The Truth of Samhain and Halloween

halloween-desktop-wallpaper-04The ol’ Halloween debate (for let’s face it, it always ends up boiling down to a right vs. wrong discussion) seems to come up every year among Christians. Some say it is fine to participate, and others vehemently swear it is a Pagan holiday which we should all steer clear of. The problem is, is that the church remains fairly silent on the issue, though many will argue that the Bible is very clear in teaching us not to participate in Pagan worship and festivals, which is true.

However – I wonder how many of you are aware that Halloween is not actually Pagan? Do you know the truth about the origins of Halloween, or just the stories floating around about Halloween being the modern version of an ancient festival called Samhain?

But before we even get into that. Let’s look at the logic: if you eschew Halloween because  it (supposedly) has Pagan roots or shares some symbolism, but then turn around and celebrate Easter and Christmas, then you are (most likely inadvertently) being a hypocrite. Because those holidays share Pagan symbolism as well. Let’s take it a step further: what about celebrating your children’s birthdays? Do you get them a card, a gift, a cake, have a party? If so, by the above logic – you are celebrating a Pagan ritual which was expressly forbidden by the church for centuries. Here’s more food for thought: when you got married, did you have a bouquet? Candles? Cake? Say vows? Exchange rings? Do you still wear those rings today? If so, you participated in a pagan ritual/pagan symbolism.

We cannot claim to condemn one celebration because of Pagan symbolism and turn around and participate in others without being a hypocrite. And the Bible warns us repeatedly against being a hypocrite.

So why, if Christmas, Easter, weddings etc… all share Pagan symbolism or even started out as Pagan celebrations, are they accepted today? And not just accepted, but celebrated within the church today! Because though they were once considered Pagan celebrations, they are no longer considered so. They were adapted and “Christianized” by the church in an attempt to convert the Pagans.

And while some of the physical symbols may remain the same, their intent and meaning are not the same, at all. Do Pagans still celebrate some of those things today? Yes. But does that make our Christian celebration of them Pagan? No. The days of our week are named for Pagan Gods. Yet, are you invoking that God by saying the word Tuesday? No, you are not. Why? Because you don’t believe in that God, nor do you do not have the intention of invoking that God. It is the belief, the intention behind the symbol or the act, that makes the difference.

Extensive research has been done on the origins of Halloween, and despite many Christian’s attempt to say that it’s origins go straight back to Samhain, satanism and witchcraft, research has shown this to be incorrect. For starters, Samhain and Halloween, were two separate celebrations. Samhain was a Celtic festival celebrated in Ireland/Scotland and later England, that existed at least a thousand or more years before the advent of Halloween. And, it was merely a harvest festival. Samhain marked the end of fall and the beginning of winter. The druids celebrating Samhain did however believe that this was a time when there was a “thinning” between the spiritual worlds, and that the “afterlife” was more active.

They believed that the spirits of the after world could visit during this night, and therefore must be appeased. A custom came to pass of dressing up to ward off any evil spirits that may be around. Offerings of food, drink and their recently harvested crops were left outside to appease the dead. Those in costume would also go door to door, to collect the offerings. They carried lanterns made from carved turnips with grotesque faces to scare off any evil spirits that might be around.

Did some people likely choose to take advantage of the thin veil and try to summon the dark spirits? Certainly. But is that what the actual intention of Samhain was? No, quite the opposite. Samhain was a bunch of ignorant superstitions being carried out to ward off evil spirits, it was about protecting oneself against evil, not celebrating it. Celebrating Samhain, largely started dying out with the Druids, in the mid 800s, as Christianity rose.

Halloween, as we know it today, on the other hand, came from the church. For starters, the very name “Halloween” comes from the Christian celebration of All Hallows Day. Since in the traditional Christian calendar, festivals start the night before, the night before All Hallows Day was known as All Hallows Ev’en, or Hallowe’en”.

This Christian feast day, was a day to celebrate the saints and martyrs of the church, and was originally held on May 13th. However, it was later moved to November 1st, to coincide with the dedication celebration of the new All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s Rome. It remained on November 1st ever after. Many say this was done as an attempt to convert the pagan Celtics.

In 998, St. Odilo, in France, added a celebration on November 2. This was a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe.

