One Of Our Sabbats Is Missing! Or: Who Stole Samhain?

THIS IS AN OPINION PIECE – AGAIN…  (Because I have too many opinions about things, oh yes.  ~ Tiro)

We’re coming up to Hallowe’en, and already (actually it’s quite late starting this year, which I suppose must be promising) the bickering begins between militant Christians who urge us all to “reject evil paganism corrupting Hallowe’en”, and militant pagans who claim the “Christians stole Samhain”.[*]

Samhain is one of eight pagan sabbats throughout the year, this one celebrating “Summer’s End”, the literal meaning of ‘Samhain’ in Gaelic (contrary to popular and persistent belief, ‘Samhain’ was never the name of an ancient pagan god).  For most pagans, Samhain is a time to assess and reflect on the closing year, as well as honour those we know who have passed on from this life.  It falls on 31 October every year.

The Christian community – the Catholic Church in particular – celebrates a festival called the Feast of All Saints, or All Hallows Day, on 01 November each year.  This is a ‘solemnity’ marked in the Church calendar as the day when Christians commemorate all the saints (the ‘hallowed souls’) as a whole, rather than the various days throughout the year dedicated to one or another individually.

The Feast of All Saints, and the Feast of All Souls which follows it on 02 November, is not Samhain.  All Saints is a Christian festival.  Samhain – at least as it’s now practised – is a purely pagan one.

There is, admittedly, a link between the two, and it’s possibly the reason why the Church placed that particular solemnity at this time of year.  Before the rise of Christianity, pagan Rome celebrated an observance in May each year called ‘Lemuralia’ – a feast in honour of the spirits of the dead, the Lemures.  As with all the gods and spirits of Rome, the Lemures were thought to demand a certain degree of attention and honour.  And if they didn’t get it, they could make things very unpleasant for the living.  Ovid suggested that this tradition originated from a day once marked by Romulus, in which he would attempt to placate the vengeful spirit of Remus, the brother he’d murdered over the founding of the City.  The anger of Remus was (unfortunately, in my view) later attributed to all the dead, however they’d passed over, and as a result the Romans developed a particularly careful approach to the Lemures in general.

Lemuralia was held as a three-day festival, ending on 13 May, in which the dead were remembered and offered gifts and sacrifices (mostly of beans) in order that they would spare the living their malice.  In the 8th Century, Pope Gregory III of what had become the Roman Catholic Church instituted the Feast of All Saints on 01 November and, at the same time, sought to eradicate any remaining traditions surrounding Lemuralia in May.  At the time, ‘Celtic’ Europe – which is to say most of what is now Ireland, Britain and France – is thought to have observed a Summer’s End (‘Samhain’) festival around October or November which, in many ways, reflected the concerns of the pagan Romans over the propitiation of the dead.  The dead were honoured, but thought to be potentially harmful if they weren’t properly treated by the living.

Samhain wasn’t Lemuralia, but it served a similar purpose for the people of the region, and it was this purpose that Gregory III presumably wished to discourage.  You can see why: in Christian doctrine, the dead are either awaiting resurrection and judgement when Christ returns to Earth, or they are judged immediately at the point of death and dispatched to Heaven or Hell according to their merits.  Either way, the idea that the dead hung around in spirit form threatening the living for beans didn’t tie in well with the Church’s teaching.  Given that the Samhain feast was being celebrated at the end of October, Gregory positioned the Feast of All Saints or All Hallows Day – a powerful holy observance – to coincide with Samhain and thus, presumably, negate the arguably unchristian beliefs on which Samhain was based.

Zip on in your TARDIS to the Year of Gregory’s Lord 2010, and you can see that this act has spawned a new yearly ritual: pagans and Christians spitting and sniping at each other every October about who ‘owns’ Hallowe’en.

