Hallowe’en and Allhallowtide: a Christian holiday

Enrico Canuto, Former faculty, Politecnico di Torino, November 2019


Navigating through the Internet, confusion can be noticed about the origin and meaning of the so-called ‘Halloween festival’, now drifting into macabre festival and masquerade. This short study, with no accurate scientific claim,  tries to shed some light on the origins.

Bloody sacks as 'Halloween decorations' in a city restaurant (photographed on November 3, 2019).
Windows have been partly obscured for the purpose of privacy.

From the page ‘Halloween’ of the Italian wikipedia:

"Halloween è una ricorrenza di origine celtica celebrata la sera del 31 ottobre, che nel XX secolo ha assunto negli Stati Uniti le forme spiccatamente macabre e commerciali con cui è divenuta nota."

or the page ‘Halloween’ of the English  wikipedia:

"It is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain; that such festivals may have had pagan roots; and that Samhain itself was Christianized as Halloween by the early Church. (here references are included) Some believe, however, that Halloween began solely as a Christian holiday, separate from ancient festivals like Samhain.(here references are included)."
The Anglo-Saxon Allhallowtide

All Saints Tide is the Western Christian triduum encompassing the observances of All Saints’ Eve (Hallowe’en), All Saints’ Day (Hallowmas) and All Souls’ Day, from October 31st to November 2nd.

The term Hallow (now obsolete, same origin as holy, whole, health) is the synonym for Saint, and comes from the Old English Halga (saint), cognate of the German Heilige  (saint), from a Proto-Indo-European root *koylos (safe).  The suffix e’en means end of the day (between sunset and darkness) and also vigil of a religious festival, from Old English æfen akin to German Abend. The term tide comes from the Old English tid, meaning portion of time, akin to German Zeit, both from Proto-Indo-European *di-ti-, division of time.

As reported in [1] and [3], mentions of a feast of All Saints are found in the fourth century in St. Ephrem the Syrian (founder of the School of Nisibis, learning center of the Syriac Church, c. 306-373) and St. John Chrysostom (archbishop of Constantinople, 349-407), with the latter assigning it to the first Sunday after Pentecost, which is today the ‘Sunday of All Saints’ for Eastern Christian Churches [2]. A Feast of the Martyrs was created by Pope Boniface IV  (from 608 to 615) to mark the consecration of the Roman Pantheon, where Pantheon \left ( \pi {\acute{\alpha}} \nu \theta \varepsilon o\nu \right ) means ‘temple of all the gods’. The Byzantine Emperor Phocas (c. 547-610) gave the temple to the Church, and Boniface had it reconsecrated as Sancta Maria ad Martyres (St. Mary and the Martyrs) on May 13th in 609. The anniversary of the dedication  was celebrated annually on May 13th, a coincidence (?) with the same Feast celebrated in Syria and mentioned by St. Ephrem the Syrian. Many scholars see this feast as the origin of All Saints’ Day on November 1st. As  a matter of fact, pope Gregory VII (from 1073 to 1085) definitely suppressed the feast of May 13th in favour of November 1st [6].  Unfortunately, no neat path between the two dates looks emerging from VIII to XI century documents. Further, no important feast occurring on Calendæ existed in the Western Church. Which was the reason for this change?

An intermediate event, during the struggle against the iconoclastic Byzantine  Empire, was the dedication by Pope Gregory III (from 731 to 741) of an oratory in the original St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of all the saints. The dedication date is unknown, and no relation with this event seems emerging from documents.

One of the earlier explicit mentions of All Saints’ Day on November 1st, appears in a letter of Alcuin of York (Northumbria, Great Britain, c. 735-804) written in 800 to his friend, Arno (Aquila in Latin), archbishop of Salzburg:

