Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Historical Origins of Halloween

By the mid-fourth century Christians in the Mediterranean world were keeping a feast in honour of all those who had been martyred under the pagan emperors.

This was the feast of All Saints, and was held on 13 May, and was kept on that date.

In Ireland, however, following the Orthodox traditions, or in alignment with them, the feast of All Saints fell upon 20 April instead.

The situation in England and Germany was different, and by 800 churches in both countries, which were in touch with each other, were celebrating a festival dedicated to All Saints upon 1 November instead. The Orthodox church still holds All Saints on the Saturday after Pentecost. All Souls came later, originally in February, but was moved to 2nd November simply to link it to the previous festival.

What can we conclude from this?

First, the idea that the Christians "stole" Halloween is historically incorrect. The different feast days (13th May, 20th April) demonstrate that.
Second, the idea that the move to November was to do with appropriating halloween from the Celtic calendar is also incorrect. The move to change came from Germany and England. In Ireland, where the Celtic influence would have been in place, and there would have been a feast day, it was 20th April.

In fact it was Sir James Frazer who first mooted the idea of Samhain as the pagan Celtic feast of the dead, and he did so purely by extrapolation from All Saints day, with no grounding in evidence. It may well have been linked to beliefs about the dead, but there are no sources which tell what they are even though much is believed by dint of repetition without checking source documents. Equally, statements about Samhain being the Celtic new year are just taken as genuine, and consequently the view has become entrenched, and indeed expanded on in New Age philosophy. There is equally good evidence to support a summer new year.

So what do the sources reveal?

Samhain, 1 November, was the major festival which marked the opening of winter in early medieval Ireland, described as "when the summer goes to its rest". The work of harvest was over, the livestock were gathered in, and it was a time of tribal assemblies and festivities. For three days before, and after, "there would be nothing but meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting" (Ganzt, 1981). This was a celebration of life, not death.

Unlike Beltane, this does not seem to have been a religious feast time, but instead a political one. The religious idea of druidic fire rituals comes from the seventeenth-century Irish antiquary Jeffrey Keating, but it seems likely that he was just transferring known rituals from Beltane to fill the void.

The Welsh literature also speaks of this as "the first day of winter" , but attributes no special or arcane significance to this dates (in sharp contrast to May Eve) and describes no gatherings then (in sharp contrast to New Year). So the idea that Samhain was a major Celtic festival is also doubtful, it seems to have been more of an Irish festival. The Welsh did however have a tradition of haunting by a a tail-less black sow, exemplified in the Anglesey rhyme:

A Tail-less Black Sow
And a White Lady
Without a head
May the Tail-less Black Sow
Snatch the hindmost.
A Tail-less Black Sow
On Winter's Eve,
Thieves coming along
Knitting stockings.

In the Ango-Saxon calendar, September had been called "Haleg-monath", while October was "Vuinter-fylleth" and November "Blod-monath". The reason for November being "blood month" derived from the annual slaughter of livestock in early winter to reduce the amount to be retained through the leaner months to come.

The Middle Ages show various beliefs from different localities, and a belief in special danger from supernatural forces. In Southern Ireland, for instance, they used a cross of sticks woven with straw placed inside the entrance to a home to ward off evil. Other localities had traditions about goblins abroad, or fire spirits; it was seen as a time of peril. When we think of a time of winter storms, dark nights, illness and death, all approaching, it is easy to see how such fears arose.

It was nineteenth-century Ireland that saw the fusing of these traditions into the creation of the modern Halloween. The imitating of malignant spirits became the playing of pranks, turnips or pumpkins were hollowed out to provide light, and goblin faces, but it was in America that the Irish immigrants developed it into its modern secular form, more or less as a holiday for children - much as Christmas has become.

Hey! Ho! for Hallowe'en
An' all the witches tae be seen
Some in black an' some in green
Hey! Ho! for Hallowe'en.

The modern antipathy to Halloween comes from Protestantism, where Conservative Evangicals see the festival as a glorification or glamorization of evil powers that is also essentially unchristian. They tend to bombard school authorities to downplay Halloween, although ironically, school authorities are now also wary of offending Wiccans by the secular trivialisation of Halloween.
There is an impetus from such vocal groups to attack Halloween parties and Trick and Treat, but it must not be forgotten that the silent majority of Christians would certainly not take such a rigid stance. The Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics all often hold "Halloween Parties" for young people.

In fact, the Catholic Church has the following tips on Halloween:

"Even though some Catholics still feel uncertain of celebrating Halloween, many still do participate in Halloween. Halloween is a celebration that derived from Catholicism. You can learn more about it in the article called Catholicism and Halloween. Instead of focusing on the evil in Halloween, there are many other things to focus on. Remember that Halloween has a religious background. People dressed up to remember their mortality. Dress up and have fun. Be careful letting children out alone. Make sure they have adequate supervision. Look over their candy when they return. You can never be too careful when it comes to children and candy. Make sure costumes do not block a child's vision or airflow."

In conclusion, the modern Halloween is a largely secular event of celebration, just like Christmas. But for those who want, either Pagans, Wiccans, or Christians, they all see the time as a chance to remember and reverence the dead. So I will end with this quotation:

"Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly people whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their glory will never be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation."

"Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain"(1996) by Ronald Hutton
"Early Irish Myths and Sagas" ( 1981) by Jeffey Gantz
UK Government Hansard at hallow2.htm 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You do not mention that heathen Island of Guernsey:


The But de l'an - Budleo, end of the year celebrations that merged with others, strange that there is no mention of here in Jersey, perhaps because of the theory that they have closer ties to Brittany and us to Normandy.
Captain Fantastic