Halloween: Christian and Pagan Syncretism

Syncretism is a great word. It means blending contradictory beliefs, theology and/or mythology together to come up with something unique and unified. This certainly applies to Halloween which seems to merge Christian and Pagan ideas together for a holiday. The word syncretism seems to trace back to Greek and Roman historian Plutarch who commented that the often quarreling Cretans would set aside differences in beliefs when an external threat appeared.

Halloween is a holiday that has origins in Christian as well as pagan traditions and the practices of seemingly contradictory belief systems blend into one holiday. The world sure could use more syncretism, this harmonious blending of beliefs and less conflict about beliefs. So, how did this blending of difference beliefs and practices become our modern Halloween holiday?

As Catholicism spread through Eurasia, the Church adopted many local religious practices, making the transition into Christianity easier for local populations. Adopting local holidays also made it easier for missionaries, monks, and priests to blend into new cultures and introduce Christian spiritual concepts. The church even called this the practice of syncretism and it was because of this willingness to embrace the customs of others that Christianity spread so successfully throughout Europe and Asia.

Today, because of syncretism, Christians get to experience the best of both worlds without any guilt for engaging in customs that may have once been pagan. Halloween represents one of the most one of the most colorful and anticipated of these blended holidays. The origin and meanings of Halloween and many of it’s traditions may surprise people.

Christian Holiday

The name of Halloween is actually English in origin and describes the day in relation to the religious calendar. The holiday is on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, a holiday also referred to as All Saints Day, Solemnity of All Saints and Feast of All Saints. All Saints Day is a time of feasting and remembrance of the saints that have passed. Additionally, it is the first day in the tradition known as Hallowmas. This religious season includes the three days of Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. This tradition is one of the oldest Christian holiday seasons and goes back to the 700 AD and was made popular around 900 AD by Byzantine Emperor Leo VI.

Pagan Holiday

The modern incarnation of Halloween has origins in several cultures. Most notable is the contribution made by the Celts, which provided the holiday with its iconic trick-or-treating and costume wearing. Association with the dead and symbols like skulls, skeletons, graveyards, and ghosts on Halloween in the Americas come largely from syncretism with the Mesoamerican holiday know as the Day of the Dead. Though it began as a time of feasting in Christian tradition, the celebratory and communal nature of Halloween makes it easy to understand why these localized traditions would have been adopted.

Pan-American Halloween Traditions

There are holiday traditions in the United States that did not originally exist in other places where the observance of Halloween is older. One of the most salient differences is in the use of the pumpkin for the Jack-o-Lantern. Originally, Europeans would have carved this iconic symbol of Halloween from a turnip. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that the pumpkin is indigenous to the Americas and was not introduced to Europe until after the time of Columbus. Also, in the places of the Celtic origin of Halloween, known as Samhain (pronounced sow-een), it is still common for children to get nuts, cakes, cookies, or money rather than the commercial candy as is customary in the United States.

Halloween – A Holiday For All

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The holiday of Halloween is one that continues to evolve in Western culture today. The syncretism that allowed pagan and Christian tradition to mix, despite the resistance of some who disdain the holiday, was more a feature of the dynamism of human nature than any overt plan to subvert culture. History is full of stories of people adopting traditions of their neighbors when they appreciate or enjoy them. Whether you appreciate Halloween as the beginning of Hallowmas, as a remnant of your pre-Christian ethnic origins, or simply as a fun way to have a yearly celebration, the holiday presents a perfect chance to interact with your community while enjoying a bit of indulgence. Really, we need more holidays like Halloween where we can celebrate together and explore many different spiritual ideas without too much arguing about our differences.

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