"... Kalendis Novembris solemnitas omnium sanctorum. Ecce, venerande pater Arne, habes designata solemnitatem omnium sanctorum, sicut diximus. Quam continue in mente retineas, et semper anniversario tempore colere non desistas: ... Hanc solemnitatem sanctissimam tribus diebus ieiunando, orando, missas canendo et elemosinas dando pro invicem sincera devotion procedamus..."
Rabanus Maurus (left, c. 780-856), a Frankish Benedictine monk,  supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to archbishop Odgar of Mainz (right, died 847). Rabanus Maurus, later archbishop and benefactor of Mainz, was the author of the encyclopaedia De Universo and of many holy hymns, the best known being 'Veni Creator Spiritus'.
From a IX century (2nd quarter) Fulda manuscript, now in Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (picture from Wikipedia)

Alcuin (also known as Magister Albinus) was one of the most remarkable intellectuals at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen (Aquisgranum, Urbs regale). He was the leading scholar and teacher at the Carolingian court. His letter witnesses Alcuin’s affection for this solemnity: was it celebrated in his native Northumbria? Light comes from the works of Venerable Bede  (672/3-735), Benedictine monk in the Kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles (the same Alcuin’s country). They include two Martyrologies [7] both reporting All Saints’ Day on November 1st. The ‘Martyrologium de Natalitiis Sanctorum’ reads at November 1st (Kalendis) and 2nd (IV Nonas):

Festivitas omnium sanctorum....

IV Nonas. 
Ipso die memoria fidelium defunctorum celebratur, a B. Odilone Cluniacensis cœnobii abbate anno Dei Christi millesimo secundo devote instituta. ... Commemoratio solennis omnium fidelium defunctorum.

The mention of All Souls’ Day, memoria fidelium defunctorum, should be a later addition, since Odilo of Cluny, the fifth Benedictine Abbot of Cluny,  lived from c. 962 to 1049.  Instead, the mention of All Saints’ Day, festivitas omnium sanctorum, is confirmed by the poetical second Martyrology:

Multiplici rutilat gemma ceu in fronte November,
cunctorum fulget sanctorum laude decoris.

In summary, All Saint’s Day was celebrated in Northumbria on November 1st, at least since the VIII century, and Alcuin was so affectionate to the festivity to promote it in the Carolingian empire.  Further, both celebrations, All Saints and Souls, appear having their origin in monasteries, presumably, as soon as a liturgical daily remembrance could not be made of each Martyr, Saint and defunct monk. Since the Gregorian mission lead by Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Anglo-Saxon England, from Kent to Northumbria, was Christianized (597) by Benedictine monks.

Alcuin’s promotion seems to have been soon accepted, if Ado, archbishop of Vienne (Lotharingia, France) from 850 to 874, reports in his Martyrologium [4] that Pope Gregory IV (from 827 to 844) asked the king of the Franks and son of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious (778-840), to proclaim November 1st as All Saints’ Day throughout the Holy Roman Empire:

" Festivitas Sanctorum Onnium. ... Sed et in Galliis, monente sanctae recordationis Gregorio pontifice, piissimus Ludovicus imperator, omnibus regni and imperii sui episcopis consentientibus, statuit ut solemniter festivitas omnium sanctorum in praedicta die annuatim perpetuo ageretur"

The ensuing question is: why November’s Calendæ? First, the date was chosen to be fixed in the solar Julian Calendar and not movable, depending on some plenilunium, like Easter’s celebrations. Second, it was independent of any other liturgical feast. Third, it was assigned, as already mentioned, to Calendæ. There should have been some cogent reasons, strictly related to both liturgical and solar year. Winter solstice (‘Yule’ of Anglo-Saxons, ‘Giuli’ in Bede’s De Temporum Ratione [7]) occurred close to Christmastide, spring equinox and summer solstice occurred during and just after Easter-tide. Void of Christian festivals remained the autumn equinox, or, more significant for Northern people, the end of summer and beginning of winter, which occurred at the mid-Autumn full moon, the first day of the Anglo-Saxon Winter-fylleð month [7] of the luni-solar Anglo-Saxon Calendar:

From Venerable Bede's De Temporum Ratione, Caput XV, De Mensibus Anglorum [7]  
"...Item principaliter annum totum in duo tempora, hyemis videlicet, et æstatis dispartiebant: sex illos menses quibus longiores noctibus dies sunt æstati tribuendo, sex reliquos hyemi. Unde et mensem, quo hyemalia tempora incipiebant, Vuinter-fyllet happellabant, composito nomine ab hyeme et plenilunio, quia videlicet a plenilunio ejusdem mensis hyems sortiretur initium..."

