Like many British children, I grew up observing Hallowe’en, in a muted sort of way. I carved
turnips swedes, and dressed up, trick-or-treating (without the “tricking”) around a few houses of people I knew. The big American celebrations of decorations, elaborate costumes, communal events and widespread trick-or-treating were still a bit alien in my childhood, and it wasn’t that big a festival for me – Guy Fawkes’ Night, on the 5th November, was far bigger and more interesting.
I didn’t realise until my adulthood that there was a widespread belief that Hallowe’en is a pagan festivity, that it is opposed by evangelical Christians and enthusiastically celebrated by many neo-Pagans. When I started using the internet I found enormous numbers of websites naming quite a few Christian feast days (Easter and Christmas, in particular) as Christian reworkings of pagan beliefs, things ‘stolen’ from a pagan population forced to convert, and things which a good Christian today should condemn as intolerable syncretism. Before, and after my own coming to faith, I’ve been interested in history, and in the truth behind what I would call our modern-day folklore, and so I started to read about Hallowe’en, and other festivals, to see what we know, and don’t know about them.
Hallowe’en, also known as Hallowmas, Hallowtide, Hollontide or Allantide is a fixed feast occurring on the 31st October every year. It precedes the celebration of All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows Day, to use an earlier expression) on the 1st November, and All Souls’ Day on the 2nd. Hallowe’en is therefore a contraction of All Hallows Eve, or Hallow-even (hence the apostrophe).
The name of the day today refers specifically to the Christian feast on the 1st November, but there is another name by which it is known, that of Samhain. This was, and is the Goidelic name for the day, a name whose etymology is disputed, but which may mean either “summer’s end” or “assembly-time”.
Samhain – the Beginning of Winter
In mediæval Ireland, Samhain was a major festival, celebrated before and after the Christianisation of Ireland in the 5th Century. It is mentioned in works of Irish folklore and mythology which were written down by mediæval monks, but which belong – possibly in a slightly different form – to a preChristian Ireland.
In Ireland – and in Britain – the time around the 31st is the beginning of the winter months, the time when the harvest has finished, livestock has been moved inside, or to winter pastures, and food has been laid in store for the lean months ahead. In Old English, the name for September is “Haleg-monath” (“holy month”, though we don’t know why), October is “Vuinter-fylleth” (“winter-falls” – the beginning of winter) while November is “Blod-monath” (“blood month”, when animals are slaughtered). In an agrarian society, winter is a difficult time – few crops can be grown, and weaker animals must be slaughtered to hopefully provide enough food to survive the cold, dark months ahead. The weaker animals are slaughtered because they are least likely to survive the winter months, and there will be more deaths of humans during that time, too, and more illness.
So, as winter begins, societies around the world have a festival, a time to pray to the gods for an easy winter, for everyone to survive, one last blow-out before the hard times begin, a memory of light in the dark months ahead.
This is how it was in Ireland, too, and Samhain also marked the end of the trading and warfare seasons, and an ideal time for the tribal assemblies mentioned in so many tales. In pagan Ireland, it’s likely there were religious observances during Samhain – though unfortunately what they were and what form they took have not been recorded. Only one source for a pagan rite for Samhain exists, that of the unreliable 17th century antiquary Geoffrey Keating, who said that Druids would light a fire on the hill of Tlachtga on the night of Samhain, from which every house in the country would light their own fires. He gave no source for this, and it seems unlikely, logistically, that this could have happened, given the non-centralised nature of Ireland at that time. As I mentioned, although we don’t know for certain that there were pagan celebrations at Samhain, it does seem likely, even if we don’t know what they were.
We do have something of an idea about what might have been celebrated at Samhain from the many myths and legends recorded in the middle ages – though as they were recorded by Christian monks, it’s uncertain how accurate they were about pagan celebrations. Many tales are set during Samhain, many kings killed, and quests begun, although this may simply reflect that it was a time of gatherings of nobles. There are also many tales reflecting otherworldly events, of fairies and spirits, often showing them also feasting and dancing, just as humans were at the time. That said, otherworldly figures are common in Irish legend, not just at Samhain, so the activities recorded could simply be a reflection of the idea that, just as the human world was celebrating, so was the other world.
