Oops – too early (or late, depending how you count). No, it’s Christmas, obviously. At least, you might well think so from the deluge of pre-Christmas advertising on the radio and in the supermarkets, but that’s the wrong date – I’m too late to complain about that, since the pre-Christmas advertising started around July and the shops have a confusing mixture of Hallowe’en and Christmas goodies sitting on the shelves, with the ghouls and the robins uncomfortably side-by-side.
Aha! Now we’re getting there! The feast day that seems to give people the creeps (and not in a good way), the scariest night of the year – Reformation Day! Yes, once again, we dread the approach of that season when Lutherans dress up as Martin Luther (either pre- or post-Augustinian monk version) and go from door to door, marrying ex-nuns, throwing inkpots at the Devil (or anyone they perceive to be the same), insulting the Pope and playing “beer or table!” (the game where they demand beer which they guzzle down while exclaiming “Sin boldly!” or else, should the householders refuse to give over their beer, they read copious extracts from his “Table Talk” in the original German of the 1566 volume. Nothing gets you to pony up the booze faster than the threat of having to listen to pages of German theology in German).
Well, perhaps not. Perhaps I mean that much-misunderstood day which we refer to as Hallowe’en, the Eve of All Hallows Day, the day before the Feast of All Saints. The day which has given concern to many sincere people of all denominations about the pagan origins, roots and holdovers of the festival and caused them to worry that permitting one’s children to participate in this merely encourages, if not outright delivers them over to, fascination with the occult. Witches, ghosts, devils, ghouls, zombies, vampires and the shenanigans adults get up to at boozy, licentious parties where they use the excuse of dressing up in order to garb themselves as floozies and tarts and horny little devils. Never mind teaching young children that greed and over-indulgence in sugar and chocolate is good, and the pranks older children get up to which are not at all funny but are rather acts of minor (and sometimes major) vandalism – how or why on earth would any decent person go along with one more symptom of cultural excess and decay?
I have posted before about the saints, so I’m not going to examine All Hallows’ Eve in that light. Yes, Hallowe’en is about death. Yes, Hallowe’en has pagan origins. However, it depends on what pagans you mean. Here I am going to turn the neo-pagan arguments back on them (and thank God for Google; I haven’t read any of these books myself, but looking for a handy reference to quote turned up some gems); let’s take the usual arguments as given in a leaflet issued by the British Pagan Federation for Hallowe’en 1994, as extracted in Ronald Hutton’s “Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain”:
Christianity not only suppressed old Celtic celebrations, but also replaced them with Christian festivals. If we look closely, it is not difficult to see that All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) is a continuation in a Christian form of the older Pagan practices of Samhain. This is a time when on the continent Catholic families will visit the family tomb, say prayers for the dead, light candles and even picnic at the graveside. Just as their Pagan ancestors did, they are communing with the dead.
Depending on who those continental Catholics are, and when they do it, they are continuing to commune with the dead, but not quite as their Pagan ancestors did, and not in the same way, and most emphatically not on the same date. You may be attempting to reclaim the tradition, but here you have it backward. Those continental Catholics are visiting family graves on 2nd November thanks to a 9th century pope, Gregory IV. He moved the traditional Feast of All Saints from May 13th to November 1st and since the Feast of All Souls comes after All Saints…well, there you have it. Exactly why Gregory did this does not seem to be known; there are claims that it was due to Irish or German influence, but Gregory was a Roman whose main involvements (outside of church affairs) were trying to deal with the quarrels of the Carolingians and then the invasions of the Saracens after that. It was Gregory who got the Holy Roman Emperor Louis (one of those quarrelling Carolingians) to proclaim the observance of the feast of All Saints throughout the empire, and so we neatly come back to why the continental Catholics visit graveyards on the 2nd November.
