As we are all stocking up on our favorite candy in anticipation of the little trick-or-treaters who will be ringing our doorbells next week on October 31st for Halloween, it might be interesting to know some fun and interesting facts about the history of this holiday.
Yes, Halloween is a Christian holiday. But it has its roots in Celtic paganism. This is not unusual for most Christian holidays. Christmas, for example, is universally celebrated on December 25th, although there is no information whatsoever in Biblical records that this was when Jesus was born. In fact, if one reads the birth story found in the Gospel Luke, only Matthew and Luke mention the actual birth of Jesus, we read “Now there were angels in the same country, shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
This would lend credence to a birth that occurred in late spring or during the summer, not in the dead of winter. But the early leaders of Christianity were pragmatic when it came to converting people of different cultures. Using the philosophy of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” they often converted popular pagan holidays into Christian ones. There is an actual name for this practice. It is called “syncretism” and is defined by Merriam-Webster as:” the combination of two different forms of belief or practice.”
The ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, in honor of the Roman god Saturn, was celebrated beginning on December 19th (the Julian calendar) and marked by gift-giving. In addition, during the early centuries of Christianity there was a rival Roman sect known as Mithraism, that also celebrated their birth of their founder on December 25th. This may be the more likely source for Christianity adopting that date as the birthday of Jesus.
In fact, following the Reformation in Europe, many staunch Calvinists refused to celebrate Christmas, which included many of the original settlers of the American colonies. But I digress.
The ancient Celtic calendar was marked by four “quarter days” – each with their own significance. These were known respectively as:
They were celebrated on November 1st, February 1st, May 1st, and August 1st respectively. Since the Celts, much like modern-day Jews, observe the beginning of a new day at sunset, Samhein (pronounced salween – I have no idea why) the quarter day that marked the beginning of the new year, began on October 31st.
The Celts also considered this as a “thin time” a common theme in Celtic belief that has carried over into certain forms of modern-day Christian spirituality. In other words, the wall between this world and the next was thin and could be broken through by ghosts of people who had passed over. So it was traditional for people to dress up as ghosts and ghouls to ward off these spirits (History Channel).
This also began to tradition of handing out favors to these spirits to appease these spirits and thus ward off evil in the coming year. So trick-or-treat was born.
Did you know, for instance, since this tradition began long before the discovery of America, along with our foods such as pumpkins, that the original Jack O’laterns were made from turnips? Yes, they were some mighty big turnips.
The Christian church was late to party when it came to claiming Halloween as its own. It was not until the 8th century that Pope Gregory declared November 1st to be known as “All Saints Day.” This also was known as “As Hallows Day” so the day before it, October 31st, became known as All Hallows Eve – which eventually became known as Halloween.
But Christianity, in particular Celtic Christianity, had been around in the British Isles, including Ireland, for centuries by then, as anyone with the least familiarity with St. Patrick can attest. A century before Pope Gregory made his declaration, a woman, yes a woman abbess known as Hilda of Whitby, was host to a conference to resolve some of the differences among Celtic and Roman Catholic traditions. While Hilda, actually St. Hilda, was part of the Celtic Christian tradition, the Synod of Whitby did reach an important agreement on agreeing to celebrate Easter according to the Roman tradition. According to Wikipedia, only the monks from Lindesfarne objected and retreated to the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. Today Iona is still a place of pilgrimage for many Christians.
Let’s finish up by looking at what happened to the other Celtic quarter days. Imbolic, February 1st is still celebrated, especially in Ireland, as St. Brigid’s Day where it is traditional to weave crosses made from reeds to hang on your door for the year. Beltane, May 1st, is well known for its May Day celebrations, particularly in the British Isles. While less known, August 1st, was a traditional harvest festival that became known as Lammas, a corruption of the term Loaf Mass, where the first wheat harvested was baked into loaves of bread.
If you, whether from personal or religious reasons, prefer not to say “Happy Halloween” next week, now you know that it is perfectly acceptable to say “Happy Celtic New Year” to friends and co-workers. They may be puzzled, but they shouldn’t be offended.