Join Kate’s VIP Club Now!

Follow Me


Kate's Blog

Subscribe RSS

SPOTLIGHT:The True History of Halloween

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A True History of Halloween

‘I know it’s a bit American,’ a mother apologised to me yesterday, when inviting my daughter to a Halloween party. 

‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘Halloween is older than America, or its culture anyway. It’s even older than Christianity.’

‘Really?’ she asked. 

‘Yes, Halloween is at least 2,000 years old,’ I told her. ‘It has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic festival. And since most of us here have Celtic blood, it’s entirely appropriate for us to celebrate it.’

‘I never knew that,’ she said. ‘You should write something about it.’

So, never one to refuse an opportunity to write about a subject I find fascinating, here is my True History of Halloween:

Halloween was once one of the two most important religious rites of the Celtic calender (the other being six months later, on May Day). 

Long before Christianity reached the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic people who lived there used to hold a festival celebrating the end of the year. Their New Year was November 1, and this festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-un).
Samhain means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival signalled the end of the harvest season, and the turning of the year towards the long, cold, darkness of winter. 

For the Celtics, Samhain was one of the two hinges of the year, a time when the door between the worlds was opened. Since it was also a time when the world began turning towards darkness, the fields lay fallow, and the small, weak and old might die, Samhain is also a celebration of death and the dark mysteries. 

For many, it was thought to be a time to communicate with the dead, or with the gods. For others, it was a time to protect oneself against the mischief and malice of the unrestful dead, or the fairy creatures of the Otherworld. People used to leave out offerings of food and drink to appease any who were roaming the countryside. Anyone who fed the fairies would be rewarded, and anyone who failed to do so would be punished. 

People also used to carve fearsome faces into turnips to scare away malevolent spirits (carved pumpkins are a much later tradition, and, yes, come from America). People used to dress up, and play tricks, and beat pots and pans, all in an attempt to confuse and frighten the dead away.

Another key tradition was the lighting of sacred bonfires to honour the Celtic gods. Everyone would extinguish their own fire, and relight it from the one lit on the nearest hill or in the village square. Afterwards, the ashes of the fire would be sprinkled on the winter fields, blessing them and fertilising them for the next year. 

As Christianity began to spread into the Celtic lands, the Roman Catholic Church took over the old festivals and incorporated them into their own calendars. In 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV re-named Samhain ‘All Saints’ Day’. All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, which gradually became pronounced Halloween. 

As the old pagan rituals persisted, despite all the attempts of the priests, the church decided to simply adopt them as Catholic rites. It became usual to light candles for the dead, for example, instead of sacred bonfires.

Instead of leaving out food for the fairies, the church set up a tradition whereby poor would ‘go a-souling’, walking from door to door asking for food and, in return, praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of the dead would wait in purgatory till enough people had prayed for their souls. The poor would be given ‘soul cakes’ to eat, sometimes in return for a performance or song. As time went on, it became the practise for poor children to ‘go a-souling’, and so the ‘trick-and-treat’ tradition was born. 

Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1593), when a man is accused of “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.” Puling means to whimper or whine. 

In the 1500s, the Reformation brought in the Protestant religions, many of which did not allow for any saints or religious celebrations. Even Christmas and Easter were not permitted.

However, the old practices persisted, simply finding new names and new forms. Since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in early November, 1606, Samhain became known as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires, dressing up, parades, and other celebrations. Children would to go from door to door, asking for a ‘penny for Guy’, so they could make an effigy to burn on the bonfire. 

In the New World, the colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day for a while, but as the colonies became the United States of America, Guy Fawkes Day fell by the wayside. Halloween was certainly not a popular festival day, as most of the early settlers were Protestant and so disapproved of what was clearly seen as a remnant of pagan culture. 

By the mid 1800s, however, many Irish Catholics fled the potato famine in Ireland by immigrating to the USA. They brought with them their old Halloween traditions, which caught the imagination of the public. Halloween is now one of the most popular festivals in the USA and, increasingly, the Western world. 

