The word Halloween comes from "All Hallow's Eve", or "Hallowed Evening". Hallowed means sanctified, set apart for God. (Remember the Lord's Prayer, where it says "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name..."?) Hallow E'en was the E'en (evening) before All Holy Martyrs' Day, created by Pope Boniface VI in the 7th century AD, to honor martyrs who were not recognized.
But the celebration goes further back than that, when most of the traditions that we are familiar with got started. Eight hundred years before Jesus walked the earth, Druids worshipped many gods. On the last day of their calendar, what we would call October 31st, they celebrated a three day new year festival. On this day, they celebrated the end of summer and the beginning of the winter season. They believed their god of darkness took the sun god captive, with assistance from the souls of the dead.
Celtic Druids believed that the souls of the dead could enter into the bodies of animals or people, and that people trapped in animal bodies could interact with the living during the time of the festival. Many tried to talk to their deceased loved ones at this time. Some tried to get a peek into the future. Most hid in fear of harm or trickery of ghosts. Druid priests taught that evil spirits could trick the living into entering the realm of the dead, and trap them there. (I think I saw that in the movie Poltergeist.)
The people extinguished their fires and huddled in the dark and cold, to discourage spirits from entering their homes. Some dressed as dreadful creatures and went about causing destruction, to frighten the spirits away. Druid priests kindled a bonfire in the center of town, and gave sacrifices, including human sacrifice, to their many gods, in hopes they would not harm the villages. By some accounts, the sacred fire remained burning all year.
At the end of the festival, home fires were re-kindled with the light from the bonfire. People dressed as ghosts and walked to the edge of town, so that the ghosts of the dead would follow them away from the villages.
How did the honoring of faithful Christian martyrs get mixed up with this ancient pagan festival? As early as the ninth century, European Catholics practiced "souling". On November 2, All Souls Day, Catholic leaders went door to door, asking for sweet cakes, in exchange for prayers on behalf of departed loved ones. They said that their prayers would lesson the time that the departed must suffer in purgatory, hastening their entrance into heaven. Curses were pronounced on those who did not give generously. The people gave food to appease an angry god, and spare their deceased loved ones torment, hoping that their offering would be enough to spare them from harm. It was much like the ancient festival of the Druids.
All Holy Martyrs Day was changed to "All Saints Day" and was moved to November 1st in 835 AD by Pope Gregory. So, the night before, All Hallow's Eve, or Hallow E'en, became completely intertwined with the pagan celebration.
Copyright 1998, 2008, 2010 Kathryn A. Frazier. All rights reserved. Contact author for reprint information.