Not totally pagan or Christian, Halloween is one of the many examples of religious syncretism. Rooted in Celtic and therefore pre-Christian traditions, Halloween was “resumed” during the VIII century by the monk Alcuin of York, who superimposed All Saints’ Day to the celebrations of Samhain, a joyful memory of the dearly departed. The name itself Halloween is the contraction of All Hallow’s Eve. Not that different from Christmas, that was born over the ashes of the Roman festivity Sol Invictus, showing how much integrating traditions is natural.
However, sometimes one can deny the obvious. And the Church, for superficiality or intolerance, branded Halloween as a heathen, if not demonic, event, ignoring its roots and evolution. Samhain, as it happens in cults all over the world, was just a way to not surrender to mortality, such as Christianity with the resurrection of Jesus or honoring the dead. So, it was believed that on November the 1st, the Celtic new year, all those who passed away could enjoy one last ride on Earth, bringing presents to alive people.
After Alcuin’s idea to Christianize Samhain to allure the Celtic population, the pope Gregory IV and the emperor Louis the Pious spread this new celebration in the whole Frank Kingdom, until it became an official festivity of the Christian calendar under the pope Sixtus IV, in 1475. Even in the ancient Rome November the 1st was a celebration of fertility, an auspice of good future harvests, when gifts were offered to Pomona, the goddess of fruitful abundance. Another reason to choose this date for All Saints’ Day.
Samhain wasn’t macabre or spooky, actually it was a glorification of life and a way to exorcise death, so that people weren’t afraid of it anymore. Celtics didn’t mean to scare nobody, unlike Halloween is (jokingly) supposed to do nowadays. During the XIX century in fact, in the United States started a new trend to organize parties in the night between October 31st and November the 1st, the old Samhain eve. The religious part is abandoned in favor of the playful aspect, with an homage to the esoteric fascination of the occult.
Since then, Halloween was associated with the USA. Even the use of pumpkins was begun overseas. Celtic populations used turnips, modeled as lanterns as a good wish to release the souls of purgatory, according the legend of Jack-o’Lantern. In North America pumpkins were simply more common though, but also easier to be carved because of their size.
The modern liturgy of kids going around asking for “treat or trick” comes from the Medieval habit of All Saints’ Day, when beggars get food in exchange of prayers for the deceased. The first testimonies of the use of customs date back to the XVI century. It seems that Celtics populations in Scotland wore animal fur to scare the spirits – not demons, just spiteful creatures.
In the last years Halloween became an acknowledged celebration in many countries without a Celtic heritage. Maybe for the cultural imperialism of the United States (if we want to be mean), maybe because it’s just funny. But it also might be a restoration of ancient folklore, as Samhain had many equivalents everywhere.
As everything else, Halloween is not immune to consumerism, but that’s a much wider issue than a witch or ghost costume. I guess we are allowed to enjoy the celebration without feeling subjects of the USA, capitalists, satanists, religious or whatever critic had been moved. Just staying faithful to our own ideas and (hopefully) learning something else of the other cultures at the same time.