The old date of May 13th did have pagan death festival connotations (and how many times do you get to say “pagan death festival” when talking about a Christian topic?) Every culture on this planet has harvest festivals to mark the bringing in of the main crops and the end of the growing season, festivals to honour the ancestors, festivals to propitiate spirits and tales, superstitions and customs regarding ghosts and the dead. Try Malaysian and Indonesian ghost stories for truly terrifying revenants who become the restless (and malevolent) dead for all kinds of reasons.
Attempts have been made to link Hallowe’en and harvest festivals, but they don’t map so neatly onto each other. The Romans had a festival for Pomona, the goddess of orchards, but this was in mid-August so it is both too early for the end of October/start of November season and Pomona was not so much a goddess of the harvest as she was of the care and growth of fruit trees, so she can’t be fitted in as associated with death or ending. The Romans did have several feasts of the dead; the Parentalia in mid-February which honoured the ancestral dead and where offerings were made at family tombs, culminating in the Feralia to appease and propitiate any angry dead. There was also the Lemuria in May when the spirits of the dead, which were supposed to return to their old homes, were exorcised and again any malevolent spirits or the forgotten dead were appeased and expelled. This gives us the date of 13th May when, in the 7th century, Pope St. Boniface IV established the feast of All Saints and is supposed to have consecrated on 13th May the church of the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs (formerly the Pantheon, or temple dedicated to all the gods of Rome), and in continuous use since its rebuilding in the 1st century so that yes, this is a real, actual former pagan temple used as a Catholic church. You can see a video of the custom where, on Pentecost, the firemen of Rome drop rose petals through the open oculus.
Okay, so we seem to have a link between a pagan festival of the dead and All Saints’ Day at least in Rome – but that is not simply one religion displacing another and taking over its works lock, stock and barrel. For a start, there is a tradition that the 4th century St. Ephrem the Syriac wrote of a general feast celebrating all saints and that probably influenced Boniface as much or more than any connections with the Lemuria. The Lemuria is also more along the lines of the Chinese Feast of Hungry Ghosts, which occurs in the 7th month of the Chinese calendar (around August/September by the Western calendar).
If we want the pagan sources of Hallowe’en, we’re stuck with blaming the Irish (and the Scots and Welsh). Here is where the irony comes in – Hallowe’en was not a particularly big deal until the Irish and Scots immigrants to the United States brought their customs and traditions with them. It wasn’t a big deal in England itself, where up until recently their big celebration night in November was Bonfire Night on 5th November, celebrating the failure of a Catholic plot to blow up Parliament with the King in attendance. With the re-exportation of American popular culture to Europe, areas where Hallowe’en had never before been celebrated adopted the American version of it, to the point where the Americanised version has pretty much replaced the native Irish version (for one thing, pumpkins are a heck of a lot easier to carve than turnips, any day).
So neo-pagans and Wiccans, I’m sorry, but instead of a grand pan-European native traditional festival co-opted as its own by the evil invading Church, what we have is a feastday of the universal Church that reached maximum exposure and popularity after the 12th century, was strongly associated with the Holy Souls in Purgatory, was repressed by the Reformation precisely because of its association with the cultus of the saints and which survived and indeed, thrived, only where Catholic culture was either dominant or introduced: e.g. the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ may indeed incorporate pre-Christian elements but, once again, the native celebration was associated with a goddess of death in August, not November and the souls of the departed, so it owes much more to the efforts of the Spanish missionaries. The prime example, as I have said, is the effect of Irish immigrants on American popular culture and the global acculturation due to American dominance in popular entertainment like movies and television.
