The Misunderstood Holiday: Silly Myths About Halloween

If you’re one of those people believing Halloween is pure evil, have we got some news for you…

October 31st is all about scary stuff — so it’s not surprising that there are plenty of myths about Halloween, shrouding the reality of the actual holiday. Some of them are creepy urban legends, like the warnings about all those random candy poisonings (which never really happened). Some are about the holiday itself.

It’s the latter we’ll be covering in this special episode of Mythbusters. Halloween has gotten a bad rap from some folks in the past few years, so we thought we’d clue you in on the true story behind a few of the myths we’ve been hearing lately.

Myth 1: Halloween is an American invention.

Not hardly (and what’s wrong with American inventions, anyway?). Halloween was around for thousands of years, in one form or another, before the New World was even discovered. This myth about Halloween becomes even more ridiculous when you examine early American history.

In fact, the earliest settlers frowned on any type of celebration. Even celebrating Christmas was punishable by banishment or death in early Massachusetts! Eventually, a tradition called the Autumn Play Party developed that was very similar to Halloween, and finally merged with it when immigrants celebrating the Halloween flooded into the New World.

Myth 2: Halloween celebrates Samhain, the Celtic god of death.

This myth about Halloween is an article of faith in some fundamentalist Christian circles, and it can be traced to a pamphlet by evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick. Chick, who’s never been particularly noted for his accuracy, claims that Samhain (pronounced “Sowen” in Gaelic) was the Celtic God of the Dead.

Actually this is wrong. Samhain is the opposite of the Celtic growing season, Beltane — in other words, Samhain is winter. The Celtic god of death (and leader of the fairies) was named Gwyn ap Nudd. In addition Chick get credit for the fallacy that claiming that trick-or-treating is descended from an evil Druidic ceremony involving human sacrifice.

According to this myth about Halloween, Druids would come to your house and demand “Trick or Treat!” If you gave them a treat — a comely maiden to sacrifice — they’d leave you alone; otherwise they’d burn your house down and kill everyone inside.

But that’s only a myth — assuming, of course, that Chick didn’t just make it up. Trick-or-treating is actually based on an old European tradition in which people dressed in costumes emulating Christian saints in order to scare away evil spirits. They would then go door-to-door, begging for food. Sound familiar?

Myth 3: Halloween is purely a pagan observance.

This myth, like all the previous myths about Halloween, is completely wrong. First of all, there was no such word as “Halloween” until about 500 years ago. Christians gave the holiday the name. Second, while Halloween does descend from pre-Christian harvest celebrations (Celts loved to party), it was later suborned by the Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholics created All Saints Day to replace both Samhain and the existing Roman harvest festival called Pomona. Christians began observing the new holy day on November 1, and celebrating it the night before, All Saints Eve.
By the 1500s, the name had become All Hallows Eve — or “Halloween.”

Basically, then, Halloween originated as harvest festivals that celebrated the end of the growing season, festivals that were later subsumed into early Christian tradition. So neither the holiday nor its rituals originally had any evil intent — despite any myths about Halloween that say otherwise.