1. Is Halloween a pagan holiday?
Only for Wiccans who have (mis)appropriated a Christian holiday, the Eve of All Saints Day.
2. No, really. Is it pagan?
Well, I wouldn’t call the Lutherans pagan for their (mis)appropriation of All Hallows’ Eve as “Reformation Day.” But if that floats your boat….
3. But I totally heard it was pagan! And Celtic! And called Samhain!
So did I. Victorian folklorists lied to us. The truth is that Halloween celebrates the transfer of All Saints’ Day from its date on May 13 (the anniversary of the consecration of the pagan Pantheon temple as a Christian church in AD 609) to the more Roman-convenient date of November 1. This happened in the 730’s in Rome, as the pope was dedicating a new All Saints’ chapel there. Meanwhile, the various Eastern churches celebrate All Saints (Agion Panton) on the first Sunday after Pentecost; but earlier dates included the Friday after Easter and individual dates in various dioceses. The early Christian date in Ireland was April 20 (which may have been an even earlier Roman or French date for it).
So the holiday on its current date is Italian, then French and German, and only spread to Ireland on its current date fairly far into medieval times. People don’t seem to have started the masks, the door to door begging for alms, the bonfires, the playing bobbing for apples, or the carving turnip lamps until centuries afterward.
However, those same customs (wearing masks and costumes, carving turnip lamps with candles inside, bonfires, apple games, and the like) are popular European Christian holiday activities associated both with pre-Lent carnivals and with late summer and fall saints’ days. For example, in France and Germany, St. Martin’s Day traditionally was associated with many of the activities we associate with Halloween. (As well as with many things we associate with Thanksgiving, because it comes right after their harvest and their traditional poultry-butchering season. Hence the Martinmas goose. But I digress.)
Begging door to door for candy and cakes is also associated with Christmas in many countries, or with building and operating a snapdragon for Rogation Day in the middle of the summer. These examples of children collecting alms for themselves are basically a play version of adult guilds and organizations collecting alms for the poor, which was the medieval custom and which continues in many places. UNICEF obviously isn’t a Catholic organization and neither do I advise that Christians give them cash; but that’s why they ask kids to collect alms for them. (Which is why it’s so darned ironic that Protestant kids in England collected “money for the Guy” in order to let off anti-Catholic fireworks on the 5th of November. But never mind….)
4. But I heard that dressing up in scary costumes is pagan and supports the culture of death.
Actually, Christians have plenty of traditional Christian attitudes toward death and horror. Sometimes they like a little bit of memento mori (remembrance of death – literally, “remember death!”) so that they don’t get cocky, and they remember not to sin or become monsterish. Other times, Christians mock death as ineffective. Still other times, you get people refusing to acknowledge death; but if even Jesus cried for Lazarus when he was going to raise him up right away, that seems a little cocky. And Christians have always had the bones of the martyrs, and the other beloved faithful dead, visibly in and under their churches, ready for a visit. It’s only gruesome if you don’t believe in the Resurrection, or the blessed bones of Elisha.
We can act out the scary and sad parts of life without letting that be the whole story. Also, a little scare can be fun. (Here’s G.K. Chesterton on “The Nightmare,” an essay about horror.) I’m telling you, we need to get back to having snapdragon floats and banners on Rogation Day.
But it’s also nice to wear a cute costume, or a saint costume, or wear regular clothes. Do what you find fun and appropriate to the holiday; that’s what holidays and holy days are supposed to allow.
5. So what did pagan Irish people do on Samhain, if they didn’t dress up like goblins or carve turnips or give out candy?
Samhain, Samhuinn, or Samain [the unlikely folk etymology is that it means “summer’s end,” from sam (summer) + fuin (end), but really it may be related to an archaic word for “assembly” because the ancient Gauls used to call it Samonios] was one of the four harvest festivals in Ireland, as well as the separation day between the warm and cold times of the year. But it’s not clear whether or not it was associated with the dead in pagan times, because we really don’t have anything contemporary about it.
We do know that it was one of the days when people paid their debts and paid their taxes to the local king; it was also associated with legislation and court judgments. (If you read up on quarter-days and cross-quarter-days, you’ll find out that all of Christian Europe had similar law and debt days, which we can blame on both practicality and the Romans.)
The actual pagan thing that we do know about is that the Feis Temra, the feast at Tara (and similar feasts at other royal sites) when the local king ritually “married” the land or the sovereignty goddess, was at Samain. (If the king was lucky, he didn’t have to do it with a horse and then sacrifice and eat the horse. But that’s what they allegedly did in one of the kingdoms. Ew.)
Attending these law and pagan-ritual festivals for the seven days around Samhain seems to have been compulsory, probably because it made you acknowledge that the local king was your king and you followed the local laws. It does seem that legend held that the doors to the Sidhe hills and the Otherworld were always open to go either way on these days; but in context, this seems to be associated with the fact that everybody was traveling to see their kings, so nobody was going to get in your way in Faerie or on earth. It was Important Business Time.
So I suppose you could argue that sexy costumes, paying taxes, or going to Congress on Halloween are related to pagan rituals. But candy and scary costumes are okay!
6. But… our Election Day is right about the same time as Samhain. Does that mean that Election Day is pagan?
No. It means that civic business is best done in the short period between Harvest Is Too Much Work So I Can’t Leave for Town, and It’s Too Cold to Travel So I Can’t Leave for Town. Grace builds on nature, and God doesn’t change the weather patterns for the benefit of Christians. (And Christian Irish kings still collected their taxes and had law assemblies on November 1.)
7. So how did a church festival and an Irish law day turn into bobbing for apples and costumes?
Boredom. (And the destruction of local Irish and Scottish government by the English. And the urge to have parties. But mostly boredom. There was a time in the US when Halloween was a holiday of destructive pranks, for instance, and we don’t want that coming back. So don’t let your kids get that bored.)
PS. What’s that Felire thing say?
The Felire of Oengus the Celi De says that November 1, “blessed Samain” [“samain slanaig”] was the feastday of Ss. Lonan, Colman, and Cronan, whom he describes as “the host of Hilary” [St. Hilary of Poitiers, who legendarily trained and sponsored a lot of missionaries for Ireland].
He says that October 31 was the feastday of St. Quintinus, a Roman martyr, and of the martyred abbot St. Faelan (aka Foillan), brother of the better-known St. Fursa.
And here’s what Oengus says about All Saints’ Day on April 20:
“Day of the suffering of Herodius,
priest who crucified desire;
Feast in Rome – that noble town –
of the whole of the saints of Europe.”
So apparently somebody in Rome was supposedly celebrating it on April 20, before the whole Pantheon re-dedication thing. Not surprising, if it’s accurate.
Here are some previous Halloween posts:
“Shony On, Harvest Moon”: on the tragic misinterpretation of a St. John devotion at Halloween in the Hebrides.
“Barmbrack for Halloween”: discusses various Halloween customs.
Foxfier, friend of this blog, also talks about Halloween in her monthly column, and includes a link to my St. Mena post. 🙂