Sadly, all our evidence about pagan Samhain is ambiguous, and we don’t really have any idea what religious ceremonies they might have performed on the date. Some of our current practices might have stemmed from pagan ones – but we don’t know that, and can’t prove it. Looking outside Ireland, to the pan-Celtic world, Britain and Scandinavia does show celebrations on or around the same date, but once again, the evidence for much of what they actually did is ambiguous, and whether it had any connection to our modern Hallowe’en is more ambiguous still. This is the trouble with the preChristian history of Europe – many aspects of religious life weren’t written down by contemporary pagans, but by later Christian monks, undergoing who knows what changes in the process. Some of the writers admit that the reasons for things like the names of the months were not known to them – by the time they started writing, much had been forgotten. All this makes claims of “Christians stole x holiday from pagans” rather difficult to prove, and I’d say it’s decidedly extreme to make those claims without proper evidence for them.
So, from the ambiguity of pagan Samhain to our modern celebration. Can we see pagan beliefs in our own Hallowe’en customs? And how did Hallowe’en as a Christian celebration come about?
All Hallows – the Season of the Dead
Hallowe’en is, as I mentioned earlier, a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve”, or the night before what we now call “All Saints’ Day” (‘hallow‘ being an older form of ‘saint’). In Europe, on it’s current date of 1st November, All Saints’ Day was formally instituted by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious in 835AD at the prompting of Pope Gregory IV. It was and is a celebration of all the saints, known and unknown, followed the next day by a celebration of all the faithful departed (All Souls).
A celebration of those who had died in Christ started earlier than Louis. By the mid-4th century Christians in the Mediterranean were celebrating a feast in honour of the martyrs on the 13th May (as mentioned by St Ephrem the Syrian), and by the 5th century Syrians were celebrating the feast in Easter Week, while the Greek churches preferred the Sunday after Pentecost. Christians in Rome, meanwhile, had continued to celebrate on the 13th May and in 609/610 this was made an official date for the celebration by Boniface IV, when he was consecrating the Parthenon to the Virgin Mary.
You might think that the Pope’s endorsement of the 13th May meant everyone celebrated on that day, but you’d be wrong. The Irish celebrated All Saints on 20th April, while in England the Venerable Bede (672/3 – 26 May 735) recorded the feast on 1st November. Christians in Germanic countries like England (at that time), Bavaria, the Holy Roman Empire and Austria preferred the 1st November date, and it was their date that ultimately won out.
So, the actual date for Hallowe’en isn’t Celtic, but German in origin, so the opinion of some writers that ‘Celtic’ paganism is the reason for the date of Hallowe’en is unfounded. We don’t know why 1st November was chosen – though it could simply be for the reason most societies have a celebration of one sort or other at the beginning of winter – winter isn’t very nice, and it’s good to have a party before having to endure it.
All Souls, the celebration of all the faithful departed, came later than the celebration of the saintly dead. In 998 Odilo, Abbot of Cluny, started the practice by having a solemn mass for the souls of the dead in his abbey and in its daughter houses every February The custom quickly spread, and the date was transferred to the 2nd November. The reason for a celebration of all the dead was about more than just commemorating them.
The doctrine of purgatory, a place between heaven and hell where souls which will ultimately go to heaven are purged (purified) of their sin, and made holy enough for heaven, is an ancient one. The doctrine developed gradually, but in it’s simplest form, praying for the souls of the dead has been attested from the 2nd century in Christianity, and earlier still in Judaism. By the 6th century, Christians in the West believed that souls suffered after death in purgatory until their sins were purified, and they could enter heaven, and also believed that they had a duty to pray for the souls in purgatory, and that the saints, who were already in heaven, could pray for the souls in purgatory too.
Thus, All Souls’ Day was an important day, a time to pray for friends and for family who had died, and, on the previous day, to ask the saints to pray for them too. That, really, is the reason why All Saints and All Souls go together, and the darkness of the days, and the withering of leaves and so on, merely help reinforce the season of death and decay.
It’s possible that pagans also honoured their dead at Samhain, but contrary to some popular myths, we don’t actually know that they did. People like the anthropologist James Frazer often argued backwards from the modern observance, saying that the mediæval church must have celebrated the dead on the 1st and 2nd November because pagans did so first. His reasoning was that the church had taken over other pagan holy days, other cultures often had annual ceremonies to remember the dead, that these ceremonies were often at the beginning of the year, that Samhain was the Celtic New Year, therefore Hallowe’en was originally a pagan feast of the dead. Unfortunately, he had no evidence for his beliefs. We don’t know, for instance, that Samhain was the ‘Celtic’ New Year – much of the idea behind this comes from recent folklore and customs which may relate to new beginnings at that time of year, and incomplete mediæval records. One source, the Tochmarc Emire, seems to show a calendar based around quarter days, with Samhain at the beginning, but we have no means of knowing if this was universal, or if it was a secondary calendar used alongside the Roman one. Writing, Christianity and the Roman calendar all entered Ireland together, which makes it rather difficult to decode what the preChristian population might have done.