In Australia, we should properly celebrate Samhain on the 1st May and May Day on 31st October, as our seasons are back to front … but the festivities are much the same – the lighting of candles and bonfires, the feasting and playing, the thinking on the meaning of the turning of the seasons.

So Happy Halloween, everyone … and here’s a beautiful old Irish Samhain poem to help you get in the mood:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.

Translated by Caitlin Matthews

And for those of you who like to celebrate the old ways, here is a beautiful Samhain prayer:

This is a vintage post which I have resurrected for your reading pleasure - it was first posted in 2011!


'The Pagan Roots of Easter' rejected & rebutted

Monday, April 08, 2013

Last week I blogged about what I believed to be the Pagan roots of Easter, and stirred up quite a brouhaha on facebook, twitter and in the comments feed. Nothing I like better than a little controversy!

Many people pointed out, quite rightly, that the roots of the Easter festival are found in the Jewish Passover feast … and told me that, although such symbols as eggs and bunnies and so on may ‘feel’ pagan, they were actually added much later on in the evolution of Easter.  

The topic sent me back to my books, all of which support my own rather shallow and narrow view … but then my library is filled with many books on Paganism and Wicca and very few on the history of Christianity. So I admit I may have a few holes in my theological knowledge … and I’m always happy to learn more about this wonderful world and its history.

One reader has prepared an essay for me on the matter:

Cary Lenehan is by training a sociologist and mathematician, has designed games, and is by profession currently a truck driver. He aspires to one day be a novelist. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania with his wife Marjorie, an eclectic garden, and a lot of books.

This is what Cary has written for me:

In our multi-cultural world, there is often contention over symbols: who owns them and what they mean. We see one of these clashes at many holiday periods where there are a lot of claims and counterclaims as to whose holiday it is and what that festival means to people.  

This is perhaps most contentious at Easter.  Unlike Christmas, where there is clear proof that the festival had its date changed from January, Easter is a lot more difficult to pin down.  This is a very short look at the subject and only the books I quote are cited here.

Easter's  name: One myth current is that there was a goddess that the Festival is named from. However, there is no archaeological evidence of this.  This quote from Weiser (p217) is the best summary I can find on the subject:

“The English word Easter and the German ‘Ostern’ come from a common origin (‘Eostur’, ‘Eastur’, ‘Ostara’, ‘Ostar’), which to the Norsemen meant the season of the rising (growing) sun, the season of new birth. The word was used by our ancestors to designate the Feast of New Life in the spring. The same root is found in the name for the place where the sun rises (East, ‘Ost’). The word Easter, then, originally meant the celebration of the spring sun, which had its birth in the East and brought new life upon earth. This symbolism was transferred to the supernatural meaning of our Easter, to the new life of the Risen Christ, the eternal and uncreated Light. 

Picture of dawn from Pixel Tango

Based on a passage in the writings of Saint Bede the Venerable (735), the term Easter has often been explained as the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess (‘Eostre’), though no such goddess is known in the mythologies of any Germanic tribe. Modern research has made it quite clear that Saint Bede erroneously interpreted the name of the season as that of a goddess.”

Prior to this time, the time from the start of Lent was known as Paschal Month in England & the Germanic countries.  It culminated in Holy Week (and still does in most cultures).

“The early Church, following apostolic tradition, employed the hallowed term ‘Pasch’ (from Hebrew ‘pesach’, passover) both to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Thus Good Friday is called the ‘Pasch of Crucifixion’ (‘pascha staurosimon’), Easter the ‘Pasch of Resurrection’ (‘pascha anastasimon’), and the Eastern Church has kept these names up to our day.” (Weiser, p191)

The timing: Easter gains its timing solely from the association with the Hebrew festival of Passover.  The Jews left Egypt without much regard to the seasons. By their history their concerns were more immediate (possibly this occurred around 1313BCE). Coincidentally the time that Passover is celebrated is close to the Vernal Equinox (20 March) although the actual start of Passover is very rarely the same date as this event. At this time Egypt had a three-season year of Inundation, Germination and Warmth and no major religious marking of the equinox as they based their calendar on the stars. (Aveni p13).  Although its exact meaning is highly contested, the co-incidences between the Book of Exodus and a document called the Ipuwer papyrus, dating from this same period, indicate that they may refer to the same events and the Hebrew account is not lightly dismissed without real contrary evidence.