And here is where the reclaiming of the reclaiming comes in: to reclaim Hallowe’en (and the forgotten but no less important two days after 31st October) as a Christian festival from the moderns (whether pagan or Christian) who are rushing to hand it over as a purely pagan and occult feast. Hallowe’en is a time of death and the powers of the underworld and the human beings faced with those realities. The point I wish to make with regard to the pre-Christian views of death and the underworld, and the festivals associated with them, is that they revolve around not worship but fear. The dead must be remembered and treated appropriately, for their fate in the underworld depends upon the help they receive from the living, and if they are neglected or forgotten, they will take vengeance. The dead resent the living, and those whose lives are cut short by violence or accident or sudden death in manifold forms need to be appeased and propitiated. The underworld of Babylonian and Sumerian mythology is “a house of dust”; the dead eat clay, are clad in feathers, and suffer under the reign of demonic figures. The Jewish Sheol is inhabited by shades without strength or personality, and both the righteous and the unrighteous go down there in death. The twittering ghosts of the Greeks are little better; they can speak only when they drink the blood of sacrificed animals, which brings back their memory and personality (see Leviticus 17:14: “For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off” and vampires – not the sparkly Twilight ones or the past century’s re-imagining of them, but the original folklore of the undead devouring the blood and life of their kindred to survive in a literally hellish mockery of life).
When Odysseus travels to the underworld to speak to the ghost of the prophet Tiresias, he sees there Achilles, and greets him as “blessed in life, blessed in death” but Achilles replies that he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than be king of all the dead. Even in the Jewish ritual purity laws about contamination from touching or being in the presence of a dead body, we can see an echo of this fear of the dead, which makes Tobit’s charity in burying the dead even more laudable. So in the pre-Christian era, death was inevitable, it was a source of spiritual pollution, the dead were to be feared and bribed not to do harm to the living, and although something like a ghost or shade continued after physical death, it was a wretched, paltry existence.
Willingly communing with the dead was the province of witches and sorcerers, because no sane normal person wanted to attract the attention of the spirits, as can be seen from the ritual of the Lemuria as described in this extract from Ovid’s “Fasti” (poems explaining the origin of Roman holidays in the calendar and the customs associated with them):
When midnight has come and lends silence to sleep,
And dogs and all you varied fowls are hushed,
The worshipper who bears the olden rite in mind and fears the gods
Arises; no knots constrict his feet;
And he makes a sign with his thumb in the middle of his closed fingers
Lest in his silence an unsubstantial shade should meet him.
And after washing his hands clean in spring water, he turns,
And first he receives black beans and throws them away with face averted;
But while he throws them, he says:
“These I cast; with these beans I redeem me and mine.”
This he says nine times, without looking back:
The shade is thought to gather the beans, and to follow unseen behind.
Again he touches water, and clashes Temesan bronze,
And asks the shade to go out of his house.
When he has said nine times, “Ghost of my fathers, go forth!”
He looks back, and thinks that he has duly performed the sacred rites.
Irish (and all the other Celtic nations) folk traditions were not so very dissimilar. In the pre-Christian past, the festival of Samhain was one of the four ‘quarter days’ of the year. To be contrary, these were not celebrated on the astronomical year dates of the equinoxes or solstices (when most festivals are celebrated globally; think of Passover and Easter at the Spring Equinox) or the meteorological seasons of March/Spring, June/Summer, September/Autumn and December/Winter but dates in-between these times: Imbolc in February, Bealtaine in May, Lúnasa in August and Samhain in November.
Samhain was the “hinge of the year” when the old year ended and the new one began; it was a numinous and luminal time, when this world and the Otherworld mingled and interpenetrated one another. Just as all kinds of spirits could wander freely into our world on that night, so mortals could wander into the realm of the fairies. The division between the realms of the living and the dead was blurred, so that the dead could revisit their homes or other places close to them, and the living could mingle with the dead (as in this 19th century translation of the folktale of Teig O’Kane and the Corpse.)
