Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Christian, Not Pagan, Origins of Halloween


The following excerpt is from the book The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996). This is to supplement my post titled "Orthodoxy and Halloween: Separating Fact From Fiction". Hutton is a British historian, and his book is a very well-researched study of seasonal festivals in Britain. Some of his observations may be of interest to those who become anxious over Halloween — either pagans who think Christians “stole” it, or Christians who think it must be “demonic”.

At the end of the nineteenth century, two distinguished academics, one at Oxford and the other at Cambridge, made enduring contributions to the popular conception of Samhain. The former was the philologist Sir John Rhys, who suggested that it had been the ‘Celtic’ New Year… Rhys’s theory was further popularized by the Cambridge scholar, Sir James Frazer. At times the latter did admit that the evidence for it was inconclusive, but at others he threw this caution overboard and employed it to support an idea of his own: that Samhain had been the pagan Celtic feast of the dead. He reached this belief by the simple process of arguing back from a fact, that 1 and 2 November had been dedicated to that purpose by the medieval Christian Church, from which it could be surmised that this was been a Christianization of a pre-existing festival. He admitted, by implication, that there was in fact no actual record of such a festival, but inferred the former existence of one from a number of different propositions: that the Church had taken over other pagan holy days, that ‘many’ cultures have annual ceremonies to honor their dead, ‘commonly’ at the opening of the year, and that (of course) 1 November had been the Celtic New Year. He pointed out that although the feast of All Saints or All Hallows had been formally instituted across most of north-west Europe by the Emperor Louis the Pius in 835, on the prompting of Pope Gregory IV, it had already existed, on its later date of 1 November, in England at the time of Bede. He suggested that the Pope and Emperor had, therefore, merely ratified an existing religious practice based upon that of the ancient Celts.

The story is, in fact, more complicated. By the mid-fourth century Christians in the Mediterranean world were keeping a feast in honor of all those who had been martyred under the pagan emperors; it is mentioned in the Carmina Nisibena of St Ephraim, who died in about 373, as being held on 13 May. During the fifth century divergent practices sprang up, the Syrian churches holding the festival in Easter Week, and those of the Greek world preferring the Sunday after Pentecost. That of Rome, however, preferred to keep the May date, and Pope Boniface IV formally endorsed it in the year 609. By 800 churches in England and Germany, which were in touch with each other, were celebrating a festival dedicated to All Saints on 1 November instead. The oldest text of Bede’s Martyrology, from the eighth century, does not include it, but the recensions at the end of the century do. Charlemagne’s favourite churchman Alcuin was keeping it by then, as were also his friend Arno, bishop of Salzburg, and a church in Bavaria. Pope Gregory, therefore, was endorsing and adopting a practice which had begun in northern Europe. It had not, however, started in Ireland, where the Felire of Oengus and the Martyrology of Tallaght prove that the early medieval churches celebrated the feast of All Saints on 20 April.

This makes nonsense of Frazer’s notion that the November date was chosen because of ‘Celtic’ influence: rather, both ‘Celtic’ Europe and Rome followed a Germanic idea.

For more information: Halloween Resource Page

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