Every time a major Christian festival comes around there is a flurry of posts on social media about how this festival was originally a pagan feast which was stolen by the Church. Not all great feast days, only those secular society has figured out how to make money out of. The Martyrdom of Peter and Paul, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Epiphany, for example, are harder to make a buck out of, and have so far escaped commercial and wider public notice. Following the “this is a pagan festival” posts, there are often posts from Christians who have accepted the claim of the wiccans or pagans or modern druids, and agree that, since it is a pagan festival, Christians should not join in celebrating it.
Both of these claims are false. I have written previously about Christmas and its supposed roots in the Roman festival of the invincible Sun, or the Northern European celebration of Yule, and about Easter and its claimed background in Ishtar, Tammuz or other dying and rising fertility gods.
There are some genuine Christian feast days which have drifted so far from their real meaning as almost to be completely opposed to what those days stand for and encourage. St Valentine’s Day is an example. In the Church’s year it celebrates the humble service and self-sacrifice of Valentinus, Bishop of Umbria, who as well as secretly marrying Christian couples contrary to the orders of the emperor, was known for his care for the poor and for prisoners. He was murdered by Roman authorities in 269AD, on 14th February, which has been kept as his feast day ever since. The lessons of his life are generosity, love for others, discipline, obedience and self-sacrifice. A very long way from advice in Valentine’s Day editions of teen girls’ magazines about how to give their boyfriends oral sex to celebrate their love. Or what they imagine is love.
Halloween falls into this category. It began as a Christian festival, and All Saints’ Day (All Hallows) is still one of the major feast days of the Church year. But contemporary secular celebration of Halloween has little to do with rejoicing in and giving thanks for the saving work of Christ in the lives of ordinary men and women.
One of the common claims is that Halloween is really Samhain, a Druidic festival in which the boundaries between this world and the next are blurred, and the dead or other spirits may walk the earth, needing to be placated.
However, the reality is that no one has much clue who the druids were or what they believed. They were one of two upper-class groups in Celtic society, and in France and the British Isles (and possibly other locations) had priestly and legal functions. The other upper-class group were hereditary nobles. Much of what we do know of Druids and Celtic society comes from Julius Caesar’s History of the Gallic Wars, written in about 45BC.
He wrote: “The whole nation of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual observances, and for that reason those who are smitten with the more grievous maladies and who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow so to do, employing the druids as ministers for such sacrifices. They believe, in effect, that, unless for a man’s life a man’s life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind. Others use figures of immense size whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails, they resort to the execution even of the innocent.”
It is important to note that apart from this (and a few other) very limited accounts, most of our conceptions of who the druids were are a result of mistaken or fanciful conclusions dating from about two hundred years ago. For example, we have no idea what the Druids wore, what the core beliefs were that drove their legal decisions and cultic practices including human sacrifice, or what their festivals were. We do know they had nothing to do with Stonehenge, which was built long before Iron Age Celtic Druidism.
Of course, reality, whether in relation to science or history, has little impact on popular belief, or on social media!
Samhain is first mentioned in Irish literature dating from the 9th century. By this time, Ireland had been Christian for five centuries, and there were no known practising Druids. These accounts, which mention Samhain only incidentally, and make it clear it was a minor festival, about as important as Arbor Day is to us, appear to be based on no earlier written material and are Medieval fantasies about events, largely imagined, which supposedly took place over six hundred years earlier. Other supposed details, such as the burning of bonfires, disguises and blackening faces, do not appear in any stories until the 15th century.
Interest in Celtic art and myth, and in Druidism, began to rise in the wake of the Romantic movement in Europe, and especially its belief that primitive societies were closer to nature, happier, gentler and wiser. This, of course, was and is nonsense.
Tribal societies are notori0usly violent, generally view people not of their tribe or group as less than human, and often as commodities. Early shamanistic religions were frequently hideously violent, and demanded torturous human sacrifice. The best known example is the mass human sacrifices of the Aztecs, but others included Middle Eastern mother religions, the worship of Odin, and Druidism. Hobbes was more accurate with “”No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” than Rousseau and his delightful but baseless fantasy of the noble savage, basking in sunshine, eating what he chose, going where he wished, and enjoying sexual freedom.
The suggestion that All Hallows was based on Samhain was first made by James Frazer in his highly influential book The Golden Bough, which was published in varying numbers of volumes between 1890 and 1915. I first read The Golden Bough when I was nineteen, and thoroughly enjoyed it, in the same way I had enjoyed reading the works of psychoanalyst and fantasist Immanuel Velikovsky. Both are fascinating, detailed and well-written. But because they try at every point to turn every detail to fit the Procrustean Bed of their over-arching theories, they are often completely wrong.
