Well, it’s that time of year again, time for many Christians to get really uptight about the next big event on the Church calendar. That’s right: All Hallows E’en. Bring out the articles about Samhain, Celtic Lord of the Dead, about wicker-men and human sacrifice, about appeasing evil spirits and inviting the souls of loved ones with carved pumpkins! Page after un-footnoted page detailing the gruesome history of the pagan holiday. We have no references, but it was in our inbox, and Jack Chick, epitome of scholarly and not-at-all-hysterical-and-loony research, backs us up
I must admit, if these things were true, I would certainly think twice about celebrating a holiday with such a loathsome past. Mind you, the holiday’s origin alone wouldn’t invalidate the way it is celebrated today. However, it would be one consideration. Fortunately for Christians today, none of the things listed in the paragraph above have any historical basis whatsoever. Let me explain.
Almost all of these practices are tied to some idea of the pre-Christian Druidic rites in Britain. However, apart from a few scraps of political propaganda on the part of Julius Caesar, we have almost no direct historical information about the Druids. Archaeology doesn’t help us here either, as we have nothing written by the Druids and no artifact of any kind that can be connected to the Druids. If they did exist as a religious group at all, they were so secretive that we know nothing today of their beliefs or practices. Of course, when a group of people are secretive, there is never a shortage of those who claim to have obtained special knowledge of the teachings and workings of said group. (I heartily recommend Umberto Eco’s book Foucault’s Pendulum for a fictional account of how this works.) And thus from 1500s through the 1800s, humanists, occultists, alchemists, and neo-pagans all claimed the Druids as their own and invented a whole host of stories about them which are repeated piously today by uninformed people as being connected with the historic origins of Halloween.
In The Famous Druids: A Survey of Three Centuries of English Literature on the Druids, author A.L. Owen documents the transformation of the Druids during modern times into the shadowy figures we know them as today. He writes in his introduction, “…those who attempted to rediscover the Druids of history had set themselves an impossible task. Not only is little known about the Druids as they really were, but when Elias Ashmole calls them the “mysterious Druidae’ he rightly suggests that this little fits insecurely into familiar frames of reference. Yet, while the Druids as they are described by the scholar of the Renaissance, the virtuosi and the clerical antiquary have little contact with historical reality…their creation owes much to widely held assumptions that coloured the thought of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries...”
So, to summarize, anytime someone points to a Halloween custom as something originating with Druids or Druidism, they are actually pointing to fictions created about the Druids from the 1500s to 1800s. Halloween was always a Christian holiday. For more information, see James Jordan's essay on the topic.
For the record, putting a candle in a turnip goes back to the practice of lighting candles for the souls in Purgatory. Not a Protestant idea there, but certainly not pagan either. With the discovery of the new world, it turned out that pumpkins were much easier to carve. Also, there was no Samhain, Lord of the Dead. Samhain means “summers-end” and was simply a Celtic harvest festival. Steven Wedgeworth makes the great point that Christians, in their zeal to escape the supposed pagan origins of Halloween, have reverted to something much like the original essence of the autumnal pagan celebration. Harvest festivals? No thank you; we’re Christians. We celebrate Halloween.