Where did we get the idea for a holiday for ghosts, goblins, and ghouls?
For years I have been taught that Halloween had its roots with the pagan Druids. Checking various references I discovered a plethora of cultures who take credit for the origins of the fall fest. However, it seems most societies had some sort of harvest festival that can somehow be traced to our modern Halloween. The Druids celebrated a festival of the dead in the fall, as did the Celts. However, there are others who believe the earliest accounts of a Halloween-type celebration are found in the records of the early Israelites in Scripture.
According to Dr. John Hays, professor of Old Testament at Emory University, at one time in the life of the Israelites the three festivals found in Leviticus 23.24-36 (Trumpets, Yom Kippur, Succoth) occurred on successive days. The first festival, Trumpets, later known as Rosh Hashanah, is clearly a "prepare yourself" festival. Yom Kippur is also a preparation festival for the purification of one's heart and life. Succoth celebrates the release of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. However, in later years, the festival included the singing of many of the enthronement psalms (e.g., Psalms 24, 47, 68, 93, 97). Because the first two festivals are preparatory fests and the third a time of celebration, Dr. Hays believes these festivals are reflections of the account in Exodus 19.10-11 where the Israelites were given two days to prepare for the sight of God, and the third to behold God. Hays cites Hosea 6.1-2 and Amos 4.4 as further evidence for a successive three day festival as well.
But what was the purpose of this three day fest? And how does it foreshadow our modern Halloween? Sigmund Mowinkle wrote The Enthronement Festival of YHWH and the Origins of Eschatology in 1922. In this work he describes a festival wherein both the king of Israel and God were re-enthroned in a public celebration. This re-enthronement occurred at the end of the year during the fall festival. However, for one to be re-enthroned, one has to be dethroned first. And here is where the first two days, the days of preparation, were important.
On the first day, the day of Trumpets, the king himself was ritually dethroned. The account of David's exile from Jerusalem in 2nd Samuel 15 is likely a picture of this very act the trumpets are blown and the king leaves the city in a parade weeping and in a state of humiliation (barefoot and with covered head II Samuel 15.30). At the same time, the Ark of the Covenant was removed from the sanctuary to accompany the parade (II Sam. 15.23-24). With the removal of the Ark from the sanctuary there is a sense in which God had been dethroned as well.
Why this dethronement? For one, the king led the people in the act of making atonement for themselves during the festival. In so doing, he admitted his own shortcomings, sought forgiveness for unwise acts/sins from both God and the people, and led by example. Plus the re-enthronement celebration tended to bolster support nationwide.
But there was probably a very practical reason for the removal of the Ark from the sanctuary as well. Remember that the High Priest was the only person allowed into the Holy of Holies and he did so to sprinkle blood onto the Ark. By the end of the year the ark itself and the room would have become foul. Thus, once each year, the Ark was removed, YHWH was dethroned, and the Holy of Holies was vacant and could be cleaned.
The dethronement of YHWH gave rise to the notion that, while God was not ruling, the forces of chaos ruled. In the mind of the Israelite the forces of chaos would have included lesser gods (Psalm 29, 58, 82), the seas, and the waters of the cosmos (cf., Psalm 93). However, in contemporary minds we might include our own spooks and goblins as well. In any event, during the second day of the festival (the day the Holy of Holies was being cleaned) the Israelites observed a day of mourning and contrition. Finally, on the third day, the Ark was returned to the sanctuary, the king was restored to his throne, and the enthronement of YHWH over creation was celebrated.
This three day fall festival pictures a brief reign of chaos, not unlike our own eve of ghosts and goblins on Halloween. And though there is no evidence, nor is it likely, that our modern day Halloween hearkens back to the Israelite Fall Festival, the similarities between our day of ghouls and their day of chaos are striking.