The Truth about Halloween

TIZ THAT Time of the year again when accusations will fly: you stole our holidays!  You’re being Satanic! We will be bombarded with bad history and bad social science and bad theology. I won’t even bother to link to the most common Christian “proof sheet” that takes the Irish name of the holiday (Samhain) and makes it into a god’s name – a god to whom human sacrifices were offered. This deity never existed. Samhain is simply Irish gaelic meaning “End of Summer”. It is still the name of the Month of November in the Irish language. I will also not bother to link to sources produced by Modern Neopagans who get their history all wrong, too. This holiday was not stolen by the Church from them. Firstly because their patterns are modern – based on a Christian culture – so their patterns are not the “real, ancient practice” of any people. Secondly because their ancient feasts were not celebrated on fixed calendars. After ten-plus years as a pagan and twenty plus years as a Christian I’m just annoyed by all the politically-biased claims out there.
A good deal of the modern evangelical and fundamentalist (and Orthodox covert) complaints about Halloween are just badly disguised ultra-Protestant Anti-Roman Catholicism. In some cases (Jack Chick comes to mind) it’s not very thinly disguised at all. Other sects often succumb to such uber-frummery, too. When I was first Chrismated as Orthodox my only reply was “it’s not my holiday”. In this I was following my priest – Fr J. Of course, considering the Orthodox Western Rite celebrates All Saints day with the Christian West we must admit that, in fact, some Orthodox do celebrate All Hallows’ Eve. So also do Roman Catholics, Anglicans and some (most?) Lutherans. In other words a majority of Christians around the world have this day on their liturgical calendar.
We are, therefore, going to have to define some terms. “A Christian Holiday” in this conversation means that it is part of the Christian liturgical calendar.  In East and West, being on the calendar may mean various liturgical functions – and east and west do it differently.  But both East and West treat their most important feast days the same: there’s a Eucharistic liturgy (communion service) and there is something of a complex evening prayer the night before.  All Saints Day fits this pattern: there is a communion service on the day of, and a complex evening prayer service on the vigil, the “Eve”.  It’s this “Eve” that is “Hallowe’en”.

A pagan holiday is one that is non-Christian, or Pre-Christian and, usually, localized: there was no pre-Christian religious tradition that was pan-European.  There were Celts and Romans and Greeks, there were Scythians, Gauls, Goths, Visigoths, Egyptians, etc. Each one of these ethnic groups would have had pagan holidays.

Stealing our holiday means exactly that: moving in, remaking and rewriting it until it matches our pattern not yours.

It is my assertion that the celebration of All Hallows eve is Christian; that is was never Pagan; and that it is, in fact, the Pagans who are stealing holidays.

Let’s first take a look at three parts: the Eastern Christian, the Western Christian and the Non-Christian.

The East
In the east, St John Chrysostom (4th Century) set a celebration in memory of all the “other” saints on the Sunday after Pentecost. Since he did not (nor does his successor) have universal jurisdiction, this holiday would have, of course, only applied to those dioceses and parishes under his patriarchate. Since it was a good idea, however, the tradition spread among the other Orthodox. Additionally, in some places the second Sunday after Pentecost is observed as All local Saints. Thus in the Russian Churches, this is All Saints of Russia. In the Orthodox Church in America, that Sunday is “All Saints of America” but it is not so named among the various non-Autocephalous or “self-ruled” groups in the US.
This celebration was not commanded to those churches under the Patriarchate of Rome although the tradition began spreading there, as well.
The West
In AD 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the ancient Roman Pantheon as a Christian Church.  The new name was St Mary and All Martyrs and the anniversary of the consecration, 13 May, was a feast celebrated in all the western Church. This was the beginning of All Saints’ Day in the West. It’s important to note two things: (a) this happens after the coming of St Augustine to Canterbury in 587; and (b) it doesn’t happen on 1 November. These are important because of the claim (sometimes offered in error on these pages as well) that Augustine merely baptised a pagan feast day he found in England and that it came back to Rome. Nope. Sorry.
About 100 years later another Pope, Gregory III, dedicated another All Saints’ chapel – this one in St Peter’s – on 1 November and began to commemorate the feast on that day. The next Pope Gregory made that feast (on 1 November) of universal practice.
The Roman Martyrology, still read daily in monastic orders, tells the story this way:

Festívitas ómnium Sanctórum, quam in honórem beátæ Dei Genitrícis Vírginis Maríæ et sanctórum Mártyrum Bonifátius Papa Quartus, cum templum Pántheon tértio Idus Maji dedicásset, célebrem et generálem instítuit agi quotánnis in urbe Roma. Sed Gregórius item Quartus póstmodum decrévit, eándem festivitátem, quæ váriis modis jam in divérsis Ecclésiis celebrabátur, in honórem ómnium Sanctórum solémniter hac die ab univérsa Ecclésia perpétuo observári. 