By the end of the 12th century All Saints and All Souls Days had become holy days of obligation across Europe and involved such traditions as ringing church bells for the souls in purgatory. In addition, “it was customary for criers dressed in black to parade the streets, ringing a bell of mournful sound and calling on all good Christians to remember the poor souls.”Souling”, the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes for all christened souls, has been suggested as one origin of trick-or-treating. Groups of poor people, often children, would go door-to-door during All Hallow Tide, collecting soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the dead, especially the souls of the givers’ friends and relatives.

The custom of costumes did not arise until the 14/15th centuries in France. Thanks to the Bubonic Plague –the Black Death– Europe lost about half its population. More Masses were said on All Souls Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality and the fragility of life. We know these as the “danse macabre”, or “dance of death,” which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and typically show Death leading a chain of people–popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, even children, etc.–into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life. It was also often reenacted at pageants and court masques. This is commonly touted as the origins of modern day costume parties.

Again, we have to remember context and time. Thanks to the Reformation, Protestant Christianity has largely buried the idea of the spiritual world we live in, but that was not always the case. Once upon a time, all people, Christians and non, were very aware that we live in a spiritual world, where true spiritual warfare exists. They were far more aware of the idea of death, purgatory and hell – it was not sugarcoated (or ignored completely) like it is today.

So the French dressed up on All Souls Day (November 1st). How it switched to Hallowe’en, people don’t seem to know exactly, but it seems to have occured a long, long, LONG time after Samhain fizzled out, in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s, when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. Remembering that it was custom to celebrate a feast the evening before, it seems that the Irish-French masquerades came to be held in the evening before All Saints Day, on Halloween.

Speaking of Britain, in parts of Britain, these customs came under attack during the Reformation as some Protestants berated purgatory as a “popish” doctrine incompatible with their notion of predestination. Thus, for some Nonconformist Protestants, the theology of All Hallows’ Eve was redefined; without the doctrine of purgatory, “the returning souls cannot be journeying from Purgatory on their way to Heaven, as Catholics frequently believe and assert. Instead, the so-called ghosts are thought to be in actuality evil spirits. As such they are threatening.” Enter the idea of “evil”. Other Protestants however, continued to observe the original customs, especially souling, candlelit processions and the ringing of church bells in memory of the dead.

Now, as a side note, during the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights. They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail and heavy taxes. It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred. Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly. One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against the oppressors. The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on November 5, 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hung, however November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: enter the other likely origin of trick or treat.

Guy Fawkes Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But by the time of the American Revolution, it had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, however, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to October 31, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics.

The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the United States by the early 1800s. But what about witches? Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already “ghoulish,” so why not give witches a place on greeting cards? The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed.

So too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was Druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration.

So, here is the TRUTH on Halloween. And no, it’s “truth” has nothing to do with Samhain, or conjuring evil. Does it have it’s roots in death, yes. But why do we sugarcoat and hide death? There is nothing evil in death. Maybe it’s time we stop pretending there is.

At any rate, it is up to each individual family to decide for themselves if they want to celebrate Halloween or not. But, hopefully you’ll make your decision based on the truth and not fearful, ignorant superstition, which is what happens in the majority of cases.

And, if you’ve been convicted against celebrating Halloween, then by all means, most definitely follow that. However, I would urge you to examine your motives. Again, to reject one celebration because of supposed Pagan origins, and continue to celebrate others, doesn’t really make any sense. However, if you’re being convicted to reject it for other reasons, then certainly, by all means, go ahead.

Likewise, if you have prayerfully discerned that you are able to celebrate Halloween, then do so and go out and be a light unto the world! And I would encourage you to take it the step further and carry the celebration out as it was meant to be by the church – a celebration of All Saints Day.

But whatever you decide, for heaven’s sake, please, let’s not fall prey to the sin of arrogance and pride, in thinking that our way is the only right way. Especially when most of the “information” on Halloween passed around today in Christian circles is nothing more than superstition and quite honestly, just plain wrong. Respect each other’s decisions without resorting to pride and judgement.

 

 

*Excerpts from an article in Catholic Parenting magazine have been used as one of the sources for information (which had their own citations).

 

 

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