Eggs: The use of eggs probably was taken from Zoroastrian practice where the egg was used as symbol of rebirth at New Year (the Spring Equinox, which comes soon before the more variable Holy Week). 

There was no worship of Ishtar in Babylon at this time.  In a Christian role they came in as red-dyed eggs representing the blood of Christ for Kyriaki tou Pascha in Mesopotamia by at least the second century.  They were not coloured for New Year.

Rabbits: Rabbits were first noted to deliver eggs in the sixteenth century in Alsace and spread from there.  It is a late addition to the Easter traditions, but is unlikely to be pagan as, by then there were no pagans left in this part of Europe. Quoting Weiser (at p263) again:

“What seems to be the first mention of the Easter bunny and his eggs is a short admonition in a German book of 1572: ‘Do not worry if the bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, then we shall cook the nest.’ ”

In brief, although some of the individual practices (most not covered here) in some countries or even towns have pagan origins; Easter is solely a Christian Festival.  It was originally timed in connection with Passover.  It has no pagan connection.

Aveni, Anthony F (2003) The Book of the Year: A brief History of Seasonal Holidays Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-515024-4
Enmarch, Roland (2005) The Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All, The Griffith Institute, Griffith Institute Publications, Oxford 2005 ISBN0-900416-86-6
Weiser, Francis X S.J. (1952) Handbook of Christian Feasts and Festivals Harcourt, Brace and Company, LOC 58-10908

And just to prove ignorance is rife on both sides of the argument, this photo of the 'pagan' Easter bunny comes from the religious site New2Torah - got to love the bit about "sacrficing" (sic) babies ....

So what do you think? Is Carey and Patrick and all the others who disagreed with me right? Or do I have a good pagan leg to stand on?

Looking forward to hearing what you think!


Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter is, at heart, a pagan festival. Easter’s roots go far back into our history, predating Christianity by thousands of years.

Its key symbols – the egg, the bunny, even the hot cross bun – all have their origins in ancient, pagan traditions.

Many different cultures celebrated the spring equinox – a time when day and night stood in perfect balance, before light and summer once again won the age-old battle against darkness and winter. 
The name itself comes from that of an ancient spring goddess, Eostre. Her name comes from the same root as 'east' or 'shining'. A hare was one of her key symbols, and so too was the egg.

The Venerable Bede, who lived in the 7th century, was the first to record her name as the source of the new Christian festival. Like many other pagan traditions, the festival of Eostre was adopted by the early Church in an attempt to convert followers of the old religions to their ways. 
Other goddesses traditionally celebrated at this time include: 
  Aphrodite, in ancient Greece
  Ashtoreth, from ancient Israel
         Demeter from Mycenae
  Hathor from ancient Egypt
  Ishtar from Assyria
  Kali, from India
  Ostara, a Norse Goddess of fertility

The story of Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess, is quite striking in its similarity to Christian mythology. 
Gerald L. Berry, author of "Religions of the World," wrote:

"About 200 B.C. mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill ...Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually. The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection."

This is the reason why Easter was condemned during the Protestant Reformation as a ‘pagan’ celebration, and was banned by many religious movements including the Baptists, the Quakers, and Congregational Protestants. 

Wiccans and Neo-pagans celebrate the Spring Equinox as one of their eight holy days of celebration. It’s all about recognising the natural rhythm of the seasons, and the circular nature of life and death, summer and winter, light and darkness.

Work in your garden, cook a feast of spring lamb and fresh herbs, light candles, and devour eggs decorated with flowers and stars (even if they are chocolate) … and now you are continuing a tradition that began many millenniums ago. 


Subscribe RSS

Recent Posts



Blogs I Follow