By the end of the middle ages, All Hallows’ Day was a major festival, and the court of Henry VII dressed up in black – with the king in purple – to signify mourning. Extra candles and torches had to be bought by churches, processions were held in the night, and bells were rung to comfort the souls in purgatory at the end of prayers. Entertainment was sometimes laid on by the churches, and, all in all, it was a Big Thing.
Then came the Reformation, and with it, a rejection of the doctrine of purgatory. All Hallows’ Day was removed from the church calendar (it was reintroduced in 1928), the feast suppressed, and the ringing of bells punished. Clandestine bell-ringing continued for a while, but eventually petered out.
Popular customs are not so easy to stamp out, though, and the customs changed, and continued. Barred from the churches, people took their prayers for their dead outside, praying around bonfires for the souls of the departed, and reintroducing an old custom of baking bread – ‘soul cakes‘ – to give to the poor in exchange for prayers.
Groups of people – generally children – started going door-to-door ‘soul-caking’ on All Saints’ or All Souls’ Day throughout Britain, with the understanding that this was for the souls in purgatory. By the 19th century, it had become simply a custom to do on the day, with purgatory mostly forgotten. Instead, Hallowe’en soul-caking had become one of a series of days when children could obtain food or money by going door-to-door without giving offence, which was important in winter for poor families. Universal education in 1870 meant many could no longer do this, and the custom waned until its reintroduction in the form of trick-or-treating in the 1950s.
From Saints to Spirits
One thing we recognise from our current celebration is the mention of witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings. These have a long history in British and Irish folklore, and are often associated with May Eve and May Day (from winter to spring) and therefore also Hallowe’en (another change of season). In Wales, Nos Galan Goea was considered a night of terrifying spirits, and so was Samhain Eve in Ireland, where it was known as Puca Night. In Shetland, which was Norse rather than Celtic, trolls were abroad at Hallowe’en, and in England witches were feared.
It seems possible that people felt the spirit world might be more active in times of changing seasons, and the association with the feast of the dead makes that even more likely. The world seemed unsafe during this season, and in many places, fires were lit, or objects placed above doors to ensure safety. It was definitely uncanny, with the possibility of malignant spirits, and divination became quite popular, to see who would marry, and who would die.
It’s possible that the ‘scary spirits’ side of Hallowe’en was considerably reinforced by the Reformation. While there was a feeling that trolls or goblins might be around prior to the Reformation, after it, there was a lingering association of the season with the dead, perhaps reinforcing the previous ‘otherworldly’ aspects of Hallowe’en.
Hallowe’en as we celebrate it today is a bit of a hodge-podge, like many traditional festivals. There are possible links to a preChristian celebration, and certain links to a mediæval and early modern one. The feasting continues with parties and nights in pubs, the old fear of witches and spirits is transformed into dressing as witches and spirits, and the guisers and soul-cakers of earlier times have become trick-or-treaters. The tricks have always been a part of the night in parts of the British Isles, and are now a bit more universal.
In Britain, the celebration of Hallowe’en was quite muted until recently, although it did exist. The real boom in Hallowe’en came from Irish traditions imported into the United States in the waves of Irish immigration in the 19th century, adopted by Americans at large, and then introduced back into the places from which it came, bigger and louder than it once was.
Hallowe’en certainly has elements from folklore, folk belief, and folk magical practices, but whether it has definitively pagan elements is impossible to say. Alongside the folk practices lie the Christian roots of the feast, and of course the many people who joined in with those folk practices were Christians themselves. I would argue that Hallowe’en’s roots are more Christian than pagan, but, right now, it is a purely secular festival. The specifically Christian feast remains on 1st and 2nd November, and the night before is now simply a bit of fun, enjoyed by many Christians and Pagans alike.
The history of the festivals of our year is often ambiguous, and it is, I think, a mistake to join in with the “Christians stole pagan festivals!” idea (whether on the evangelical Christian or the non-Christian side), instead, let us enjoy the folk customs that are a part of all our heritage, whatever religious belief or non-belief we may hold.
I am indebted for this post to the excellent book, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Professor Ronald Hutton, and to his article “Halloween? It’s more than trick or treat“.