Every October 31, when the pumpkins and black cats emerge, we hear that Halloween owes its origins to Samhain, the old Celtic harvest holiday when the veil separating the living and dead thins enough to be permeable.
According to this story, for which the evidence is flimsy, medieval Christians dispatched the saints in defense, establishing November 1 as the day in their honor and a way of mending the annual rift into the land of the dead.
Though it might seem un-holy that the prelude to All Saints’ Day—All Hallows’ Eve—is a night when skeletons crawl from the ground, the three-day festival of Allhallowtide (Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day or the “Day of the Dead”) is perhaps the most thoroughly Christian celebration of the year, at least historically speaking.
It is also three days through which a quick history of Christianity itself can be told.
While it is true that a ninth-century pope, Gregory IV, changed the date of All Saints to November 1, it was not to thwart Samhain. The move simply enshrined what was already being observed as All Saints’ Day in many parts of Europe. Beyond settling its date, Gregory also expanded the scope of the holiday to incorporate all the saints. The earlier version, on May 13, had defined saints more narrowly: it was a day for all the martyrs, those who were killed for their faith.
Consider one of the earliest accounts of the saints: the names of the “martyrs and victors” listed at the back of the oldest dated book in the world. Written in November of 411, in the Christian Aramaic dialect of Syriac, the saints’ names are organized according to the calendar, listing the month and date on which each saint was killed—or, as the scribe puts it, when each “received their crown.”
The ancient calendar goes on to link the crowning of the saints to Jesus, who wore the crown of thorns, and so establishes the first Friday after Easter Sunday as the day on which all the saints are to be honored.
The proud stoop low with stones on their backs, the envious (who look upon the things of others) have their eyes sewn shut with wire, while the gluttonous are starved and the burning loins of the lustful are consumed in the flames.
Meanwhile, all the faithful souls who preceded Jesus in death got their due on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the day that Jesus—according to Christian tradition—descended into hell for a raid on Death itself. In the iconic Byzantine vision of the scene, Jesus hauls Adam and Eve from the grave and shatters the doors that had kept their bones locked in the tomb. Multiple “Soul Saturdays” on the Eastern Orthodox calendar still remember the souls of the dead on the same day of the week that Jesus himself is said to have been dead in the tomb.
Medieval Catholics gave All Souls’ Day a more penitential turn.
In the early eleventh century, Odilo, the abbot of Cluny, dedicated a special day of prayer for all the not-quite-saints who had died after Jesus and were doomed to languish in purgatory until their sins were burned away and they were deemed sufficiently disinfected to proceed upward to heaven. In Dante’s account of the purging, the proud stoop low with stones on their backs, the envious (who look upon the things of others) have their eyes sewn shut with wire, while the gluttonous are starved and the burning loins of the lustful are consumed in the flames. Odilo chose November 2 as the date to remember all the poor souls in purgatory and to pray for their speedy ascent. His date was soon widely adopted.
With back-to-back days at the head of November for All Saints and All Souls, it is no coincidence that, half a millennium later, Martin Luther, the reformer who rejected the Catholic cult of the saints and many beliefs about purgatory, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on Halloween in 1517. Though a number of mainline Protestant churches (including Lutherans) retain observances for All Saints and All Souls, the commemoration is typically loosed of its medieval overtones and folded into a single, somber day for the dead.
Whether unaware of all this history or just leery of Halloween’s supposed links to the occult, some Christians, including nearly half of American evangelicals, according to a 2015 Lifeway poll, either reject the holiday entirely or steer clear of its so-called pagan elements.
Yet, strange as it may seem, those who do celebrate Halloween are unwittingly taking part in an age-old festival that honors the bones of the martyrs.
Kyle Smith is an associate professor of religion at the University of Toronto and the author of Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity.