The Mask of Halloween

Yer Host on the Hill of Tara, circa 1990. Photo by L Chow


NB: I edit and repost this essay most every year, I know. Archive has this going back to at least 2006, although it says there that I was reposting it again, so, at least 2005? Anyway, it’s still good.

On the Hill of Tara, seat of the High Kings of Ireland, there is a mound with a passage burrowing into its heart. This hill is called the Mound of Hostages. Once a year, as the sun passes the half-way point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solistice, the sunlight stabs through the passage and illuminates three spirals carved on the wall at the back of the mound. What does that mean? We don’t know. The Celts did not leave us anything in writing and all the written content we have about them was drafted by Christians long after the fact. It does indicate that the half-way point from Autumn to Winter was important for some reason. But it doesn’t tell us why. Although the midway point shifts slightly from year to year and also drifts in time because of the Precession of the Equinox, it’s important to note that currently the halfway point is always around 7 November. A thousand years ago, that would be closer to 1 November, closer to the date we know in the Church as All Saints Day.

Is there a connection between the celebration of the one, a pagan holiday and the other, a Christian liturgical feast? Some moderns – both Christian and Pagan – would like to think so.

A good deal of the modern evangelical, fundamentalist, and Eastern Orthodox (mostly-convert) 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. We were all forgetting that the Orthodox Western Rite folks all celebrate All Saints Day with the Christian West; so, 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. Did they all steal it from the Pagans?

It is my assertion that the celebration of All Hallows eve as such is Christian; that is was never Pagan. So, how do we get here? It starts with a Greek Christian far removed from the Irish.

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 have universal jurisdiction, this holiday would have, of course, only applied to those dioceses and parishes under his patriarchate. This celebration seemed like a good idea and it spread to various churches in the East and the West.

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. It still is, in fact. This was the beginning of All Saints’ Day in the West.

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.

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. 31 October/1 November is not a Pagan festival: it is a traditional celebration of the unified, Roman and Orthodox Church – if you insist on limiting that title to western events before the 11th century. It’s important to note two things: (a) this new feast in the West begins after the coming of St Augustine to Canterbury in 587 (when the Roman Church first met Samhain); and (b) it doesn’t begin on 1 November. These are important points because erroneously claim that Augustine baptized a pagan feast day he found in England and that it came back to Rome. Nope. Sorry.

In point of fact, Augustine met Christians already present in England. Where did they come from? From Ireland. Patrick had converted the Irish 100 years before Augustine ever got around to visiting the area. The Celtic Church knew nothing of All Saints Day – it hadn’t been invented yet. And the Catholics of Ireland had no need to have a pagan feast day baptized for their conversion: they were already Catholics. Augustine rather famously did baptize a lot of local pagan shrines: but it was to win converts from the Angles and the Saxons – not the Celts.

The Roman Church was commemorating the consecration of an important religious shrine. The Western Calendar is actually has several feast days like that: the celebration of a church dedicated to X becomes a feast day of X-itself. The anniversary of the consecration of the holiest church in Jerusalem becomes Holy Cross Day. The anniversary of the consecration of a church dedicated to St Michael becomes Michaelmas. The anniversary of the consecration of a church dedicated to All the Saints becomes All Saints Day.

The Pagans
We note that Pagan holidays were not celebrated on fixed calendars.  Not every Pagan European culture had a festival at this point in the year – the late fall or beginning point of winter. Pre-Christian Rome did not have a festival at this point of the year at all, although we’ve cited the Hill of Tara – which was outside of the Empire. Ireland had that passage grave but we cross a line if we can assume – from such scanty evidence – that the entire island of Eire was on the same cultural calendar.

The bards, writing in the Christian era, report the feast between Autumn and Winter was celebrated on the Hill of Tara with the Ard Rí – the High King. Bonfires were lit that night. 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 might be that the dead might be invoked or appeased at harvest time… but that’s it. Since the ancient religions did not write stuff down, we have no way of knowing from Pagan sources in situ 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 may have made that up too. 

The Lia Fail, The Stone of Destiny, on the Hill of Tara, circa 1990

We can say “might” and “maybe” all we want. Does the passage grave indicate the timing of the Feast of Tara? Does it validate the bardic story at all? We don’t know, although it’s a good guess. It does show that the astronomical point – not a calendar date, per se – was marked at Tara. Ditto the other bits of pagan Ireland and England: New Grange marks the winter solstice, not 21 December. Stonehenge marks the Summer Solstice (among other events). 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 – or 1 November.

31 October as Celtic Santeria.
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 party a week or so over 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.

The Celtic tribes covered up their pagan traditions with a Catholic overlay. But the Church didn’t do that, as such: the Pagans pretended to be Catholics to blend in. It was not the Church adopting Pagan Customs. We see the same blending-in in Yoruban cultures where their Afro-Caribbean and South American cultures adopt Catholicism as a cover for their African Gods. A statue of  St Martin de Porres is worshiped as an image of the Yoruban deity, Elegba. Does this mean that St Martin was stolen from the Yoruban peoples? No: it means the Yoruban people, to cover up and yet maintain their ancient faith, use Catholic symbols. Any priest would see only a statue of a very holy Dominican Tertiary. Likewise, we should more honestly say the ancient Pagans, to avoid persecution by the Church, stole a Christian Holiday.

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: in England, 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.

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 desire for things that “feel ancient” and, like us, they tended to make stuff up when they didn’t know the answer. Let’s 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 Martin’s day, 11 November, which is a European Thanksgiving feast. It was also the custom in some places to dress in costumes on St Martins day. Some even have children going door to door on this day. Coincidentally, this was also – for a few hundred years – the Julian Calendar Date for 31 October. So, make of that what you will.

It is this odd American Thanksgiving custom which was moved to American 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. So follow this: Prot Americans adopt Catholic Customs from St Martin’s Day, move them to Thanksgiving (which was, really, a bit too late in the year to go trick or treating); then we culturally move them to a Catholic Holiday, commercialize them, market them to the rest of the world and then – to validate it – claim it’s not mid-20th Century Marketing, but rather Ancient Celtic Tradition… and poof! we’ve all been duped into spreading the marketing ploy.

Everything else we claim to know about the holiday is from this American Marketing. So we like to blame wearing masks on the ancient Celts. We claim the sweets used to be foods left outside, 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. Having made up a pretty fun holiday (admit it!) it caught on! Even Europeans now like this idea.

In short: the Church had no need for a Pagan Holiday, but there was a counter-need.

Aztec Skulls

The Aztecs?
Because huge parts of America are, largely, encultured by folks from Mexico and further South, it’s worth talking about the Day of the Dead, Dìa de los Muertos. It’s one of my favourite times of the year to switch cultures: it’s practically a public Holiday in San Francisco. We may have no idea at all what the ancient Celts did, but the Day of the Dead is a living, evolving tradition. Some Protestant commentaries are quick to point out that this is Paganism+Catholicism. But it is Catholicism – not paganism – that rules the day. When it is the other way around, it is a stolen holiday (again, stolen by the Neopagans).

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. These were the ghosts of human sacrifices, as well as the ghosts of the beloved dead.

Within a few decades of the Spanish conquest, all the traditions of these festivals had been transferred to the Catholic 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, baptized when they got there. There were no human sacrifices anymore. But people still wanted to commemorate their dead.

For Pagans this was a way to blend in, a half-way ground. Yet these ancient traditions were seen by the Church 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 really 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 lawsuit nonetheless. That said, let’s be honest: most of the secular version of holy days 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 and catholic 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.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

%d bloggers like this: