Keith Williamson is a History and Politics teacher in County Down
Hallowe’en is a seasonal reminder that the older gods confound the new. To win souls for Christ, the Early Medieval Church expropriated some of the popular festivals of the Gauls and the Celts. Given that conversion was mostly a top-down affair, preachers courted the favour of kings and accommodations were hatched. Ancient polytheistic rites based on the sun’s cyclic light were thereby conjoined with a 4th century Christian tradition of setting aside a special day for martyrs and saints.
The pagan religious calendar venerated the seasonal shifts in the Northern Hemisphere. The winter solstice was a time of feasting, drinking and exchanging gifts, and a pragmatic Church realised that this was the perfect slot for Christmas. Hallowe’en came out of the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain which marked the beginning of winter. The Celts, and perhaps more importantly the Franks who exerted greater influence over 8th century Popes, were unwilling to give up their precious festivals and the Western Church was again creative in its response, strategically rerouting the Feast of All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day to the 1st November.
Hallowe’en was therefore a brazen attempt by the Latin Church to downgrade Samhain to that of a support act, a mere All Hallows’ Eve. All Souls’ Day (the Day of the Dead) was later added on November 2nd to create a three-day Allhallowtide festival that would surely depaganise the enduring Samhain festival. This makeover ultimately failed, which is testimony to the enduring strength of folk tradition.
I am struck by the traditions of Samhain (Summer’s End) that have survived. Samhain, it is believed, was quite literally a fire-burning festival that marked the start of the dark half of the year; and from that we may trace our seasonal attraction to bonfires, fireworks and sparklers. It was a night when the living dressed up in ghoulish costumes, often made of animal heads and furs, to evade the unwelcome attentions of both the ‘the little people’ and the liminal otherworld. ‘Treats’ were used to appease restless spirits and ‘tricks’ were a warning of malevolent forces if harvest offerings and sacrifices were not offered. Conspiratorially, some of the Irish monks who chronicled their ancestors’ worship of pagan deities (Tuath Dé) sometimes betrayed a wayward affinity.
Ironically, it was the Scotch-Irish and Irish migrants to the New World that kept these Old World traditions alive, embedding them in the popular culture of the United States. Hollywood then exported this curious festival to the wider world.
What might people of faith take from this? Hallowe’en reveals a timeless spiritual quest to cross the void between the living and the dead. Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists faithfully and beautifully observe All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day in one form or another (and the Eastern Orthodox Church at a different time of the year).
It is also impossible to ignore the close bond between community rituals and the seasonal travails of sowing and harvesting, so unforgivingly real before our more disconnected age of shipping containers and trans-global supermarkets. Surely we are also rediscovering that ancient reverence for sacred places, be they springs, glens or forests?
In this part of the world, we can celebrate the fact that Hallowe’en (a Scottish festival) shares a common Gaelic provenance with Samhain. The occasion was widely observed by both Planter (Ulster Scot) and Gael, and it still is. Successive prelates, priests and preachers have tried to anathematise and suppress the older ways and they have consistently failed. It is ironic that a calculated attempt to relegate Samhain to the Eve of All Hallows’ Day (or Hallowe’en) would ultimately see it re-emerge as the main event.
We are all the sum of our many parts and custodians of a rich spiritual inheritance.
Slán agus Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh / Goodbye and Happy Hallowe’en
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.