Friday, October 31, 2008

Annual Halloween Rant: 2 Principles & 12 Questions

John Aielli, the dj for our local university radio station, just finished explaining the old chestnut of how the Church created All Saints' and All Souls' Days to preempt the pagan festivity of Samhain, now to be called Halloween. You see, the Church just renamed the pagans' favorite holidays, laid over a thin veneer of Christianity, and voila. So, you know, if you celebrate so-called "Christian" holidays, you're really celebrating pagan festivals.

This year, I will skip the argumentation and simply lay out some principles, followed by some questions for consideration.


1. Anyone who reads the accounts of early Christian missionaries (e.g. the Confession of St. Patrick) or the accounts of early Christian historians (e.g. Bede) will quickly discover the intense distaste the early missionaries had for anything and all things pagan. These guys were hardly poster boys for inter-cultural tolerance.

Go read some of these materials, and then come back and tell me how the monks "baptized" pagan holidays, customs, or other things so that the people could carry on with no changes in their lives--just new names for the old familiar paganism.

2. Despite the firm presuppositions of Victorian folklorists that most folk customs and holidays have ancient roots, scholars since have thoroughly debunked that notion. Customs and holidays die out quickly without reinforcement from the surrounding culture and real belief in the things represented by the customs.


1. If All Saints and/or All Souls were meant to "baptize" Samhain, why do they occur in the two days following Samhain, with the more appropriate day (All Souls, aka Day of the Dead) a whole two days off?

2. Why would significant feast days of the universal Church be established to supplant pagan festivals in small, outlying areas of Christendom?

3. If the Church cared so deeply about the Celtic areas, so as to establish major feast days simply to co-opt Celtic feasts (Christmas for Yule, Easter for Ostara-worship, All Saints/All Souls for Halloween), which major Christian holidays were established to co-opt pagan feast days in other parts of the Christian world: northern Africa, central Europe, Scandinavia, Iberia, etc.? If there aren't any, why not?

4. Why would feast days be established for the entire western Church to coincide with Celtic holidays, when it was typical for a feast day to be celebrated at different times in different places? Why wouldn't the day have been established/moved only for the Celtic areas?

5. Why did All Saints' Day first appear in the third century, when missionaries hadn't even reached Celtic areas?

6. Why are All Saints' and All Souls' celebrated in the Eastern Church, far from Celtic areas?

7. If the feast day was moved to coincide with Samhain, then besides Questions #1 and #2, what is the evidence that either (a) the feast day in the West was moved for that reason (remember, it was moved by Pope Gregory, who was off in Rome), or (2) the two festivals were even celebrated at the same time in Celtic areas?

8. Why, when most of the former Empire was Christianized anyway, would popes be establishing holidays (or moving them around) to accommodate pagan festivals?

9. How many festivals did the ancient Celts, and ancient Romans for that matter, have? How hard was it to establish a feast day that didn't fall on or near a pagan feast day?

10. Why do the feast days that supposedly used to be pagan festivals (Christmas, Easter, Halloween) happen to be the holidays that are the biggest deals in 20th century North American culture, when a little research will show that they were not, in fact, very important feast days until well after the Middle Ages? What are the "pagan" roots of Epiphany and Pentecost, which were the two most significant holidays in the Eastern and Western Churches for more than a thousand and a half years?

The big Question: Other than the coincidence (or near-coincidence) of dates, what actual evidence is there for the "took over Samhain/Yule/Ostara" theories?

The little Question: Whose interests are served by the conventional wisdom that Christian feasts and customs have their origins in paganism?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to discuss whether one can celebrate Halloween without having one's 11-year-old dissolve in tears at 9:30 because she isn't being allowed to stay up late and watch Hocus-Pocus, which I think is an appallinglly lame movie, despite the presence of Bette Midler.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Sophia said...

Very good points and food for thought.

2:51 PM  
Blogger elissa said...

Thank you!!! You make some very good points. It's refreshing to see those points in print.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Figulus said...

Samhain is the 1st of November, not 31 October, so it coincides exactly with All Saints.

Of course, there is no evidence that it was a pre-Christian religious holiday. Nobody really knows anything about Druidism, beyond the fact that they believed in reincarnation. We have an old Gaulish luni-solar calendar that archaeologists have discovered in Coligny; it seems to have some holidays marked with initials, not names. The months have names, but there is no way to know what season they occurred in.

The earliest accounts we have of Samhain, it was a secular midieval feast involving the giving of gifts by kings and the lighting of bonfires. It fell on November 1st.

12:32 PM  

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