The medieval roots of Halloween
Pumpkins, trick or treat and witch costumes. We all know about modern Halloween – but how might a Templar have celebrated the same day? Back in the early Middle Ages, the day we now call Halloween was more commonly called All Hallows Eve. It was the day before All Saints Day – a major Catholic feast.
Hallow came from an Old English word for holy or sanctified. The day was a liturgical vigil where the faithful were required to attend church, fast and pray. But there was always a hangover from pre-Christian practices. This was the transition from summer to winter – a time when peasants gathered in the harvest and into November, the ‘blood month’, where animals were killed and salted. Having an abundance of food – hopefully, famine permitting – there was a perfect excuse to feast and drink.
From the moment Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church had to deal with pagan rituals that involved dancing, singing, drinking and gorging on food. What to do? Ban them – which the church attempted – or co-opt them into the church calendar, trying to draw out the pagan sting. That was the route the church gradually adopted.
So, around October 31st the Christian community was faced with a festivity where bonfires were lit to propitiate the sun god – who was now in retreat to the darkness. The sun was thanked for its good work, nourishing the fruits of the earth. Peasants hoped for its glowing return in the spring.
Some believe that in ancient Britain, the people at this time hailed a deity called Samhain, the lord of death, who gathered up the souls of the evil imprisoned within the bodies of animals. It’s said that this was altered by Christians to create a day in the Middle Ages where the souls of those in purgatory were prayed for. The bonfires continued and people would go to their neighbours’ houses in the village offering condolences to the bereaved – did this morph into trick or treat?
Dressing up in outlandish costumes had always been a part of pagan festivities and this element of Samhain worship could have trickled into All Hallows Eve. One idea is that the souls of the Christian dead wandered the earth until All Saints Day on November 1st. So, Halloween was their last chance to exact mischief on the living. Those not wishing to be recognised by the dead as they committed their last wicked deeds would wear masks and disguises – hence dressing up on this day.
Comparisons are also made to the Roman festival around the goddess Pomona. Her symbol was an apple and it’s been posited that the origin of apple bobbing at Halloween comes from Pomona related rites. It’s hard to deny that Christians reworked Roman festivals into the new religion, giving them new meaning. There’s evidence that the church actively discussed the dilemma of winning over converts who were attached to the old pagan ways. The solution seems to have been to let the common people carry on with their superstitions but direct their gaze to the Christian god instead.
The 31st October comes right before All Saints Day – November 1st – a feast called Hallowmas. Therefore Halloween was the eve before this important event in the liturgical calendar. It’s a Christian feast day believed to date back to the seventh century AD when the Pantheon, a vast and still standing temple built by the emperor Hadrian, was re-dedicated to all the saints. It had previously been dedicated to all the gods – but there was only one god now!
That was followed in the eleventh century with the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2nd. In case you’re confused – All Saints Day celebrated those who had succeeded in entering heaven while All Souls Day involved lots of praying for those who had not – lingering instead in purgatory (God’s waiting room). So a lot of attention was paid to the fate of the dead at this time of year, which has obviously informed the modern Halloween. Even our use of scary spiders, toads and bats reflects creatures within whom the souls of those in purgatory were sometimes thought to inhabit while they waited for their ticket into heaven.
I realise there is a terrific amount of soul searching – pardon the pun – over the Christian meaning of Halloween. I’m happy to hear your views and have some discussion about this ahead of the big day!
- How the Tradition of Trick or Treating Got Started (todayifoundout.com)
- HALLOWEEN: An American Holiday, an American History… (bigseance.com)
- Irish Halloween Traditions (blogotheirish.wordpress.com)
- History of Halloween (hsjhpantherpress.wordpress.com)
- The Celtic New Year Festival of Samhain (permaculturecottage.wordpress.com)