Someone (I cannot now find who) said of Velikovsky, “He is wrong, but he is magnificently wrong.” The same could be said of Frazer. His work is incredibly detailed, but fails to be convincing at any point. Edmund Leach, president of the Royal Anthropological Institute from 1971 to 1975, wrote of him: “Frazer used his ethnographic evidence, which he culled from here, there and everywhere, to illustrate propositions which he had arrived at in advance by a priori reasoning, but, to a degree which is often quite startling, whenever the evidence did not fit he simply altered the evidence.”
In the case of the pagan origins of All Hallows, Frazer offered no evidence at all, for the simple reason that there is no evidence. To demonstrate what he suggested was true, he, and those who then and now share his view, would need to show:
- Contemporary records that Samhain was a major Druidic festival
- That Church leaders as far away as Baghdad, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome were aware of it and concerned about it
- They decided to institute a festival with similar themes to counter or overwhelm it
No evidence exists for any of these things.
By contrast with the fantasies of Frazer, the Romantics and neo-pagans, there is no doubt about the evidence for a day of thanksgiving for the holy people of God set aside by the early Church.
A day of commemoration of unnamed saints and martyrs had been held in the Eastern Church since at least 373 (mentioned as an existing festival in a sermon by St Ephrem in that year, and in the 74th homily of St John Chrysostom in 407). In the Chaldean calendar (411AD) this feast was held on the Friday after Easter. In the West, on 13th May, probably in 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated what had been the Roman Pantheon, long in desuetude, to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. From that time thanksgiving for all the saints was held on anniversary of that dedication.
On 1st November in about 735 Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St Peter’s to all the saints, and the feast of All Saints or All Hallows (saint, sanctify, hallows and holy all have the same root meaning) was held on that date from then on. Finally, in about 835, Pope Gregory IV, after consultation with other bishops in both East and West, promulgated that date, November 1st, as the date on which the celebration of All Saints was to be held throughout the entire Catholic Church. Vigil celebrations, that is, Mass and prayers of thanksgiving on the evening before, All Hallows’ Eve, took place from the same time.
This hymn, written by English clergyman William Walsham How, captures the sense and purpose of this feast day. These are the first three verses of eight:
1 For all the saints who from their labours rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
2 Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
thou, in the darkness dread, their one true light.
3 Oh, may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
and win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
This hymn, and the feast day for which it was written, celebrate the saving work of Christ, the victory won in the lives of all faithful Christian men and women, especially those unremembered, who served humbly in their own families and communities, and encourage us to honour our Saviour by living with the same courage and commitment.
This is the second verse of Bernard of Cluny’s great hymn, Jerusalem the Golden, also often sung on All Saint’s Day:
O sweet and blessed country, the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessed country that eager hearts expect,
where they who with their leader have conquered in the fight
forever and forever are clad in robes of white:
in mercy, Jesus, bring us to that dear land of rest
where sings the host of heaven your glorious name to bless.
This verse from Hebrews 12 is relevant:
Therefore, since we also have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us rid ourselves of every obstacle and the sin which so easily entangles us, and run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking only at Jesus, the originator and perfecter of the faith…
Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that this great cloud of witnesses (those who have gone before us in the faith) continue to watch over us, care for us and pray for us, and that we in turn can ask their prayers, just as we ask fellow Christians on Earth to pray for us. The prayer of a righteous man availeth much, James tells us James 5:16), and the prayers of those in God’s nearer presence, unencumbered by sin and distraction, and with unimaginably clearer insight into the will and purposes of God, availeth much indeed.
Christians should participate in worship, celebration, and thanksgiving on All Saints’ Day. But what about participation in the myriad secular traditions which have grown up around that day?
We need to be very careful indeed about any words or actions which may encourage interaction with the occult. There are spiritual realities and spiritual forces, and not all of them are good or wish us well. Some are full of hatred and spite, and will use any means; from intimidation and deception to offering us exactly what we want, to drain us of life and happiness, and drag us into darkness.
Christians should not under any circumstances participate in seances or use Ouija boards. Role-playing games which invoke demons or ask players to play as demonic forces should also be avoided. Books which encourage an interest in witchcraft, including the Harry Potter series, should be read with caution, especially with younger readers.
However, it is difficult to see any major harm in children dressing up as their favourite character, even if scary, and going from house to house in their neighbourhood in the company of friends or parents. It encourages a sense of community, and helps neighbours to get to know one another. If you want, get your children to dress as their favourite saint or Bible character: Judith, Esther, Samson John the Baptist, Mary MacKillop, Fr Damien of Molokai… the possibilities are endless, and fun.
Just remember to tell them what it’s really about, and to take them to worship the following morning.