Christian Mythstory: Hallowe’en

In History, Mythstory
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One particularly annoying yet amusing feature of the internet is the general lack of historical awareness, especially as it regards Christian history. Often the popularized conceptions that amount to common knowledge are woefully inadequate, in need of additional nuance, or simply laughably mistaken.

With sublime regularity the historical caricatures are fashioned into rhetorical bludgeons, in what I have come to term Christian Mythstory. After reading David Bentley Hart’s excellent work Atheist Delusions, I was inspired to begin a series of blog posts addressing some of the more common misconceptions about Christian history.

I have already looked at the perennial whipping boy of Christian history- The “Dark Ages”- here.

Hallowe’en

Around this time of year we are treated to some fairly consistent seasonal occurrences:

  • The leaves begin their inevitable descent into death with a spectacular burst of fiery color, one final and futile protest against entropy before succumbing to the grip of brown and cracking membranes as they float helplessly onto their tomb
  • Ovens shake off the dust of summer’s dis-use to be filled with the innards of orange gourds, transcending the humble patch of dirt and weeds to be reborn as succulent pies, seated upon a crushed graham cracker throne to coronate their rise to glory
  • We are treated to yet another round of “Every Christian holiday used to be pagan, arrgggh!”

I have no doubt that 2012 will not deviate from this in any meaningful way.

The internet, as usual, is not terribly helpful in this regard. One has to be extremely discerning in sifting through the information available. For example, back in 2009 an article in L’Osservatore Romano quoted a Spanish priest saying that:

Hallowe’en has an undercurrent of occultism and is absolutely anti-Christian.” [Parents should] “be aware of this and try to direct the meaning of the feast towards wholesomeness and beauty rather than terror, fear and death…

(Unfortunately, L’Osservatore Romano doesn’t archive their articles, so no links…)

The London Telegraph decided to run this story with this headline: Vatican condemns Hallowe’en as anti-Christian.

Nevermind that the person who is being quoted isn’t a bishop.

Nevermind that L’Osservatore Romano, while the official newspaper of the Vatican, is not a magisterial organ.

Nevermind that the quotes involve something that might very well be limited to certain celebrations of Hallowe’en in Spain (since this is, after all, quoting a member of a Spanish commission) rather than Hallowe’en en toto.

Is it at all possible that something was lost in translation, or that this quote doesn’t give the full extent of the statement? That this same person goes on to enumerate certain ways that Hallowe’en might be celebrated with “wholesomeness” and with “beauty” might suggest that his commission is not condemning Hallowe’en in its entirety but rather certain aspects of it, namely co-opting its meaning towards terror, fear and death.

(I suspect that Spanish Catholic Liturgical Commission Thinks Celebrations of Terror, Fear and Death are not Wholesome for Children During a Christian Holiday would not make for an exciting headline…)

The Making of a Myth

The Wikipedia article on Hallowe’en is not much more helpful, as it tries to sift through the conflicting information with very little success. We are treated to this:

Most scholars believe that All Hallows’ Eve was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead with pagan roots, particularly the Celtic Samhain. (wikipedia.org, Halloween)

Followed by this:

Others maintain that it originated independently of Samhain. (ibid.)

There is quite a bit to unpack in the opening line. What does pagan roots mean? Are we to infer from this that the entirety of the holiday is pagan? Only certain practices? The date of its celebration?

Maybe nothing.

What actually happened

Hallowe’en as a word, of course, is Christian in etymology, referring to Hallow’s Eve, the vigil before the feast of All Saints’ Day. (Which is alternately called All Hallows.)

