NB: I edit and repost this essay most every year, I know. Archive has this going back to at least 2006, although it says there that I was reposting it again, so, at least 2005? Anyway, it's still good.
October rolls around and the accusations fly:
You stole our holidays! - Pagans
You're being Satanic! - Protestants and former Protestants
In the Fall, as certain as badly flavored lattes and poptarts, we will be bombarded with bad history and bad social science and bad theology - although I confess that for two years or so it seems to be a lot lighter because our media and social mediæ are filled with real and trumped-up demons anyway. But, laying aside all earthly cares, let's talk about Halloween. After ten-plus years as a pagan and twenty plus years as a Christian I’m just annoyed by all the emotive, illogical silliness out there.
Some Christians take the Irish name of the holiday (Samhain pronounced "sow-wayne" or "sow-in") and makes it into a god’s name – claiming he was a god to whom human sacrifices were offered. This deity never existed. Samhain is simply Irish gaelic meaning “End of Summer”. It is, nowadays, the name of the Month of November on Calendars printed in the Irish language.
Modern Neopagans get the history all wrong, too. This holiday was not stolen (by the Church) from them. Firstly and most importantly because in northern Europe (outside of the Roman Empire), pagan feasts were not celebrated on fixed calendars. Secondly because their modern practices are almost all modern – based on a Christian culture – so their patterns are not the “real, ancient practice” of any people. There are those who are doing reconstruction work and actual historical research, trying to free modern paganism from the limits of Christian fixed calendars and the like. They know "October 31st" is meaningless to ancient ears and hearts.
A good deal of the modern evangelical, fundamentalist, and Eastern Orthodox (mostly-convert) complaints about Halloween are just badly disguised ultra-Protestant, Anti-Roman Catholicism. In some cases (Jack Chick comes to mind) it’s not very thinly disguised at all. Other sects often succumb to such uber-frummery, too. When I was first Chrismated as Orthodox my only reply was “it’s not my holiday”. In this I was following my priest – Fr J. We were forgetting that the Orthodox Western Rite folks all celebrate All Saints day with the Christian West; so, in fact, some Orthodox do celebrate All Hallows’ Eve. So also do Roman Catholics, Anglicans and some (most?) Lutherans. In other words a majority of Christians around the world have this day on their liturgical calendar.
It is my assertion that the celebration of All Hallows eve as such is Christian; that is was never Pagan.
"A Christian Holiday" in this conversation means that it is part of the Christian liturgical calendar. In East and West, being on the calendar may mean various liturgical functions. Although East and West do holiday traditions differently, both East and West treat their most important feast days the same: there's a Eucharistic liturgy (communion service) and there is something of a complex evening prayer the night before. All Saints Day (Hallows is an older word for "holy") fits this pattern: there is a communion service on the day of, and a complex evening prayer service on the vigil, the "Eve". It's this "Evening" or "E'en" that is "Hallowe'en".
A pagan holiday is one that is non-Christian, or Pre-Christian and, usually, localized: there was no pre-Christian religious tradition that was pan-European. There were Celts and Romans and Greeks, there were Scythians, Gauls, Goths, Visigoths, Egyptians, etc. Each one of these ethnic groups would have had their own pagan holidays. They may have celebrated holidays with each other, or moved around taking holidays from home to new locations, but, in the end, each had their own, localized parties.
Not every Pagan European culture had a festival at this point in the year - the late fall or beginning point of winter. To find any festival at all at this point of the year, we have to leave the urban Roman Empire and go to the edge of the known world: the Celts of Ireland. There was a festival in ancient Ireland as the Sun reach halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. The Celts were big on halfway points. In fact, they have one at every halfway point between each set of Solstice and Equinox. A case could be made that it was these halfway points - and not the Solstices and Equinoxes themselves - that are the most important.
The bards report the feast between Autumn and Winter was celebrated on the Hill of Tara with the Ard Rí – the High King. Should one visit Tara today one will see a “passage grave” on the hill, called the Mound of Hostages. In the back of the grave are small spirals carved into the wall. Around November 7th on the modern Gregorian calendar as the sun passes the halfway point between the Equinox and the Solstice, a shaft of light penetrates the cave and strikes the spirals. Does this indicate the timing of the Feast of Tara? We don’t know, although it's a good guess. It does show that the astronomical point – not a calendar date, per se – was marked at Tara. Ditto the other bits of pagan Ireland and England: New Grange marks the winter solstice, not 21 December. Stonehenge marks the Summer Solstice (among other events). The Pagans in the only part of Europe not conquered by Rome didn’t use the Roman Calendar – and so wouldn’t have known what 31 October was. The passage on Tara shows that (in modern terms) it was the Sun at 15 Degrees of Scorpio that was celebrated – not a specific day.