The Festival of All Saints, which Pope Boniface IV, after the dedication of the Pantheon, ordained to be kept generally and solemnly every year on the 13th of May, in the city of Rome, in honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and of the holy martyrs. It was afterwards decreed by Gregory IV that this feast, which was then celebrated in many dioceses, but at different times, should be on this day kept by the whole Church in honour of all the saints.
(From the Internet Archive.)

All of these Christian dates are very important because these dates mean the festival of All Saints (and thus the Vigil the night before) is a feast of the pre-Schism Patriarchate of Rome. It’s Orthodox. 31 October/1 November is not a Pagan festival.
3 The Real Pagan Stuff
The real Pagan strand is harder to trace. As noted, there is no pan-European culture or religion.  Not every Pagan European culture had a festival here.  To find any festival at all at this point of the year, we have to leave the Roman Empire and go to the edge of the known world: Ireland. There was a festival in ancient Ireland as the Sun reach halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. The bards report this feast was celebrated on the Hill of Tara with the Ard Rí – the High King. Should one visit Tara today one will see a “passage grave” on the hill. In the back of the grave are small spirals carved into the wall. Once a year – around November 7th on the modern Gregorian calendar – as the sun passes the half-way point between the Equinox and the Solstice, a shaft of light penetrates the cave and strikes the spirals. Does this indicated the feast of Tara? Don’t know. But it does show that the astronomical point – not a calendar date, per se – was marked at Tara. To be certain the Pagans in the only part of Europe not conquered by Rome didn’t use the Roman Calendar – and so wouldn’t have known what 31 October was. The passage on Tara shoes that (in modern terms) it was the Sun at 15 Degrees of Scorpio that was celebrated – not a specific day.
Bonfires were lit that night, but we know no more of the festival at all.  We don’t know that the Irish even had anything to say about the dead on this night.  Anthropologically it would make sense for this festival to be a harvest festival and it would be likely that the dead might be invoked or appease at harvest time… but that’s it. We don’t know.
Would the Church have adopted the pagan practice of a remote tribe from the hinterlands and commanded it to the whole of the western world? Unlikely.