In the solar Julian Calendar, adopted by the Western Christian Church, November 1st was a natural and significant date, being, at the same time, the first winter  month and the last month of the liturgical year.

Europe at the death of Charlemagne with the main cities and the documented one-way and two-way influential relations about All Saints' Day institution. Eastern Church cities are in blue colour. Western Church cities are in red colour. Irish Church monasteries are in magenta colour.
The Irish-Celtic ‘samain’

In the previous section, I failed to mention that Anglo-Saxon Northumbria underwent two different evangelizations, both in the VII century: 1) Paulinus, the first bishop of York, a member of the already mentioned Gregorian mission, baptized king Edwin of Northumbria in 627, but was forced to return to the south of England after the defeat and death of Edwin in 633 by the heathen king Cadwallon. 2) The Irish monks of the Iona Abbey, on the west coast of Scotland, were called to teach Northumbrian Celtic Christianity after king Oswald had defeated Cadwallon in 634. They founded Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, the epicenter of their evangelization.

Irish-Celtic and Roman-Western Churches were differently organized, observed different liturgies and ‘Saint’ canonization, but, most significant, they employed different methods in the computus of Easter [13]. One possible reason was the Britain Isles isolation from continental Europe since the V century, following the withdrawal of Roman legions, Anglo-Saxon invasion and weakening of Roman authority after the sack of Rome by Visigoths in 410.  Briton Church survived but, unable to evangelize Anglo-Saxons, devoted  missionary efforts to the evangelization of Ireland, as it was inhabited by Celtic people like the Britons. As a matter of fact, several disputes arose between Irish-Briton Celtic Church and Anglo-Saxon Roman Church, the latter established by the Gregorian mission in the early VII century.

A controversy about the Easter’s computus takes place in Northumbria where as, mentioned above, clerics of both Churches coexisted. The synod, summoned by Hilda, the abbess of the Streonshalh monastery (later Whitby Abbey), in 664, opted for the computus and liturgy of the Roman Church. As a consequence, Irish monks withdrew from Holy Island and returned to Iona Abbey. Peculiarities of the Celtic Church also regarded the All Saints’ celebration as shown below.

The sources of Anglo-Saxon Northrumbria evangelization: monks of the Irish-Celtic Church from Iona Abbey to Holy Island and the Gregorian mission of the Roman Church from Kent.

One source of confusion is the equation ‘samhain’=(All)Hallowe’en. We have just learned that ‘Allhallowe’en is a Christian Anglo-Saxon word meaning the ‘Vigil of the All Saints’ Day’, the first day of the Christian triduum Allhallowtide.

Instead ‘samhain’ (also ‘samhuinn’) corresponds to the Old Irish ‘samain’, whose etymology, with good reasons, is still disputed. A usual assumption is that it comes from ‘sam-‘, summer (Proto-Indo-European *sem, akin to  Samon-, the first month in the Gaulish Coligny calendar), but the suffix ‘(h)ain, (h)uinn’ looks rather uncertain. It is usually related to Old Irish ‘fuin’ with the meaning of ‘end’ [10] . Accordingly, ‘samain’ would indicate ‘end of summer’ and by extension ‘beginning of winter’. But occurring at which date of which Calendar? An alternative etymology,  due to W. Stokes [5], is from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘together, assembly’,  like the Old High German ‘saman’ (together).

