting how the social "position" of this holiday has changed and neo-paganism has become attached. A reintroduction of Celtic and other pre-Christian European cultural myth has also experienced a resurgence in the US in the 20th century. Hallowed (Holy) Evening was originally a Christian festival to celebrate Christian faith and triumph over the pagan and demonic forces. It was introduced as a alternative to the pagan celebrations of the season in old Europe.
But I have seen a shift even in my lifetime to a more positive focus on the evil aspects. We never celebrated Halloween with our children because of the negative and shifting perspectives associated with the holiday. And commercialism has both supported it by encouraging participation and detracted from it by trivializing it with consumerism.
Social and physical dangers have risen in recent years. I wouldn't want my children to take the risk. For some time now, American churches have again been offering alternatives to the repaganized holiday. Even in the 1970s, churches were offering alternatives programs on Halloween. Many churches will have programs within their buildings and grounds tonight.
Many communities have their own celebrations, and just visit neighbors on the same street. In our Facebook discussion, one of my cousins commented:
We love trick or treating and we live in a very safe neighborhood. Kate is going out with friends and Nate and Jason will be going door to door. By 7 the streets will be empty of cars and soon after the fun will start. I love seeing all the kids in their costumes!
Many churches have related activities at their church. Carnivals and games are common.
One friend comments:
We used to celebrate Halloween as kids but once I got older, I questioned the evil outfits, scary & bloody haunted houses and such. My kids dress up for the fall festivals in cute clothes but we really haven't been doing the door-to-door Halloween thing.
Carnaval in the Winter
A friend in the Ozarks tells us everyone in his town has street activities, visiting and giving out candy and gifts till the street is full of people for about a mile stretch. It is a community event.
Communities need this kind of shared celebration. This was a big part of the various seasonal festivals that all cultures have always celebrated. Harvest season was a big occasion for such fun and healthy communal activity.
This is why the pumpkin and various harvest decorations are included in the Fall Festival decorations and celebrations around Halloween. Many countries have official Thanksgiving days related originally to Harvest Celebration. Christians celebrate these as worship thanks. Non-Christians still give thanks.
There are many different kinds of celebrations and individual practices and customs have different, unrelated origins. It is wise to be aware of origins, but origins do not determine current meaning. The original Christian meaning or intent behind festivals and celebrations can get lost, as tends to happen in a materialistic economy of consumerism.
Likewise, practices that originally had some occult religious meaning also lose their meaning as people's worldview changes. Practices may be just games or fun, and not religious or metaphysical in meaning.
In any situation, Christian believers need to be aware of how they can represent the Good News of God's Rule on earth in anything and everything they do. New meaning can be given to days, events, celebrations and holidays.
The Dates of Christmas: Why do We Celebrate the Birth of Jesus in December?
The Dates of Christmas: The New Calendar and the Celebrations
Related on the Internet:
Halloween in Europe replaced pagan festivals - GoEurope
Halloween - Wikipedia
Halloween and Samhain - GoIreland
History of the Jack-o-Lantern
Based on original exchanges or thoughts on Facebook 6 November 2013
Developed November and December 2013
Final article posted 31 December 2013
Last edited 29 September 2021
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2014, 2021 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.