Bad Victorian Mythology

Costumes? Trick or Treat? Pumpkins? Mostly bad Victorian-era Scholarship – and that mostly American, not European at all. Like us moderns, the Americans of the Victorian era had a penchant for things that “feel ancient” and, like us, they tended to make stuff up when they didn’t know the answer. They just call it “ancient tradition”. Americans feel guilty sometimes that most countries have indoor plumbing older than our culture.
Our American custom was, until recently, to becostume ourselves and trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving! In fact this may go back to a Roman Catholic custom on St Martins day: and and this custom was moved to Halloween in the early 20th Century and, as things happen it is the “American Style” Halloween that is only now being imported into Europe. It’s our American customs, superimposed on All Hallows Eve that we now deck out as “ancient” and then call pagan.
Everything else we claim to know about the holiday is from this final strand of Bad American Victorian Scholarship. So we like to blame wearing masks on the ancient Celts. We claim the sweets should be offered to the Ghosts. The Jack O’Lantern is a candle lit to show the dead how to get back to their homes. All of this is without proof of course – positive or negative. The ancient religions were not literate. They didn’t write it down in guidebooks on How to Be a Druid. Almost all of these later inventions have to do with Protestant ideas of the all the departed commemorated on 1 & 2 November. Romans say they are saints – but Protestants know there are no Catholics in heaven so all their “saints” must really be spectres and ghouls. Having made up a pretty fun holiday (admit it!) it caught on! Even Europeans now like this idea.
31 October is Not Pagan.
Modern Neopagans take up this theme – using American Christian customs! – when they say “Christians stole our holiday”. In fact, 1 November was never their holiday – it was, however, the closest Christian party to their own historical party at 15 Degrees Scorpio. So they moved their gew-gaws and froo-froo a week over or so and stopped counting days by small spirals carved on walls and tried this new Roman invention – the Fixed Calendar. They did this so as not to be continually persecuted by the Christians – they wanted to blend in. I’m clear on that – and Christians need to be honest about our persecution of other religions throughout our history. We see the same traditions in Yoruban cultures where their Afro-Caribbean and South American cultures adopt Catholicism as a cover for their African Gods. In like manner, albeit, a thousand years earlier, the Celtic tribes covered up their pagan traditions with a Catholic overlay.
We might better say that the Pagans, to avoid persecution, stole a Christian Holiday. Certainly the idea of the Western All Saints being stolen from the Celtic “day of the dead” is not at all historic.  Since the ancient religions did not write stuff down, we have no way of knowing from Pagan sources if the Festival of Tara was anything to do specifically with the dead or the “Veil between the worlds” getting thin. We don’t even know it was “New Year” for them – we just made that up too. Like other pagan festivals some of this stuff may have carried over: the “bonfire holidays” in England are mostly pagan festivals that were transferred to Christian days. This is especially clear on St John’s day in the Summer when they light the midsummer bonfires. This tradition of moving traditions to the biggest party continued through history: now the Mid-Autumn bonfires are not lit on Halloween, but rather on Guy Fawkes Night (Nov 5) which is coincidentally much closer to 15 Degrees Scorpio.
The Aztecs?
Since I’m now in California, it’s worth talking about the Day of the Dead, Dìa de los Muertos, one of my favourite times of the year to switch cultures – we have no idea at all what the ancient Celts did, where as the Day of the Dead is a living tradition. Some Protestant commentaries are quick to point out that this is Pagan Catholicism. Of course it is. But it is Catholicism – not paganism – that rules the day.
The Aztec (Ancient Mexican) Calendar had almost 30 days dedicated to the dead in or around the Gregorian month of August. These were dedicated to the “Little Dead” (children) and the Adult Dead. Within a few decades of the Spanish conquest all the traditions of these festivals had been transferred to the WR feasts of All Saints and All Souls. The Church didn’t move them there – nor did she “take over” the Aztec feasts. Instead – as in the case of the Celts and the other pagans – local traditions were, effectively, baptised and brought in. They were seen as way-pointers on the way to Christ who is The Truth and therefore all things true point to him. There is nothing to be afraid of in the truth: nothing at all. And anything that really is True is Christ.
Now does any of this mean that the modern, Non-Christian silliness that goes on in Schools is really-Christian or even Anti-Christian? No. No more than singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is an act of Christian piety although I know some who would file a law suit nonetheless.

Most of the secular holidays that happen now  – from Christmas to Easter to Halloween – are decidedly not Christian and should be avoided.  The revelries that happen on this night are lewd, crude and are often designed to mock Christianity.  That is Satanic.  But bobbing for apples, trick or treating – or using this day and season to commemorate the dead and the departed are not Satanic at all.  In fact, it’s an Orthodox practice that is so evidently healthy that even the pagans took it over: All Saints Day (and the vigil) and All Souls Day and the whole month of November.  Should the kids be allowed to have that fun? Well, that’s up to the parents. 

The feast of Christ the King

Crown Him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His throne.
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing of Him who died for thee,
And hail Him as thy matchless King through all eternity.

Crown Him the virgin’s Son, the God incarnate born,
Whose arm those crimson trophies won which now His brow adorn;
Fruit of the mystic rose, as of that rose the stem;
The root whence mercy ever flows, the Babe of Bethlehem.

Crown Him the Son of God, before the worlds began,
And ye who tread where He hath trod, crown Him the Son of Man;
Who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast,
And takes and bears them for His own, that all in Him may rest.

Crown Him the Lord of life, who triumphed over the grave,
And rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save.
His glories now we sing, who died, and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die.

Crown Him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease, and all be prayer and praise.
His reign shall know no end, and round His piercèd feet
Fair flowers of paradise extend their fragrance ever sweet.

Crown Him the Lord of love, behold His hands and side,
Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.
No angel in the sky can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye at mysteries so bright.

Crown Him the Lord of Heaven, enthroned in worlds above,
Crown Him the King to Whom is given the wondrous name of Love.
Crown Him with many crowns, as thrones before Him fall;
Crown Him, ye kings, with many crowns, for He is King of all.

Crown Him the Lord of lords, who over all doth reign,
Who once on earth, the incarnate Word, for ransomed sinners slain,
Now lives in realms of light, where saints with angels sing
Their songs before Him day and night, their God, Redeemer, King.

Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime.
All hail, Redeemer, hail! For Thou has died for me;
Thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity.

Words: Verses 1, 4, 5, 6 & 9: Mat­thew Bridg­es, The Pass­ion of Je­sus, 1852; verses 2 & 3: Godfrey Thring, Hymns and Sac­red Lyr­ics, 1874.

Illiteracy and Superstition

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of people talk about books, specifically books in the Christian tradition.  Some people seem to want to imagine that the advent and popularity of digital media means something (bad) for Christianity as a religion intimately connected with books (or with The Book). It can not be denied that Christianity is historically tied to the development of the book: at a time when all “proper” literature was tied to scrolls, the Church opted to go for the easy-to-carry and low-brow codex.   One way to look at that is that there is something about books important to the Church.  Another way to look at it, however, is that the Church saw a useful technology and took it over.

I’d suggest that doing the same to digital media would be the best course of action: we did it to TV and Radio as well.

There is, however, rather a lot of ruminating about the changes in the message caused by changing the media, as if overnight we’ve all forgotten that Jesus is the Word of God, who communicates himself: it is us who sow, but it is God who reaps the harvest.  The Medium is NOT the message: Jesus is not confined to a book or scroll or screen.

But all of these discussions deny the very truth of our Faith: Jesus, for 2000 years, has depended not on written text, but on spoken words: person-to-person communication is the means by which the Gospel is spread. Only recently have persons claiming to follow Christ opted for absentee evangelism: the Bible left alone in the hotel room, the bumper sticker on the ass end of the car,  the humorous t-shirt spotted in the crowd, or the tract passed out to random strangers on the street as if by some magic incantation Jesus would appear in target’s heart, or if the faith was spread like some STD by random social contact.

We’ve begun using the internet like that as well and despite all urgings to the contrary (even by writers of blogs) we seem to want our websites to be silent landmines of evangelism.  Ask your priest, we say, as we provide a humble answer our humble selves.

When we know the faith is lived: the faith is communicated by hearing. 

For 2000 years, the reality of the Church has not been found in reading or writing, but in living in community.  While we have some amazing writers in the faith, the very well educated and verbose Fathers and Mothers of the Church are not the majority experience. Most clergy for most of the history of the Church have had enough education to manage the liturgies and feed their families.  The majority of parochial clergy dealt with laity who were not literate – and yet managed by God’s grace to live in holiness, raise children and die to the world.  Most Christians never wrote anything and only a terrible few could read. Icons, stained glass and frescos were the illustrated texts to which they had recourse. Most prayers were memorized, and the best use for a book of prayers was to keep it under the bed during child birth to protect the mother and child.

Nowadays when every Christian of any stripe writes a blog for a global audience, we forget that we (me) are presuming to take to ourselves (myself) the office entrusted to only a tiny handful of Christians in the past: the creation of written teaching texts.  And yet we do so as easily and fearlessly as if we were getting in our car to drive to Wal*Mart.

Lord have mercy on us all.

Columbus Day, 1984

This essay was first published in 1994, as it’s Columbus Day Weekend, I’ve recycled it. Iwasn’t Christian at that time so long ago, as you can tell by the closing comments, but I ask your prayers for Bessie Mae: may her memory be eternal. – DHR
My grandmother, having a fun time

In 1984, on Columbus Day. I was working for a presidential campaign. Mondale and Ferraro were not the most exciting pair imaginable. There was some hoopla over the lack of Y Chromosomes in Ms Ferraro’s blood stream, but she was a politician through and through: very skilled and stirring up the emotions of domesticated primates. She and her Alpha Male was not as skilled as the leaders of the Republicans but that’s OK. I was walking up the Parade Route at about noon. Behind the Candidates, and their secret service and the media vans, there was a crowd of supporters. We had been stationed along the route before the parade. The idea was to sort of flow into the parade behind the passing group as a sort of staged ground swell of support. The night before, another political campaign group had been climbing light poles all up and down Fifth Ave. to place posters of “Mark Greene for US Senate”. I had discovered that with the right assistance – someone else to hold the posters and the stapler – I could climb up the light poll and run a line of Greene posters out along the electrical wire and thus make these huge arches along over 5th Ave. This was especially useful at the Metropolitan Museum where the trees parted and the gray and white stone and sky formed a perfect backdrop to the green arches of Mark’s Posters.

