Halloween is a time when ghosts and spooky decorations are on public display, reminding us of the realm of the dead. But could they also be instructing us in important lessons on how to lead moral lives?
The origins of modern-day Halloween date back to ‘samhain’, a Celtic celebration for the beginning of the dark half of the year when, it was widely believed, the realm between the living and the dead overlapped and ghosts could be commonly encountered.
In 601 AD, to help his drive to convert northern Europe to Christianity, Pope Gregory I directed missionaries not to stop pagan celebrations, but rather to Christianise them.
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Accordingly, over time, the celebrations of samhain became All Souls’ Day and All Saint’s Day, when speaking with the dead was considered religiously appropriate. All Saint’s Day was also known as All Hallows’ Day and the night before became All Hallows’ Evening, or ‘Hallowe’en’.
Not only did the pagan beliefs around spirits of the dead continue, but they also became part of many of early church practices.
Pope Gregory I himself suggested that people seeing ghosts should say masses for them. The dead, in this view, might require help from the living to make their journey towards Heaven.
During the Middle Ages, beliefs about souls trapped in purgatory led to the church’s increasing practice of selling indulgences – payments to the church to reduce penalties for sins. The widespread belief in ghosts turned the sale of indulgences into a lucrative practice for the church.
It was such beliefs that contributed to the Reformation, the division of Christianity into Protestantism and Catholicism led by German theologian Martin Luther. Indeed, Luther’s 95 Theses, nailed to the All Saints Church in Wittenburg on 31 October 1517, was largely a protest against the selling of indulgences.