It has been recently shown in [12] that the luni-solar Gaulish Coligny Calendar discovered in 1897 can be arranged and used to exactly predict lunar phases in a cycle of 19 tropical solar years (6939.60 days). The tropical year, between two successive equal Sun positions with respect to the Earth in the ecliptic plane, is approximated by the Gregorian calendar better than one part per million. The 19-year cycle, which is known as the Metonic cycle (from the Greek astronomer Meton who introduced the cycle in the luni-solar Attic Calendar  in 432 BC), which contains 235.0 Moon synodic periods, each of 29.53 days, with an error smaller than 10 part per millions. We should remark that observation and prediction of Moon phases is easier than observation and prediction of the solar year, solstice and equinox, which justifies the adoption of a lunar calendar. Unfortunately, the Moon synodic period does not contain an integer number of solar days, which obliges the month length to switch between 29 and 30 days. Furthermore, the solar year does not contain an integer number of Moon periods, which obliges the addition of a leap month every two or three years (embolismic month [13]), implying complexity and discrepancies of lunar calendars. Instead, a solar calendar of 365 days like the Julian only requires a leap day every four years (to be avoided three times every four hundred years in the Gregorian reform). But, accurate solar year observation requires  appropriate observatories and skill. The oldest ones, like the Goseck circle in Germany, consisted of a large open-air closed circle with two apertures aligned to the sun beam directions at the sunrise and sunset of the solstice days [8]. The Paschal Sunday, whose computus was disputed at the Whitby synod, must be related to the spring equinoctial full moon, and thus involves the synchronization of lunar and solar calendars, and the adoption of a common luni-solar calendar.  An Irish 84-year Easter table covering years from 438 to 521 was discovered in a X-century manuscript in Padua and their computus was recreated in [13].

One can thus assume that ‘samain’ was a fixed date in an (unknown) Celtic luni-solar Calendar, presumably, a mid-Autumn full moon: according to some scholars it was the Celtic New Year’s Day [11]. Moreover, since Ireland was never subdued by the Roman Empire, the Celtic lunar calendar was observed well beyond the Christianization of Ireland by Briton missionaries in the VI century, as testified by the Paschal controversy at the Whitby synod (VII century).  Distinction between Celtic ‘samain’ and Julian November 1st is confirmed by the First Winter’s Day (November 1st) in Welsh, ‘calan gaeaf’, where ‘calan’ derives from Latin Calendæ, whereas ‘gaeaf’ means winter, akin to Latin ‘hiems’, from Proto-Indo European *ghyem-. The same can be found in Cornish with ‘kalan gwav’ and also in the Gaulish Brittany. Wales and Cornwall were part of the Roman Britain, Brittany was part of the Roman Gaul.  Likely, with the adoption by the Irish-Celtic Church of the Julian calendar around the VIII century, the Celtic ‘samain’ was dragged to coincide with and to indicate November 1st, at least in Ireland.

The word ‘samain’ appears in the poetic  Martyrology (Félire Óengusso Céli Dé) [5] of Oengus the Culdee (died c. 824) in Old Irish (written not earlier than 797) which at Calendis Novembris writes:

Lomán, Colnán, Cromán, cona cléir gil gríanaigh:
slúaig Helair deirb dálaig sóerait samain síanaig.
W. Stokes' translation [5]:
Lomán, Colnán, Cromán, with their bright sunny following: 
the hosts of Hilarius sure multitudinous ennoble stormy All Saints' Day.

As the english translation looks rather obscure, I would just isolate the last three words and their alternative meanings in [5]: ‘sóerait’ (3rd person plural) means also ‘save, free’, ‘sianaig’ means ‘noisy’ and ‘samain’ means also ‘assembly’, as already mentioned.  A plain meaning is that somebody is ‘saving a noisy assembly’, maybe the ‘assembly of noisy people celebrating samain’?  In fact, an explicit All Saints’ Day is mentioned on April 20th, and this time in a clear and glorious way:

La céssad Heradi cruimthir crochtha tuile, 
féil ir-Rúaim, rán baile, nóeb n-Eorapa uile.
W. Stokes' translation [5]:
With the suffering of Heradius (?), a presbyter who crucified desire,  
the feast in Rome - right noble stead!- of the saints of the whole of Europe.

According to the dictionary in [5], ‘féil’ means festival, ‘rúam’ (dative ‘rúaim’) means cemetery (according to [5] from Roman Catacombs), ‘rán’ means splendid, ‘baile’ means stead, ‘nóeb’ means saint, ‘uile’ means all.