Moreover, naturally, because it was a time in-between times, when the mortal and the magical realms overlapped, it was a time for all kinds of divinatory games and charms and scrying the future. These kinds of superstitions lingered a long time, down to relatively recent times; since the spirits would be wandering around after dark, people were supposed to stay close to home and not go out – so the children (and adults) who went around gathering nuts and apples (or nowadays, in the Americanised version, sweets and chocolate) did so early in the evening, they sang songs or danced or provided some kind of entertainment before receiving the gifts from the houses they visited. To confuse the spirits (this was in the days before commercially-available costumes and masks were in every shop window and before everyone wore jeans and unisex clothing as a matter of course), they would go in disguise; blackening their faces with burnt cork if they couldn’t make or afford a mask and (for girls) dressing up as boys with their hair tucked under caps and wearing trousers and (for boys) dressing up as girls – maybe not in skirts, but wearing women’s aprons and veils and the like. Yes, cross-dressing and casting spells all in the one night!
There was also the custom (now almost completely died away, or at least, I haven’t heard of anyone doing it in donkey’s years) which I knew from my childhood where the dead were supposed to return to visit the house, so you left bread and water out for them and made sure the fire was warm and the front door unlocked (obviously, this was back in the days When You Could Leave Your Front Door Unlocked without every burglar and ne’er-do-well in the country marching in). You can see the resemblance with the pagan festivals of the dead right there. The Cork poet Patrick Galvin wrote a poem about it:
On All Soul’s Night
My father said the aunt was due.
We set a table near the fire
A glass of wine, a loaf of bread.
Was that the way to greet the dead?
My father said it was.
At three o’clock the aunt arrived
I heard her knocking at the door
And I went down to let her in.
Her eyes were wide and black as sloes
And she had clay upon her clothes
And she was thin.
Her breath was cold.
And as we sat beside the fire
I asked her if she’d like some wine.
She said she never touched the stuff
And honest bread was quite enough
When you were dead.
I watched her eating for an hour
And saw the grave beneath the skin
The moonlight through the bone.
Now and then she coughed and cried
And said she wished she hadn’t died
The nights were chill.
At four o’clock she rose to go
But as she reached the kitchen door
She turned and kissed me on the lips
And then she smiled -
When you are not your father’s child
We two shall wed.
So what has Christianity to do with this worldview? Quite simply, Christ has conquered death. The reason that Mexicans make sugar skeletons and even we benighted Irish thought of the revenant dead as visitants from Purgatory to be welcomed, not feared and driven out is the reason given in 2 Timothy 1:10: “(A)nd which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” The world is not the battleground of two equal and opposite forces, Good and Evil; evil is the weaker, the inferior, the already defeated. It is an emptiness, a lack, a thing that is no-thing of itself. God is not the opponent of the Devil, He is the Lord and Creator who, in the Second Person of the Trinity, has died and risen from the dead. And so we who are baptised die with Christ to be raised like Christ; Romans 6: 3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
For Christians, the dead are in the hands of God. They do not gibber and squeak as poor, mindless relicts that have to lap up animal blood even to recall who they used to be in life, nor do they turn into monstrous horrors that subsist only to take vengeance on the living who enjoy all that they have lost and are cut off from. They are our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in Christ. But even more than that, we believe in the resurrection of the body. We do not believe in a dualist universe of ‘matter bad, spirit good’ where the soul, once freed from the shackles of the flesh, can then gladly ascend to an immaterial heaven. There will come the end of the world – and the creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth, where the dead shall once again take on their old bodies, but in a glorified form. If ghosts and zombies represent two of the primal fears about death and the dead – the disembodied spirit and the animated corpse – then the Resurrection shows us the right relation between the two: to be united eternally in a state that is fit for them both. To quote from Tolkien’s “Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth” (where fëa refers to the soul and hröa to the body) and the characters are discussing this very point about a soul created eternal being in a material and limited body. One of them proposes that the best case scenario regarding death is therefore that the soul should eventually leave the body of its own accord, without being forced out by either violent or natural death, and the other disagrees :
“For that would be contempt of the body, and is a thought of the Darkness unnatural in any of the Incarnate whose life uncorrupted is a union of mutual love. But the body is not an inn to keep a traveller warm for a night, ere he goes on his way, and then to receive another. It is a house made for one dweller only, indeed not only house but raiment also; and it is not clear to me that we should in this case speak only of the raiment being fitted to the wearer rather than of the wearer being fitted to the raiment.