In the fake, Grass Roots mob, I was leading a sort of Greek chorus in a chant. I would yell, “Mondale!” And then a host of women would yell back “Ferraro!” Several media persons had commented on how the lone man in the group seemed to be the only person yelling for Mondale. At about 60th Street, I was surprised to find that I had been joined by my Fraternity Brother, David. He put his arm around my shoulder and very simply said, “Your Grandmother has died.” David took me to place a call to Mom, and then put me on the subway. It was that day that I learned that crying on the NYC subway can get you nearly a whole car to yourself.

L-R, My Great Grandfather, Great Uncle Lyle, My Great Grandmother,  and my Grandmother.
On the wall are photos of my Great-Greats…

My grandmother, Gran’ma, Bessie Richardson, had raised me from the time I was 1 until I started school in the Fall of 1970. It was she that – for better or worse – taught me how to clean and use all sorts of kitchen things. My grandfather taught me how to build with tools and to do electrical wire stuff. But I was home all day with Gran’ma. Gran’pa was an evening and weekend kind of experience. When she wasn’t yelling at me to stop watching TV and to go outside and play, Gran’ma was getting her house in order. That’s all I can remember her doing. She’d clean. She’d cook. She’d bake bread. She’d make lunch. Gran’pa would come home. We’d eat lunch. Then we all took a nap. She’d clean, and get dinner ready. At night, after she had done the dishes, we’d watch TV while Gran’ma would crochet. On other nights, if there was a special movie, she would pop corn on the stove, or make fudge. Sometimes she would go back in her bedroom and play the little electric organ that sat on her trunk.

There are some special memories all tied up in sitting on her bed, feeling the chilled mix of air- conditioning and the satin-like bed spread, while she played and sang hymns from her old song books: “I come to the Garden Alone” and “The Old Rugged Cross” and “The Little Brown Church in the Dale.” I can’t imagine what memories those songs inspired in her. I know what they bring back to me.

She couldn’t really sing. She sang with a voice which crossed somewhere between the older Kathryn Hepburn and Harvey Firestien. I can still hear her, and I’m still smiling. She taught me how to play the organ and to crochet granny squares with the same patience and skill that my grandfather, Kenny, used to teach me wires, ohms and resistance and other science things like evolution and geology.

Grandma and her brother, Lyle

The family gathered in the home town of Edenville, Michigan. The town is very much trapped in the 40s and 50s. Sitting in a little pedal boat, you move up the local river very slowly, until rounding a bend you come upon a large dam. There, on the other side of it, time moves forward, but Edenville is still sitting in the time when my grandmother owned a restaurant and filled it with her daughters, cooking for the locals during the depression and WW2.

At the funeral, all that time ago, I preached the eulogy, as was fitting for the “Son” even though I was the oldest son of the youngest daughter, almost everyone in the family had met me through Gran’ma: my first trip to Michigan had been with her. I also sang, “I come to the Garden Alone”. It was her favorite. My cousin Greg played the organ in the funeral home while I sang. People cried. She had red roses all over her casket, or at least she does in my memory.

I’m not going anywhere with this story. It’s has just been on my mind all week, as I realized that Columbus day was coming up. Grandma was the center of her very large family: 7 daughters, her children’s children and the sisters and nieces and nephews and grand nieces and grand nephews. Her death was really the last time we were all together. The center had gone out and there were to be no other Matriarchs. In a large sense, there are now 7 matriarchs, all the sisters heading their own families, but I miss the days when we had a center. I could sit in her kitchen and look at the plates on the walls, from places that she had traveled with Gran’pa and I was constantly imagining a world that was no longer open to me: a world where she and Gran’pa had traveled after the war. The closest thing I’ve found so far is Muir Woods. That still looks the same as many of the pictures that were found in their albums. San Francisco, on the other hand, has changed greatly: the pictures I received from Gran’pa look nothing like the city in which I live. Those pictures were taken in 1961.

I miss my Grandmother. I have a lot of her in my heart and life: I still take my rings off when I bake bread. I can still make an afghan though it takes me months and months to do it because I won’t pick it up every night to work on it. I still believe in hard work, and when I don’t clean right, I can still hear her voice.

Anyway, I’ve rambled a long time. If the Internet is connected to the Astral Plane – as some people seem to believe – then Gran’ma’s continuing Ed class in Heaven has probably surfed this page a couple of times. I love you, Gran’ma. I miss you.

Mom hates this pic, lol.  But it’s rather a mid-century classic!