This year, as last year and every year I remember before that, the same argument grinds on.  A handful of angry Christians complain that Hallowe’en is their festival, but is being made evil by pagan influences driving people to dress up as ghosts and witches and bob for apples.  A handful of similarly angry pagans complain that Christians should get their damn hands off Samhain anyway and stop trying to stop decent pagans from honouring the dead by dressing up as ghosts and witches and bobbing for apples.  Christian claims heresy and satanism; pagan claims oppression and persecution.  Sometimes – often in America – the Christian takes the opposing view: that Hallowe’en is inherently wicked and thus should be done away with altogether; never practised by decent, God-fearing Christians and, if possible, banned under law.

The vast majority of Christians seem to assume it’s just a bit of fun, and may well join in telling spooky stories, and perhaps go or let their kids go to parties, and then they go to church for the next service and don’t get struck dead.

And the vast majority of people, of course, don’t see Hallowe’en as anything religious at all.  It’s a secular celebration of sweeties and merchandising, and an excuse in the minds of youngsters to raise a bit of hell, frighten householders, and generally have a temporary socially sanctioned excuse for blackmail.

Hallowe’en isn’t a festival for the Christian community.  It’s the day before a festival: the Feast of All Saints – All Hallows Day – is the day after Hallowe’en.  In fact, that’s precisely where the word Hallowe’en comes from, and why it’s got that apostrophe in it, if you spell it right: it’s ‘Hallows Eve’, or ‘Even’ (“e’en”, see?).  But it’s not the day itself.  In fact, 31 October – the date we mark as Hallowe’en, isn’t a saint’s day at all.  It’s marked as ‘feria’ in the Catholic calendar – a day when no feasts are observed; and that in itself doesn’t make it anything special: there are lots of feria throughout the year.  But arguing that Hallowe’en is a Christian festival is like trying to attribute to Christmas Eve the religious weight of Christmas Day.  It’s 25 December that’s Jesus Christ’s own feast day – “Christ’s Mass” – not the day before**.

So Christian arguments that Hallowe’en is a holy day corrupted by pagans are without foundation: Hallowe’en isn’t a Christian holy day.  Pagan arguments that Christians have stolen Hallowe’en are redundant: Hallowe’en isn’t a Christian holy day.  The secular traditions of Hallowe’en – the ghosts, vampires, goblins and various other spooky critters, the apple-bobbing, the toffee apples – could be argued to stem, originally, from pagan practice; but today they’re far more about selling and eating candy than they’re anything to do with religion of any sort.  Spookiness under controlled conditions is fun; that’s the appeal of Hallowe’en as a commercial event.

For most people, Hallowe’en is little more than a commercial obligation to be dealt with before the chief commercial obligation in December.  But even amongst those for whom the specific time of year has some spiritual significance, there need be no friction at all.  Christians are quite able to celebrate the Feast of All Hallows on 01 November without any interference from pagans.  Pagans are similarly able to observe their duties towards the spirits of their ancestors or to mark the closing of summer on 31 October without any infringement from the Christians.  It’s possible that there are links between the two festivals – but these links are buried under thirteen centuries of history.  They’re certainly not worth fighting over now, in a game of one-upmanship over what are now two entirely unrelated festivals that two completely different religious communities just happen to celebrate at roughly the same time of year.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume there’s a fair probability that you’re pagan.  So, tell me: do you celebrate Samhain as the end of summer in the Wheel of the Year?  Or is it a time for you to honour your ancestors in some way, and if so, how do you do it?  Do you just violently disagree with anything I’ve written above?  If so, I want to know.  Feel free to comment!

[* I have a bad – some would say dishonest – habit of expressing general concepts in quotes.  It does make it look as though someone’s actually said them, which in these cases they haven’t; but I’ve never been able to find a better way to present summaries of positions and attitudes and so on.  As in, the ‘quote’ is my rough approximation of the general point of view.  Sorry if it causes any confusion.]
[**  That said, in the case of Christmas the day before is observed as ‘Nativity of the Lord’, which of course has nothing to do with the ancient Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – the Birth of the Unconquered Sun – celebrated on… 25 December.]


One thought on “One Of Our Sabbats Is Missing! Or: Who Stole Samhain?

  1. Spot on as usual Tiro. Perhaps when there is a radical change in the climate, “End of Summer” will cease to exist, until then, long live Samhain and all the ways Pagans choose to celebrate it.

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