As a tentative conclusion, in Ireland, the lunar calendar ‘samain’ festival was already celebrated around November 1st in the VIII century, likely dragged by the Julian calendar adopted by Irish Church. But is looks hard to accept that All Saints’ Day was celebrated on November 1st, given the undeniable feast on April 20th. The Julian names of November 1st, already mentioned, in Wales and Cornwall suggest that also there Celtic traditions of the winter’s beginning were dragged from pleniluniums to this date.

The more convincing origin of All Saints’ Day and its triduum is the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon Church, evangelized by both Celtic and Roman Christianities, but sintonized with Roman Church after the Whitby synod. The importance and obligations of the Cristian festival since the XII century, the inclusion of All Souls’ Day, prayers and rites for peace of the souls in Purgatory, together with the coincidence of the Julian date of the Celtic winter’s beginning (likely the Celtic New Year’s Day) may explain why (All)Hallowe’en spread all over the British Isles to indicate the celebration of popular traditions, like bonfires, divination, candlelit, … [9], on All Saints’ Eve. Similar popular traditions paralleled the All Saints’ triduum all over Europe, but the goal, here, was just to investigate the origins.

Halloween as a mercified festival

There is no doubt that Celtic (and in general Northern Europe) popular traditions of the winter’s beginning, originally timed by lunar calendars, have been dragged to the vigil of November’s Calendæ in the Julian calendar by an important Christian festival like Allhallowtide. With the progressive divergence between Christian liturgical and civil year, also because of the Protestant negation of Purgatory doctrine, Hallowe’en tended to become a rather independent celebration (now Halloween), the only links with the All Saints’ triduum being date, maybe holiday of obligations and the practice of lighting candles and visiting cemeteries.

The Halloween poem of the Scottish poet R. Burns (1759-1796, one of the first poems about popular Halloween) describes Scottish manners and traditions of young people that night, without any mention of All Saints’ Day:

Some merry, friendly, countra-folks
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, an' pou their stocks
An' haud their Halloween (*)
Fu' blythe that night.

English translation [14]
Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nuts, and pile their shocks of wheat,
And have their Halloween (*)
Full of fun that night.

(*) R.Burns footnote: "Is thought to be a night when witches, devils,  and other mischief-making beings are abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary."

The progressive divergence seems having been enhanced by the XIX and XX century reconsideration of heathen culture and practice [9], often opposed to Christian religion, and by Christian and western culture, tradition and practice commoditization after the II Word War. Since the first New York Halloween Parade and masquerade in 1974, Halloween commodified practices have progressively affected western countries (and more), educational institutions and families.


[1] T.L. McDonald, The Season of the Dead: The origins and practice of Allhallowtide, The Catholic World Report,  October 24, 2018.

[2] Greek Orthodox Archidiocese of America, Sunday of all Saints, https://www.goarch.org/-/sunday-of-all-saints.

[3] Fr. W. Saunders, All Saints and All Souls, Catholic education resource center.

[4] Ado Viennensis Archiepiscopus, Martyrologium, in Documenta Catholica Omnia, 2006 Cooperatorum Veritatis Societas.

[5] W. Stokes, The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee (Félire Óengusso Céli Dé), Henry Bradshaw Society, 1905.

[6] Sicard of Cremona, De mitrali seu tractatus de officiis ecclesiasticis summa, in Documenta Catholica Omnia.

[7] Saint Bede, The complete works of Venerable Bede, Eight Volumes, Rev. J.A Giles ed., 1843, London, Wittaker and Co.

[8] D. Scherrer, Ancient observatories, timeless knowledge, Stanford Solar Center, 2015-2018.

[9] J.G. Frazer, The golden bough, Macmillan and Co., 1890.

[10] eDIL, Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, available from http://www.dil.ie/

[11] R. Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. 1996,  Oxford University Press, Oxford  p. 363.

[12] H.T. McKay, The Coligny Calendar as a Metonic Lunar Calendar, Études Celtiques, Vol. 42, 2016, pp. 95-121.

[13] D. McCarthy, Easter principles and a fifth-century lunar cycle used in British Isles, Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol.24, 1993, pp. 204-224.

[14]  R. Burns, Halloween (English translation),  available from https://sdhighlandgames.org/halloween-by-robert-burns-english-translation.