The Christian practice of celebrating days commemorating saints is ancient, and often was used to commemorate their martyrdoms. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written sometime in the later second century, speaks to both the preserving of relics and days of commemoration. The interesting thing is that such a practice is mentioned as if it is expected and therefore commonplace:

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps. (Martyrdom of Polycarp)

Initially most of these commemorations were localized to the city or region in which the saint lived or died. However, as early as the fourth century there is evidence that areas outside of a saint or martyr’s specific geographic locales had taken up their commemoration as a matter of custom, as is related by St. Basil. He asks the bishops of Pontus to continue their annual visits of commemoration:

Since then Eupsychius and Damas and their company are most illustrious among martyrs, and their memory is yearly kept in our city and all the neighbourhood, the Church, calling on you by my voice, reminds you to keep up your ancient custom of paying a visit. A great and good work lies before you among the people, who desire to be edified by you, and are anxious for the reward dependent on the honour paid to the martyrs. (St. Basil of Caesarea, Letter 252)

In the early 5th century (AD 411) the Friday after Easter was set aside in the Chaldean calendar as a primordial catch-all day of commemoration for confessors- Commemoratio Confessorum. Other locales celebrated different sorts of ‘all-saints’ days on different dates, usually coinciding with other major church dates. St. John Chrysostom, for example, mentions a catch-all feast for martyrs as occurring the Sunday after Pentecost. (Fr. William Saunders, All Saints and All Souls, Arlington Catholic Herald)

In the early 7th century (probably AD 609) another catch-all feast was established by Pope Boniface IV to commemorate the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. This feast was originally fixed for May 13.

After 731 the chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter was consecrated to all the saints, and Pope Gregory III set the date for its commemoration on Nov. 1. Initially this date was only for Rome, but in some other places Nov. 1 had apparently already functioned as another sort of All Saints day. The Venerable Bede gave a homily for All Saints Day on Nov. 1, and some cities in Austria observed on the same day. (6. ibid.)

It wasn’t until around a century later (c. AD 835) Pope Gregory IV set Nov. 1 as the date for the whole Church. However, the change did not immediately take effect everywhere. In the 10th century we find sacramentaries that list Nov. 1 as the feast day, but in some places the May 13 date that had been established was still being observed. (ibid.) In Ireland it seems to have been celebrated on April 20 for some time. In the late 11th century Pope Gregory VII had to officially declare Nov. 1 to be the universal commemoration date.

Vigils (the night before a feast) were originally linked to every feast, but as they grew in number vigils came to be tied to only certain major feasts. By the 11th century All Saints Day was one of the few that still had a vigil attached to it. There is little evidence that All Hallow’s Eve was something that developed out of All Saint’s Day; rather, it appears that the evening vigil was always a part of it.

 The Making of a Myth (Again)

Lacking in this account, of course, are the supposedly  pagan roots of All Saints’ Day and Hallowe’en. So let’s return to the Wikipedia entry:

Most scholars believe that All Hallows’ Eve was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead with pagan roots, particularly the Celtic Samhain. (wikipedia.org, Halloween)

Samhain in this scenario is presumed to be some all-encompassing Celtic festival that was universally recognized and celebrated. Generally taken to mean ‘summer’s end,’ it is supposed to have taken place halfway between the September equinox and the December solstice. Many have attempted to link the name of the festival with Saman, a Celtic god of the dead, although there is little if any evidence.

The various beliefs, practices and such supposedly associated with Samhain are too numerous and encrusted by centuries of folklore to give any meaningful overview. In its most basic form Samhain seems to have been not about the dead but rather about the approach of winter and securing protection for crops. Some (with perhaps a little too much anachronism and romanticism) also find a more pastoral quality about it since that time of year would have more import for herdsmen.

One immediate difficulty is that there is no absolute certainty that Nov. 1 was originally the celebration of Samhain. Most of the documentary evidence is from long after Nov. 1 was officially established as the date for All Saints’ Day, which could very easily lead into anachronism. Many Celtic calendars were lunisolar calendars which makes them notoriously difficult to line up with with the Roman calendar, or even with other lunisolar calendars since each calendar could be based on a system that utilized differing amounts of time so as to be able to correct itself, depending on the length of cycle.

Further, if the full moon (or new moon) was the beginning of a month, the date would be fixed only according to its own inter-calendral designations but not according to any other calendar. (e.g., Passover occurs on 15 Nisan in the Jewish Calendar but occurs on a different date each year according to the Gregorian calendar.)