I hold then that it is not to be thought that the severance of these two could be according to the true nature of Men. For were it “natural” for the body to be abandoned and die, but “natural” for the fëa to live on, then there would indeed be a disharmony in Man, and his parts would not be united by love. His body would be a hindrance at best, or a chain. An imposition indeed, not a gift.
…I hold that in this we are as ye are, truly Incarnates, and that we do not live in our right being and its fullness save in a union of love and peace between the House and the Dweller. Wherefore death, which divides them, is a disaster to both.”
…“Then this must surely follow: the fëa when it departs must take with it the hröa. And what can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time?”
All of which is to say that, of all things, a Season Two episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (called “Halloween”, unsurprisingly) had the right approach: this is the one night of the year that vampires and demons don’t go out but leave it to kids to dress up in silly ‘scary’ costumes. So don’t worry about letting your children (or yourselves) dress up as witches and ghosts and vampires and what-not. If you really are that worried about it, let them dress up as their favourite saints (or the saints or Bible characters they are named after). This will handily fulfill the requirements of both piety and gore, as most saints died reliably horrible deaths, when they weren’t causing them (Lucy? Eyeballs on a plate! The Apostle Matthew? Death by axe! Judith or Deborah from the Old Testament? Severed head with sword or severed head with tentpeg driven through the temple!) Don’t fret about the occult and witchcraft and sinister pagan overtones. Take the example of two very disparate sources, as quoted on the title-page of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”:
“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” – Luther
“The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.” – Thomas More
Because what are these children’s games and scary movies and fake cobwebs and plastic skeletons saying? They are saying that the great powers, like the Thessalian witches who boasted they could draw down the moon, are nowadays only fit to be fodder for little girls who want to eat candy. The spirits and demons which made people shiver in fear and stay safely indoors beside their fire are decorations for houses and shops. The rituals of propitiation which safeguarded humans for millennia are no longer needed, because these powers are defeated and broken.
So take back Hallowe’en as a Christian celebration, because it is not the season of the witch, it is the season of All Saints and All Souls, when we remember our dead, we contemplate our latter end, and we do not fear it or them. Read scary stories and watch scary movies and hide your face behind the cushion – then laugh at yourself for doing so.
My recommendations for some holiday reading and watching? Ray Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree” — a children’s book, but worth reading by adults as well – and “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. “The Screwtape Letters”, obviously. The movie of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” “Fright Night” (the original, not the remake, and yes, the characters supposed to be high-school students are too old for their roles, but Roddy McDowall is superb and spot-on in his part). It also has the advantage of showing the pitfalls of the two equal and opposite errors with regard to the supernatural: (i) too little belief, which leads to dangerously under-estimating the threat and leaves you spiritually as well as physically vulnerable and (ii) too much belief, which leads to fascination and unhealthy obsession with it and also leaves you spiritually and physically vulnerable.
The 1932 Boris Karloff version of “The Mummy” which, yes, is as cheesy and melodramatic as you would expect, but check out Boris who is amazing as the Mummy and marvel at what simple make-up could achieve before the days of CGI. For over-the-top but fitting a Poe adaptation, Roger Corman’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (or indeed, any of his Poe adaptations, though some were very loosely adapted indeed). For over-the-top horror-comedy (much more comedy than horror, featuring a cast of seasoned old troupers like Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone who have no qualms or illusions about what they’re doing), “The Comedy of Terrors” and “The Raven.” For sheer scare-the-socks-off-you (well, it did me), the original (again, not the remake) “The Haunting of Hill House”.
Or you could always dress up as Martin Luther and go around from house to house throwing inkpots at the Devil and demanding beer.