Thursday, September 19, 2019

A Brief History of Halloween for Orthodox Christians

By John Sanidopoulos

In one or two words, what do you think of when you hear the word Halloween? This is a question I once asked some Orthodox Christian children, and they responded with the following words: Trick-or-Treating, Candy, Costumes, Fall, Pumpkins, Orange, October, Fun, Scary Movies and Stories, Haunted Houses, Hay Rides, Corn Mazes. For the children, these were all seen as positive things, though some didn't like scary movies. When this was asked of Orthodox young adults and young parents, the answers were very similar, though some added that it was just a holiday for children. But when I asked some Orthodox Christian adults and clergy, sometimes I got a positive answer similar to those above, but other times words like "pagan" and "devil's holiday" and "commercialization" were added. Largely what you get is a positive outlook on the holiday, though some who don't like Halloween, or have outgrown it, especially as adults, tend to express their negative attitudes by demonizing it, even calling it evil, and they justify their opinions with a lot of falsehoods and misinformation that have very little to do with the truth. With this guide, I hope to clear things up in a short summary, without going into all the details.

The Word "Halloween" and its Origins

No one is completely sure, but the word Halloween probably dates to the late 17th or early 18th century, and is of Scottish origin. Halloween simply merges the two words "Holy" and "Eve", because in the Catholic Church November 1st is All Saints Day, which made October 31st the Eve of All Saints Day, or "All Hallows Eve" as it was known in Old English since 1556. All Saints Day came to be celebrated by the Catholic Church on November 1st when Pope Gregory III (731–741) established an oratory in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on this day for the relics "of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the righteous made perfect who are at rest throughout the world." In the Orthodox Church, we celebrate All Saints Day every year on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

Since the Church of Rome celebrated All Saint's Day on November 1st, it was decided also to celebrate All Souls Day the day after on November 2nd. All Souls' Day commemorates the Christians faithful who have died, and it was a day in which prayers and alms were offered on their behalf. The Christian celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day stems from a belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the "Church triumphant"), and the living (the "Church militant"). In the Orthodox Church, we have an alternative to All Souls Day called the Saturday of Souls, which we commemorate four times a year, twice before Great Lent, on the first Saturday of Great Lent, and the on the Saturday before Pentecost.


The origins of Trick-or-Treating on Halloween goes back to the medieval custom of collecting alms for the poor on All Souls Day, which at that time was called "souling". This was also done on other holidays, such as Christmas. Poor children would go door to door, and the custom was for those who lived in the house to give the children food or money. This is a custom still done by Orthodox children in places like Greece, though they do it mainly on the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany.

The phrase "trick-or-treat" dates back to the 1930's in the United States, and perhaps was used in the 1920's in Canada. From the late 1800's till the early 1900's, holidays like Halloween and even more so Thanksgiving became associated with poor children who would go around having fun vandalizing people's homes and businesses, city streets and public places, and there were many reports of violent acts. In other words, Halloween by this time had become about tricks and violence, and the people were getting fed up with it.

American colonists, in a nod to Guy Fawkes Night — a celebration that commemorated the failed 1605 plot by Guy Fawkes to blow up England's House of Lords — were already going door to door on November 5th, asking "a penny for the Guy." Since this was an English holiday, and there was a tradition of souling on Halloween, Canadians and American's decided to establish a Halloween tradition unique to North America that would distract the youth from committing acts of vandalism and violence: dressing kids up in costumes and going door to door asking for a treat, and by appeasing the kids with a treat they would not trick you with a prank of some sort. With this, as well as parades, apple-bobbing community parties and offers of free movie tickets transformed Halloween into a holiday mainly focused on children and the youth.

Halloween Before Trick-or-Treating

Up until Victorian times in the 19th century, Halloween was primarily a religious holiday celebrated by Catholics and some Protestants. Traditions mainly included souling in some places, and since it was a day commemorating the dead, some of the more superstitious would dabble in things like divination for fun. In Victorian times, while kids would go out and play games on Halloween, for adults especially it transformed into a time for costume parties, bonfires, and an occasional seance which was also mainly done for fun, though some actually believed that between October 31st and November 2nd you could more successfully through a medium or spiritualist call upon your dead relatives and communicate with them. Spiritualism in America grew in popularity in America after the Civil War, when many families who lost loved ones wanted to communicate with them. From America, spiritualism spread throughout the world, and many noted figures of the time like Abraham Lincoln and Fyodor Dostoevsky dabbled in it mainly out of curiosity. Most however considered it a fun game that lessened in popularity in the early 20th century, though it became popular again with the rise of the Ouija Board. Orthodox Christians should not however dabble in activities such as divination, seances or using Ouija Boards, not necessarily because they are considered by some who are simple-minded to be occultic or demonic in an attempt to scare people away from them, but because our participation in such things show our lack of faith in God's Providence and care for us, and our lack of faith in prayer and almsgiving which the Church has established for the benefit of loved ones who have died.

Halloween Costumes and Parties

Costumes and parties probably became associated with Halloween with masquerade balls. Masquerade balls were popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and they involved the use of masks to hide the identity of the one wearing them. These masks evolved into costumes, and by the 19th century Halloween parties seem to have appropriated this custom. The first mass-produced Halloween costumes appeared in American stores in the 1930's when trick-or-treating was becoming popular in the United States. Halloween parties themselves probably have their origins in the festival of All Saints, where dancing and feasting obviously took place, as with every major Christian festival.