As an example, in the Coligny Calendar (which dates from around the early second century AD) the year is divided into two- Samon and Giamon. An inscription (Trinvx Samo SindivThe three-night period of Samonios is today) on the 17th of Samonios is presumed by some to refer to Samhain. (Alexei Kondratiev, Samhain: Season of Death and Renewal.)

Aligning this with the Samhain that reputedly fell on Nov. 1 would be fairly impossible, at least as a fixed date. (Every so often Nov. 1 would indeed be the date, just as Easter sometimes falls on April 22.) The most one could safely say is that among people who accepted the Julian calendar Nov. 1 was chosen for the observance of Samhain. Since little evidence exists as to when this might have happened (or if it happened at all prior to All Saints’ Day) it seems fairly speculative.

Other calendars (such as the so-called Gaelic calendar) use the solstices and equinoxes in that the middles of a season falls on the solstice or equinox. Added to this is that all literary evidence is post-Julian calendar which gives little to no possibility for knowing if dates are reckoned according to when they were once observed or if they were transferred to a Roman system.

Further, Samonios as a term has competing etymologies. Depending on the origin one assigns to it, (which is by no means certain) it can refer to summer (the ‘popular’ etymology) or to an assembly. Most medieval Irish literature (from which we glean our understandings of Samhain) tended to utilize the popular etymology, which in some respects favors that interpretation. But even within this understanding the exact time of Samonios is unclear, certainly within the Coligny Calendar. It is generally located in Oct-Nov, but others have suggested earlier in the summer such as July or June. (Some even as far back as late April) (http://caeraustralis.com.au/celtcalmain.htm#summerwinter)

Problems

Notwithstanding the various nuances of calendars and etymologies (which are important), there are a couple larger issues that obscure the entire issue and which, in themselves, should give one extreme pause in attributing too much influence to Samhain in regards to All Saints’ Day and Hallowe’en.

The ancient world, being so distant in time and foreign in culture and worldview, is often presented as a monolith. Let’s look again at the quote from Wikipedia:

Most scholars believe that All Hallows’ Eve was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead with pagan roots, particularly the Celtic Samhain. (wikipedia.org, Halloween)

The phrase ‘the Celtic Samhain’ gives the impression of some over-arching festival that the Celtic world acknowledged, celebrated and similarly observed.

Hardly.

No Monoliths Here

The term celtic itself is overly broad and gives us very little information in and of itself. In the popular imagination it probably invokes sheep herding, celtic knots and Braveheart. Or perhaps St. Patrick holding a three-leaf clover and converting the High King of Ireland, thereby converting the entire island.

The reality is that most of the peoples who are ushered under the label Celtic were anything but monolithic. Irish kings, for example, are more readily categorized (if we insist on doing so…) as chieftains, ruling villages, towns, or certain sections of land. Terms like High King could be held by a number of kings at the same time, neither of which necessarily had more power or control than the others. Customs and beliefs ran the gambit and it is notoriously difficult to craft a comprehensive system or characteristic that is common to all Celtic peoples.

As briefly touched upon before, calendars and festivals were not some pan-Celtic phenomenon but generally limited to clans, villages, tribes, etc. Granted, it would not be uncommon to find similar festivals clustered around certain times of years, but seasonal festivals are common to all human societies and religions. Since different groups would have different calendar systems (assuming they had them at all…) it is difficult to imagine that there could be an over-arching date that was universal. Even among peoples that had the same month names, the months might have been at different times. Since the lunisolar calendar is dependent on the calculations of the cycles to place intercalary months, a different calculation would produce differing dates even if they agreed in other respects.

Further, as already mentioned, even among the Celtic peoples during the times of the transition from May 13 (which was not universal) to Nov. 1 (which eventually became so centuries later) All Saints’ Day was not celebrated in all places on the same day, which destroys the notion that All Saints’ Day was simply a baptism of Samhain. The Irish churches had been celebrating All Saints’ Day on April 20, which is not even a date advocated for Samhain. (Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, p. 364)

The supposed consonance between the three day festival of Samhain and Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is even more tenuous. While Hallows Eve and All Saints’ Day were probably celebrated as one (Hallowe’en being the vigil) from the beginning, All Souls’ Day was not added into the rotation until over a century after the date of Nov. 1 was fixed. If Nov. 1 was intended as the co-opting of a three-day pagan festival, waiting a century and half to do it properly seems a fairly poor way to co-opt it.

