You get a great deal of nonsense talked in this country about how pagan All Hallows’ Eve is, and how every single thing we do is an occult reference to some pagan god. (Even if the custom is proved to have started in 1952.)
This bright and cheerful school of interpretation has been popular in various times and places. One was Lewis, out in the Hebrides. Lewis had been Christian for over a thousand years by the time these particular interpreters showed up, but they Knew Better.
The inhabitants of Lewis should have been dream parishioners for any clergy. They were full of pious Christian customs, treating going to church on Sundays with all the solemnity of a pilgrimage, and even falling to their knees and saying an Our Father as soon as a church came into sight over the horizon. They were just as courteous even with chapels long-abandoned, on islands where nobody lived anymore, when they went there to hunt — being sure to pray there morning and evening. But this sort of piety would not do. It must be stamped out.
Hallowtide customs were no exception. It must have been perfectly well-known to most people involved that “Seonaidh”, pronounced Shoney, is a common Irish/Scottish version of the name “Johnny”. (“Ian” and “Sean/Shane” are John.) St. John the Evangelist was one of the most popular saints in Christendom, often associated with fishing matters because of his original profession. He also was associated with alcoholic beverages and snakes, because legend says he once survived an attempt at poisoning his wine by saying grace, at which the poison turned into a serpent and slithered away. (All of which was used as a story illustrating the verse about Christians surviving poisons and not getting bit by snakes.) In Germany and many other places, it’s thought fitting to ask St. John’s blessing on wine, and wine is made to be drunk on his day.
But Mr. Martin Martin, a gentleman of Scotland, tells the story in 1703, in his famous work used by Johnson as a travel guide, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland:
“The inhabitants of this island [Lewis] had an ancient custom to sacrifice to a Sea God call’d Shony at Hallowtide, in the manner following: The Inhabitants round the Island came to the church of St. Mulvay, having each Man his Provision along with him; every Family furnish’d a Peck of Malt, and this was brew’d into Ale; one of their number was pickt out to wade into the Sea up to the middle, and carrying a Cup of Ale in his Hand, standing still in that posture, cry’d out with a loud Voice saying. Shony, I give you this Cup of Ale, hoping that you’ll be so kind as to send us plenty of Sea-ware, for inriching our Ground the ensuing Year; and so threw the Cup of Ale into the Sea. This was perform’d in the Night-time; at his return to Land, they all went to Church, where there was a Candle burning upon the Altar; and then standing silent for a little time, one of them gave a Signal, at which the Candle was put out, and immediately all of them went to the Fields, where they fell a drinking their Ale, and spent the remainder of the Night in Dancing, and Singing, &c.
“THE next Morning they all return’d home, being well satisfy’d that they had punctually observ’d this Solemn Anniversary, which they believ’d to be a powerful means to procure a plentiful Crop. Mr. Daniel, and Mr. Kenneth Morison, Ministers in Lewis, told me they spent several Years, before they could perswade the vulgar Natives to abandon this ridiculous piece of Superstition, which is quite abolish’d for these 32 Years past.”
Sea-ware is Scots for seaweed, which is indeed the only fertilizer these people could afford. (They needed to eat or sell the fish.) It was an incredibly hardscrabble life, and they were praying for survival when they prayed for seaweed.
It’s fairly clear that what used to happen was that they’d make a quick holiday ale (not terribly alcoholic!), stand St. John to a cup of it and ask his intercession (especially for their new ale, and for seaweed, which looks snakey), and then go into church at midnight and hear the first possible All Saints’ Day mass. Then they’d break their fast, have a big party, and go home in the morning. In short, a perfectly normal Catholic church festival. Unusual to have it at night; but then, it gets dark pretty early that time of year when you’re that far north. They probably needed all the daylight for work.
After the Reformation, the priests and the monasteries were driven out of the Hebrides and the Orkneys as everywhere else. But there were no rich “livings” in these remote places. So they were not replaced, except in the larger islands, with Church of Scotland or Presbyterian ministers — and certainly not with the same amount of coverage. For the most part, people had to gather on Sunday for prayer services all by themselves; and yet they did. They kept up their faith, and the pious customs too, on their own initiative. In fact, it took Christian ministers to stamp out these ancient Christian customs.
So the next time somebody tells you everything is all pagan, you remember how easy it is to paint an Apostle and Gospel-writer as a Lovecraftian Celtic sea god, and an innocent holiday ale and ceilidh as a horrible pagan propitiation ceremony. Sadly, many anti-Halloween arguments are really anti-Catholic arguments, dressed in anti-pagan clothes. Catholics, and any Christians who believe in the communion of saints, need to watch out for this.
The restaurant chain “Shoney’s” is named after the nickname of its founder, one Alex Schoenbaum. Therefore, nobody need worry that Big Boy is a Sea God.
Some online sites talk about this Lewis figure as “Shorrey”, but that’s an obvious scanning error for Shony.