Good morning, all, and wishing everyone who celebrates a joyful Eve of All Saints (All Hallows Eve), Hallowe’en, or Samhain! Yes, I said Samhain. Let us be clear, shall we, that while there are indeed some Pagan – or at least folkloric – roots to Halloween, it is not Satanic in origin. Although the Evil One and his minions can infect, warp, and twist this as they can many other things, let’s not hand him a victory by conceding the field uncontested, shall we? And Pagan does NOT equal Satanic, unless you want to claim that all of our pre-Christian ancestors were so: a notion I vigorously deny, decry, and protest!
Leaving nutcases like Anton LeVey and his followers out of it, there are two basic roots of Halloween, as we have it today: the pre-Christian Celtic, and the Christian. The latter is clear and historical; the former is more suggestive, based on linguistics, mythology, and folklore.
With respect to the Celtic root, Samhain is the Irish Gaelic name for this holiday, apparently derived from “samh” = summer and “fuin” = end. In Gaul (ancient Celtic France, before the invasion of the Germanic Franks, and the conversion to Christianity), it was Samonios, or Trinuxtion Samonii, “the Three Nights of Summer’s End.” This comes from the Coligny Calendar, IIRC, and because the Celts tended to start things on their eves (days were reckoned as beginning at sunset of the day before), it is generally believed that Samhain (Samonios) was the “Celtic New Year.”
The word “Samhain” is used today in modern Irish to refer to the month of November: it is NOT the name of the “Celtic God of the Dead,” that is Annwn (and he was not evil either). As a holiday (holy day), it marked the boundary between the season of warmth and light, and that of cold and dark, and corresponded to Beltane (May Day), its opposite on what some have called “the Wheel of the Year.” It was a liminal time, being neither (quite) Summer, nor (yet) Winter.
The ancient Celts were fond of these “boundary” times and places, which are neither one thing nor the other – dawn and dusk, for instance, which are neither day nor night, or the sea-shore, which is neither land nor ocean – and appear to have considered them to be “thin spots,” where the “veil between the worlds” (our ordinary physical-sensory world, and the “Otherworld” of spirit and the sacred) was permeable. Thus, at both Samhain and Beltane, spirits – both the spirits of the dead, and spiritual beings such as fairies – were thought to be able to cross between the Otherworld and this one.
Some were benevolent, some baneful, and some neutral: that Samhain had a darker cast to it than Beltane is understandable given that, Beltane is the beginning of the season of warmth, light, and growth (“Summertime, when the livin’ is easy,” to borrow a line from the American musical “Porgy and Bess”), whereas Samhain is the beginning of the season of cold, dark, and decay, a time of danger and potential death in an agricultural society. But again, while such considerations are unpleasant and frightening to humans, they are not evil, unless one considers the natural cycle of birth, life, death, decay, and rebirth (new life springing forth from, and nourished by, the detritus of the preceding year) to be evil.
Still, no one likes to die, or have one’s loved ones die, and in pre-modern cultures, Winter was a time when death – by disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, etc. – was an all-too-likely outcome. So many of the customs and traditions which developed around Samhain were, in origin, human efforts to come to terms with this aspect of existence. Many of our Halloween traditions today remain, from a psychological perspective, ways to deal with – even to defy and laugh in the face of – those things which most frighten us.
And then of course there is the second stream, the second major taproot, of Halloween, and the one which gives it its name: the Christian Feast of All Saints, or in England, All Hallows. This is described in more detail in the attached essay (which tends to deny or minimalize the Celtic root), so I will not go into as much detail, but basically: this is the feast (actually a triduum of feasts) celebrating all the saints (the “holy ones” of God), known and unknown, and including both those notable figures of extraordinary sanctity which we typically think of as “saints,” and also those whose holiness is known but to God – ordinary Christians, living out our lives to the best of our ability, as God gives us grace.
This began in Rome in the 8th century of the Christian era, and whether by chance or design, mirrored the three days of Samonios: the Eve of All Saints (All Hallows Eve) on October 31st, the Feast of All Saints (All Hallows) on November 1st, and the Feast of All Souls, on November 2nd, for the rest of us. 🙂 What is lacking is a clear-cut connection that would indicate a specific intention to “Christianize” Samhain; but in the all-encompassing design of Divine Providence, I do not think the parallelism is coincidental!
So these are the two “roots” of Halloween: the pre-Christian Celtic, and the Christian. What is notably lacking in this history is any reference to evil. That was, as the linked essay makes clear, largely a modern invention. True, the holiday has always had a close connection with death; but with the death which leads to rebirth: either in the naturally-inspired, “wheel-of-the-year” sense of the ancient Celtic feast, or in the rebirth to life eternal of the Christian faith (the dates of the deaths of saints are often referred to as their “heavenly birthdays”).
Of course, one may do as one wishes with this day – celebrate or avoid. But let us at least be fair and accurate to the history, and to the spiritual significance of this date. After all, for those of us who are Christians, our God is among other things the God of Truth. We do Him no honour by making up fables, or by lending the Evil One more influence than he actually possesses!