In 20th century America, Halloween costumes and parties slowly became associated with the Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) depicted in French churches in the 15th century, eventually spreading all over Europe. These frescoes depicted the living in procession with skeletons on their way towards the realm of the dead, seen as a sort of dance. It was supposed to remind Christians of their impending doom and that we should prepare for death by focusing more on divine things. In 1929, Walt Disney crafted his own adaptation of the allegory with “The Skeleton Dance,” an animated short in which skeletons rise from their graves and dance to a lively foxtrot. At times, the music is played on instruments made from their own bones. Though no humans are danced to their graves in this cartoon, the expressive skeletons wouldn’t look out of place in earlier Dances of Death. Other Halloween staples — black cats, owls, tombstones, and bats — add to the spooky mood. Though the Dance of Death isn’t, strictly speaking, associated with Halloween, the macabre imagery resonates with the holiday’s connections between life and death.

Pumpkins and Jack-o'-lanterns

Carving out vegetables to use as lanterns has been a practice for thousands of years. It became associated with Halloween in 19th century Ireland, Scotland and England, where turnips were used for carving. No one knows how they became associated with Halloween, but it seems like scary faces were carved onto them and a lamp was placed inside to frighten away trespassers, much like a scarecrow, though this was not necessarily a Halloween tradition. Some would give names to these carvings, but the names that caught on especially were Jack and Will, and stories were created as to the origins of these names. In 1835 a local pub held a carved gourd competition and presented a prize to "the best crown of Jack McLantern." The term jack o'lantern is of the same construction: "Jack of [the] lantern." In England it was known as will-o'-the-wisp, which means "Will of the torch".

The Halloween association of the pumpkin in America probably goes back to Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820), where adaptations often show the Headless Horseman with a pumpkin or jack-o'-lantern in place of his severed head. In the original story, a shattered pumpkin is discovered next to Ichabod Crane's abandoned hat on the morning after Crane's supposed encounter with the Horseman, indicating that a pumpkin was used to kill Ichabod.

The application of the term jack-o'-lantern to carved pumpkins in American English is first seen in 1834. The carved pumpkin lantern's association with Halloween is recorded in the 1 November 1866 edition of the Daily News (Kingston, Ontario):

The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle.

Haunted Houses

Haunted attractions are entertainment venues designed to thrill and scare patrons, much like a roller coaster and other carnival rides. Most attractions are seasonal Halloween businesses that may include haunted houses, corn mazes, and hayrides, and the level of sophistication of the effects has risen as the industry has grown. The first recorded purpose-built haunted attraction was the Orton and Spooner Ghost House, which opened in 1915 in Liphook, England. It was during the 1930's, about the same time as trick-or-treating, that Halloween-themed haunted houses first began to appear in America. It was in the late 1950's that haunted houses as a major attraction began to appear, focusing first on California. The haunted house as an American cultural icon can be attributed to the opening of the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland on 12 August 1969. The rise of Haunted Houses is probably associated with the rise of Horror movies in the 1930's and 1940's, and gave patrons an opportunity to have a safe 4-D experience of being in a scary movie.

Monsters and Ghosts

Traditionally, monsters and ghosts were not really a part of Halloween. For example, in Victorian England ghost stories were typically told on Christmas Eve (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a popular example). Monsters associated with Halloween like vampires and witches were associated with folk beliefs from ancient times, especially popular among peasant Greeks and peasants in the Balkans, and these beliefs persist to a small extent into modern times. Beliefs in witches and vampires spread West, where other popular monsters like the Wolfman and Frankenstein's Monster were later created. The Halloween connection was a matter of assimilation in America when these monsters became part of the costumes associated with Halloween. The rise of horror films with trick-or-treating and haunted houses in the 1930's popularized this connection, let alone the fact that it was a day when the dead are commemorated by the Catholic Church and care for the souls of the dead is taken.


Halloween is the preeminent American fall festival, and since death surrounds us in nature in the season of autumn, and the nights have lengthened while sunlight has shortened, causing more fear with the darkness, in which the imagination runs wild, and the cold has brought people indoors, Halloween has gone on to take on all these elements of fear and darkness and claustrophobia and has made them less scary, primarily for children, though it has also provided entertainment for adults before the bleak winter season. What caused fear in the past now became a mockery of that fear by celebrating at this time. This is how All Hallows Eve evolved on the secular level in North America, which is quite profound when considered.

However, religious extremists began to conjure up various myths and stories to demonize the holiday, making it a whole lot darker than it ever was, and they tried to historically justify this demonization by referencing Protestant and Celtic scholars of the 19th century, who tried to falsely associate everything Christians practiced not mentioned in the biblical text as being of pagan origin, Halloween being merely one of them, despite there being absolutely no evidence to associate Halloween or any other Christian festival with paganism. Then from the 1960's through the 1980's these same extremists, mainly Protestants, began to associate Halloween with satanism, saying it was the devil's holiday. This was a further attempt to demonize the holiday in an age of "satanic panic", causing the Christian, cultural and innocent elements of the holiday to be lost, and allowing Halloween to take on an image more associated with what it was being falsely accused of being. By this extreme demonization, Christians often react against the holiday, instead of embracing it for what it really is as a secular and cultural holiday.

Outside of America, in traditionally Orthodox countries, these cultural elements that deal with fear and seasons have always been more widely embraced, with the Church rarely becoming involved, and for this reason the Church has been seen as more of a solution to problems rather than demonizing people about their cultural practices and being part of the problem. Demonization is usually a sign of fear in and of itself.