As costume shops and chocolate company do a roaring trade in the lead up to Halloween and premature Christmas adverts are just around the corner Max Feldman searches for the origins of the Western World’s most popular festivals…
In a world where holiday festivals like Halloween and Valentine’s Day seem to primarily exist in order to justify executive bonuses for seasonal greeting card companies it’s easy to forget the murkiness of the origins of these consumerist bonanzas. Most people have a vague feeling that there was probably a ‘St Valentine’ somewhere in the mix (perhaps he converted a savage barbarian tribe whose religion revolved around pulling out the hearts of their enemies and gifting them to their *ahem* ‘sweethearts’?) but what about more obtuse celebrations like Easter where we teach children about the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling them that a magical rabbit left them chocolate eggs in the night? Even the most outside the box director might veto that particular adaptation as slightly too off the beaten track.
This is because nearly all of our seasonal holidays (religious and secular) have their beginnings in pagan festivals that the expanding Christian church, too afraid of their enduring popularity to risk banning outright, simply aggressively co-opted in a manner similar to how the Labour and Conservative parties will immediately stea-*ahem*re-purpose any policy that seems to be gaining traction (regardless of how it might seem to contradict core party ideology). As a result our festivals are a grab-bag of any and all traditions that the early church wasn’t able to stamp out.
Over 2,000 years ago, slightly before trick or treating came on the scene, October 31st was Samhain; a Celtic festival that marked the end of summer and beginning of winter (the Celtic new year fell on November 1st) Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and faeries and spirits walked the land. Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins and (rather similar to the modern day) would travel from door to door in their costumes and recite verse in exchange for some of the food and drink.
After the Romans conquered the Celts, Samhain continued though began to mutate as it took on new traditions, with apple bobbing being added as a tribute to the Roman Goddess of fruit and leaves, Pomona (whose symbol was an apple). By the 9th Century the Catholic church, sensing that Samhain wasn’t going anywhere and nervous about the potential challenge to Church theology, changed their newly established All Martyr’s Day into All Saints’ Day (a day which celebrated all of God’s chosen rather than those lucky few who had been boiled in a pot by cannibal heathens) and changed the date from May 13th to November 1st. In 1000 A.D, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils.
The All Saints’ Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Halloween took off in America thanks to the large quantity of Irish immigrants who helped revive traditions such as going door to door and performing in costume for food and drink which kept the traditions alive as they began to die out in the European heartland. Overtime it slowly developed into the corporate behemoth that of its current form (Rather terrifyingly one quarter of all the sweets sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween.) and was then exported back across the Atlantic to its European homeland, not that anyone who complained about the ‘Americanisation’ of British culture saw it as a triumphant homecoming.
This model of stealing popular Pagan traditions in order to gain ideological street cred wasn’t just limited to relatively theologically minor festivals like Samhain however. Even Christianity’s most holy days dipped deeply into the well of prior pagan institutions. Even Christmas, ostensibly the birth of Jesus, is a complete hotchpotch of different traditions. Historians have great difficulty pinpointing the exact date of Jesus’s birth, but are in fairly unanimous agreement that it certainly wasn’t December 25th or even A.D. 1 (based on solar activity there is something approaching consensus that it was June 2nd A.D. 2). The date now occupied by Christmas was used by a huge number of pagan religions for their Winter Solstice, a celebration which (rather fittingly going by Christian theology) rejoiced in the rebirth of the sun and the renovation of life.
Of these various festivals the Roman festival of Saturnalia in particular might seem familiar to those au fait with the Christmas spirit: “In private the day [Saturnalia] began with the sacrifice of a young pig…all ranks devoted themselves to feasting and mirth, presents were interchanged among friends, and crowds thronged the streets, shouting ‘lo Saturnalia!’” (“Oscilla,” Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 3rd ed, vol. 2). In addition Figurines and masks, called “oscilla,” were hung on decorative trees, all traditions that would survive in a new Christian form. Ironically the Bible actually had some pretty sharp words about this sort of thing: “Learn not the way of the heathen… For the customs of the people are vain: for one cuts a tree out of the forest…They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” (Jerimiah 10:2-4) but why let the literal biblical truth get in the way of a good tradition?