Bonfires were lit that night, but it was a culture without writing. We don't know that the Irish even had anything to say about the dead on this night. Anthropologically it would make sense for this festival to be a harvest festival and it would be likely that the dead might be invoked or appeased at harvest time... but that's it.
How do the Christians get any party at this time into their calendars?
In the east, St John Chrysostom (4th Century) set a celebration in memory of all the “other” saints on the Sunday after Pentecost. Since he did not (nor does his successor) have universal jurisdiction, this holiday would have, of course, only applied to those dioceses and parishes under his patriarchate. It was a good idea, however, so the tradition spread among the other Eastern churches. Additionally, in some places the second Sunday after Pentecost is observed as All local Saints. Thus in the Russian Churches, this is All Saints of Russia. In the Orthodox Church in America, that Sunday is “All Saints of America” but it is not so named among the various non-Autocephalous or “self-ruled” groups in the US.
This celebration was not commanded to those churches under the Patriarchate of Rome although the tradition began spreading there, as well. It is, to be honest, a good idea: there are oodles of saints without feast days.
In AD 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the ancient Roman Pantheon as a Christian Church. The new name was St Mary and All Martyrs and the anniversary of the consecration, 13 May, was a feast celebrated in all the western Church. It still is, in fact. This was the beginning of All Saints’ Day in the West. It’s important to note two things: (a) this happens after the coming of St Augustine to Canterbury in 587 (when the Roman Church met Samhain); and (b) it doesn’t happen on 1 November. These are important because of the claim (sometimes offered in error by many, myself included) that Augustine merely baptised a pagan feast day he found in England and that it came back to Rome. Nope. Sorry.
About 100 years later another Pope, Gregory III, dedicated another All Saints’ chapel – this one in St Peter’s – on 1 November and began to commemorate the feast on that day. The next Pope Gregory made that feast (on 1 November) of universal practice.
The Roman Martyrology, still read daily in monastic orders, tells the story this way:
Festívitas ómnium Sanctórum, quam in honórem beátæ Dei Genitrícis Vírginis Maríæ et sanctórum Mártyrum Bonifátius Papa Quartus, cum templum Pántheon tértio Idus Maji dedicásset, célebrem et generálem instítuit agi quotánnis in urbe Roma. Sed Gregórius item Quartus póstmodum decrévit, eándem festivitátem, quæ váriis modis jam in divérsis Ecclésiis celebrabátur, in honórem ómnium Sanctórum solémniter hac die ab univérsa Ecclésia perpétuo observári.
The Festival of All Saints, which Pope Boniface IV, after the dedication of the Pantheon, ordained to be kept generally and solemnly every year on the 13th of May, in the city of Rome, in honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and of the holy martyrs. It was afterwards decreed by Gregory IV that this feast, which was then celebrated in many dioceses, but at different times, should be on this day kept by the whole Church in honour of all the saints.
All of these Christian dates are very important because these dates mean the festival of All Saints (and thus the Vigil the night before) is a feast of the pre-Schism Patriarchate of Rome. 31 October/1 November is not a Pagan festival: it is a traditional celebration of the unified, Roman and Orthodox Church - if you insist on limiting that title to western events before the 11th century.
Would the Church have adopted the pagan practice of a remote tribe from the hinterlands and commanded it to the whole of the western world? Unlikely.
Bad Victorian Mythology
Bad Victorian Mythology
Costumes? Trick or Treat? Pumpkins? Mostly bad Victorian-era Scholarship – and that mostly American, not European at all. Like us moderns, the Americans of the Victorian era had a penchant for things that “feel ancient” and, like us, they tended to make stuff up when they didn’t know the answer. They just call it “ancient tradition”. Americans feel guilty sometimes that most countries have indoor plumbing older than our culture.
Our American custom was, until recently, to becostume ourselves and trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving! In fact this may go back to a Roman Catholic custom on St Martin's day: and and this custom was moved to Halloween in the early 20th Century and, as things happen it is the “American Style” Halloween that is only now being imported into Europe. It’s our American customs, superimposed on All Hallows Eve that we now deck out as “ancient” and then call pagan. So follow this: Prot Americans adopt Catholic Customs from St Martin's Day, move them to Thanksgiving (which was, really, a bit too late in the year to go trick or treating); then we culturally move them to a Catholic Holiday, commercialize them, market them to the rest of the world and then - to validate it - claim it's not mid-20th Century Marketing, but rather Ancient Celtic Tradition... and poof! we've all been duped into spreading the marketing ploy.
Everything else we claim to know about the holiday is from this American Marketing. So we like to blame wearing masks on the ancient Celts. We claim the sweets used to be foods left outside, offered to the Ghosts. The Jack O’Lantern is a candle lit to show the dead how to get back to their homes. All of this is without proof of course – positive or negative. The ancient religions were not literate. They didn’t write it down in guidebooks on How to Be a Druid. Almost all of these later inventions have to do with Protestant ideas of the all the departed commemorated on 1 & 2 November. Romans say they are saints – but Protestants know there are no Catholics in heaven so all their “saints” must really be spectres and ghouls. Having made up a pretty fun holiday (admit it!) it caught on! Even Europeans now like this idea.
31 October is Not Pagan.
Modern Neopagans take up this theme – using American Christian customs! – when they say “Christians stole our holiday”. In fact, 1 November was never their holiday – it was, however, the closest Christian party to their own historical party at 15 Degrees Scorpio. So they moved their gew-gaws and froo-froo a week over or so and stopped counting days by small spirals carved on walls and tried this new Roman invention – the Fixed Calendar. They did this so as not to be continually persecuted by the Christians – they wanted to blend in. I’m clear on that – and Christians need to be honest about our persecution of other religions throughout our history. We see the same blending-in in Yoruban cultures where their Afro-Caribbean and South American cultures adopt Catholicism as a cover for their African Gods. In like manner, albeit, a thousand years earlier, the Celtic tribes covered up their pagan traditions with a Catholic overlay. But the Church didn't do that, as such: the Pagans pretended to be Catholics, not the other way around.
We might better say that the ancient Pagans, to avoid persecution, stole a Christian Holiday. Certainly the idea of the Western All Saints being stolen from the Celtic “day of the dead” is not at all historic. Since the ancient religions did not write stuff down, we have no way of knowing from Pagan sources if the Festival of Tara was anything to do specifically with the dead or the “Veil between the worlds” getting thin. We don’t even know it was “New Year” for them – we may have made that up too. Like other pagan festivals some of this stuff may have carried over: the “bonfire holidays” in England are mostly pagan festivals that were transferred to Christian days. This is especially clear on St John’s day in the Summer when they light the midsummer bonfires. This tradition of moving traditions to the biggest party continued through history: in England, now, the Mid-Autumn bonfires are not lit on Halloween, but rather on Guy Fawkes Night (Nov 5) which is coincidentally much closer to 15 Degrees Scorpio.
Because huge parts of America are, largely, encultured by folks from Mexico and further South, it’s worth talking about the Day of the Dead, Dìa de los Muertos. It's one of my favourite times of the year to switch cultures: it's practically a public Holiday in San Francisco. We may have no idea at all what the ancient Celts did, but the Day of the Dead is a living, evolving tradition. Some Protestant commentaries are quick to point out that this is Paganism+Catholicism. But it is Catholicism – not paganism – that rules the day. When it is the other way around, it is a stolen holiday (again, stolen by the Neopagans).
The Aztec (Ancient Mexican) Calendar had almost 30 days dedicated to the dead in or around the Gregorian month of August. These were dedicated to the “Little Dead” (children) and the Adult Dead. It's likely that these were the ghosts of human sacrifices, as well as the ghosts of the beloved dead.
Within a few decades of the Spanish conquest all the traditions of these festivals had been transferred to the Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls. The Church didn’t move them there – nor did she “take over” the Aztec feasts. Instead – as in the case of the Celts and the other pagans – local traditions were, effectively, baptised when they got there. There were no human sacrifices anymore. But people still wanted to commemorate their dead. These traditions were seen as way-pointers on the way to Christ who is The Truth and therefore all things true point to him. There is nothing to be afraid of in the truth: nothing at all. And anything that really is True really is Christ.
Now does any of this mean that the modern, Non-Christian silliness that goes on in Schools is really-Christian or even Anti-Christian? No. No more than singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is an act of Christian piety although I know some who would file a lawsuit nonetheless. That said, let's be honest: most of the secular holidays that happen now - from Christmas to Easter to Halloween - are decidedly not Christian and should be avoided. The revelries that happen on this night are lewd, crude and are often designed to mock Christianity. That is Satanic.
But bobbing for apples, trick or treating - or using this day and season to commemorate the dead and the departed are not Satanic at all. In fact, it's an Orthodox practice that is so evidently healthy that even the pagans took it over: All Saints Day (and the Vigil) and All Souls Day and the whole month of November. Should the kids be allowed to have that fun? Well, that’s up to the parents.
One major point edited in in 2017: I'm Catholic! This is my holiday now.
NB: To be fair, the internet itself has a growing crop of research, such as the wiki article on the Celtic holiday that is quite well done. But it's my blog so I can do this every year as long as I update it!