It’s Britain 2,000 years ago, the sun is setting and you’ve been working in the fields for weeks now, harvesting crops and storing them for winter. It’s the last day of October, the days are getting shorter and today marks Samhain — the final day of Harvest, and the beginning of the long dark winter. As night falls, the villagers extinguish the hearths in their homes, and the village elders and druid priestesses, dressed in long robes, light an immense bonfire made of oak branches in the nearby fields.The entire village gathers around.
An offering is made to the Celtic deities, and a druid priestess sacrifices cattle and reads the future in the burnt entrails, as you would tea leaves. As it’s Samhain, the veil between this world and the netherworld is said to be so thin that the spirits of the dead can roam freely. The presence of these otherworldly spirits help the priestess to make predictions about the future, and she prophesises who will die and who will prosper over the harsh winter months. The living wear disguises made from animal heads and skins to hide from mischievous ghosts, and the spirits of ancestors return home. After the ceremony is over and the offerings have been made to the gods, the hearths are reignited with flames from the bonfire.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and by the end of the sixth century, after a few unsuccessful attempts, the mission of Augustine has established Christianity’s lasting place in British culture. What was once a persecuted minority sect of Judaism, Christianity spread from the Middle East to Greece and Italy, then up through Northern Europe. As the Church began to expand their mission further north, they set their sights on Britain. But upon arrival in Europe, they encountered a problem — the native population already had a religion, and had been celebrating their own religious festivals and worshiping at the same sacred places for hundreds of years. The Church had to devise a strategy if they were to be successful in converting a Pagan Europe.
Paganism, in this case, means any religion that predates the arrival of Christianity. The polytheistic beliefs belonging to the native population of Europe and the British Isles were largely based on the celebration of changing seasons, with spirits and gods appearing in the form of natural elements, such as the Sun God and River Spirits.
Over the centuries to follow, hundreds of monasteries and churches were established throughout the country, becoming centres for wealth and education, and Christianity grew from a cult to a national religion which would last a millennia. In an attempt to make the transition between unholy pagan customs and the Christian faith as smooth as possible, the earliest monasteries and churches were actually built on top of ancient Celtic sacred sites, such as temples and shrines. The idea was that it would be easier for the pagans to worship the one true Christian God if they could still worship at the hallowed places to which they were accustomed.
As well as places of worship, the Church also claimed various festivals and celebrations that belonged to the Pagans. Seizing an opportunity to further the cause of Christ, the Church grafted Christian ideologies onto existing harvest festivals throughout Europe, to make Christianity easier for the masses to engage with. Age old traditions rooted in Celtic folklore were sanctified by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century, and the first Allhallowmas, or all Hallow’s Eve, followed by All Saint’s Day on the 1st of November, and All Soul’s Day on the 2nd of November. Unsurprisingly, the Church decided to observe these holidays on the dates that corresponded with the autumn celebrations of Samhain, and instead of lighting a bonfire and telling fortunes, the Church turned it into a day to honour a host of saints and martyrs, lighting candles and going to mass.
In many pre-Christian religions, the 25th of December marks the birthday of their respective sun gods, such as the ancient Roman god Mithras. Along with the Germanic celebration of Yule, people would feast together, decorate their houses with branches of evergreen trees and holly, and light candles and fires to celebrate the return of the Sun as the days slowly get longer. Sound familiar? Thought so. The decision to place Christmas on the same date is thought to be that of Roman Emperor Aurelian in the mid 3rd century, coinciding with the existing festivals observed during the Winter Solstice. There is little to no evidence suggesting that Jesus was born on this date, and scholars estimate that he was actually born sometime during the summer months.
So how did we get from spooky 2,000-year-old harvest festivals, to a religious day celebrating saints? Halloween arrived in America in the 1840s, when the potato famine in Ireland drove thousands to cross the Atlantic in search of a new life. Along with St Patrick’s Day, the Irish settlers brought with them the host of pagan traditions which over time evolved into the Halloween of today. Now, disposable decorations, trick or treating, and carving Jack o’Lanterns is all we have left of the ancient holiday. Samhain became All Hallows Eve, which over time evolved into the Halloween of today, a secular holiday celebrating all things spooky.
It’s impossible to deny the parallels between the Pagan and Christian versions of these well known holidays, as Christian ideologies were inserted into ancient Celtic lore and festivals and these two worlds merged. These hybrid holidays, like Halloween, are ancient traditions which took on a religious meaning, but now are evolving again to become more and more secular and consumerist. So as you’re putting on your scariest costume this Halloween season, take a moment to remember that you’re participating in an ancient pagan tradition, dating back thousands of years.
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