Pet peeve: Hallowe’en is not Samhain

There’s a segment of Christendom that hates and fears Hallowe’en, calling it a continuation of satanic/pagan/Druid worship. Modern Wiccans don’t help by celebrating their Samhain on this date. But does that Celtic origin story hold up? A look at the calendar might shed some light on the question.

The dedication of the Oratory of All Saints in Rome, on November 1, c.750, is the occasion of the Christian commemoration of All Saints’ Day. At that time there hadn’t been any pagan Celts in Rome for quite a few centuries, and the pagan Romans had wiped out most of the druids back around the time of Christ.

At this time, the mid eighth century, the continental Gauls had long been Christian (150 years earlier Gregory of Tours wrote his Vita Patrum about the many saints of Gaul in his day) and the Celts who had once lived in England were now mostly Christian Welshmen; England was a patchwork of Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms following a mix of Roman and Irish Catholic usage (The synod of Whitby had been over for a century by then.)

Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV declared All Saints to be a universal feast. The commemoration spread from Italy to Ireland.

In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in Southern France, added a celebration on Nov. 2. This was a day of prayer for “the souls of all the faithful departed.” This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of western Europe, and is celebrated in North America as El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. (The Christian East, meanwhile, celebrates a feast of All Saints on the Sunday after Pentecost, and sets aside a number of Saturdays throughout the year to remember the souls of all the departed.)

So much for the Christian commemoration of All Hallows, of which Hallowe’en is the “eve” or Vespers the night before the feast.

What’s Samhain? Samhain (the Irish word is pronounced about like sow-ween) is the cross-quarter day between the equinox and solstice, which happens this year on November 8.

If modern Neo-Pagans now choose to fix their celebration of Samhain on the same day as the Christian feast of All Saints so they can claim Hallowe’en, that’s their business. But let’s not get too bent out of shape over an allegedly pagan/satanic celebration. Spooky Hallowe’en doings have more to do with late 19th century American East-coast urban working class mischief and begging, with Protestant fibbing to smear Catholicism, and with Hollywood’s unerring sense for making a buck.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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