Fairies and Saints

One of the biggest reasons for caution regarding anything about Samhain is that all literary references to it are post-Christian. Further, most of the earliest accounts are by monastics. Pre-Christian literary sources are, for the most part, non-existent, forcing researchers to try and piece together Celtic culture, beliefs and practices from decidedly Christian sources.

Prior to the Christianization of Ireland (and other ‘celtic’ lands) most history was passed down in oral form. The earliest Irish literary productions that are not explicitly Christian (at least in content) date from the 8th century, centuries after Ireland’s Christianization. Many surviving manuscripts of earlier works date from the 10th-12th centuries and are often heavily annotated.

The extreme gap that exists between the worlds described and the people who wrote them and/or the people who transcribed earlier works leaves significant gaps in our understanding of Celtic cultures. Given the great diversity that existed among different people groups within the category of Celtic, any surviving work may really only tell us about the culture and beliefs of a particular tribe, making it difficult to construct accurate generalizations.

A further difficulty is that the people who produced these literary works were often Christians themselves, or at least had been born and lived within a thoroughly Christianized culture. Since there is nothing to compare these productions to, we have no way of ascertaining how much of pagan celtic beliefs influenced Celtic Christians. It is just as likely (and probably more likely) that the Celtic Christians who wrote these sagas and histories- themselves having come from generations of Christians- read back their Christian faith into the folklore that survived as part of their cultural heritage.

Given the lack of evidence for All Saints’ Day being derived from Samhain, it is somewhat likely that Samhain itself (especially as a fixed date of Nov. 1) piggy-backed on All Saint’s Day. Most of the pagan connections that are popularly associated with Samhain stem from the late 19th century and the work of two academics- John Rhys and Sir James Frazer. (ibid.) Rhys- a philologist- was one of the first to suggest that Samhain was the ‘Celtic New Year.’ (ibid.) Most of his evidence was too anachronistic to be of any value, since it depended heavily on the presumption that then contemporary cultural practices had any descriptive value for the origins of Samhain. Frazer’s thesis was that Samhain was some sort of ‘feast of the dead.’ (ibid.) He also descended into anachronism by assuming that the Nov. 1 date for All Saints’ Day had simply been a co-opting of a previous festival. (ibid)

The difficulties with these theses are numerous. As aforementioned, anybody writing after the use of the Julian calendar (which the extant sources certainly are) presumes Jan. 1 (sometimes Mar 25) to be the start of the year. Without knowing the calendar meant, there is no way to determine if any sort of ‘New Year’ actually was Nov. 1 (relatively) or if the author transposed it to go alongside the January New Year. (ibid.)

That Samhain was some Celtic ‘day of the dead’ cannot be supported by the extant evidence. From a literary perspective it is nearly impossible to tell since the extant works follow the establishment of All Saints’ Day. There seems to be little reason to presume that the folklore surrounding Samhain was not influenced by All Saints’ Day (and later All Souls’ Day) and that the macabre associations were the result of folklore interacting with a Christian holiday commemorating the dead.

It would actually be surprising if such a thing did not happen.

Rather, the presumption that a pagan festival must necessarily precede the Christian holiday is merely a presumption and, as far as the evidence indicates, one that might just as easily be backwards.

Go Ahead and Get Your Candy

Given the actual history that can be known, there is very little reason to believe that Hallowe’en derives from pagan roots or was the Christianization of a pagan holiday. The various cultural encrustations that would become associated with Hallowe’en must not be the occasion for anachronism.

And since Hallowe’en is a part of Christian history, it is certainly worthwhile to remember what is being celebrated and to be mindful of our own mortality.

That, and eat some pumpkin pie.

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