Pre-Christian Elements in the Celebration
of All Saints' Day and the Feast of All Faithful Departed

  

Essay by
Jennifer Monroe Franson

 

October 2001

  

All Saints' Day, which falls on November 1st, is one of the Principal Feasts of the Episcopal Church, as listed in the Book of Common Prayer.1 November 2nd marks the Feast of All Faithful Departed, which the Episcopal Church includes among the Lesser Feasts and Fasts. (November 2nd is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church as the Feast of All Souls and by our neighbors in Mexico as the Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead.) Both of these feasts, of course, follow hard on the heels of a widely celebrated and much-commercialized secular holiday — Halloween.

The pre-Christian Celts also celebrated an important festival at this time of year — Samhain (pronounced Sowin or Savin, depending upon which resources you consult). For the pagan Celts, Samhain (which fell on November 1st, the day midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice) marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Perhaps because of its unique status as a borderline time between two years, Samhain was felt to be a time when "the veil between the worlds grew thin," when two-way traffic between this world and the next was temporarily possible. For this reason, rituals honoring the dead played a central role in Celtic Samhain celebrations.

Is it a coincidence that Halloween and the feasts of All Saints and All Souls fall on essentially the same date as the ancient festival of Samhain? Hardly. Information abounds on the links between Samhain and the modern holiday of Halloween. Less widely known, however, are the connections between Samhain and the Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Let us take a brief look at some of those connections by examining the histories of these celebrations.
  

Celebrating Samhain

As mentioned above, the pagan Celts believed that on this one day of the year, the dead were able to return, albeit temporarily, from the other world; this made Samhain a logical time to honor those dead (and perhaps especially one's own dead ancestors). One way to honor these temporarily-returned dead was to offer them food and drink. Some sources seem to feel that this was done in a spirit of love and welcome; others suggest that bowls of food and wine were left outside the doors of houses to distract the dead and to keep them from coming inside! Other traditions included the lighting of bonfires at which the dead could warm themselves.2 Samhain was also viewed by the Celts (again, because of the "thinning of the veil" between worlds) as the most auspicious time for prophecy and attempts to see the future.3
  

The Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls

Early Christians, too, had celebrations to commemorate the dead; they honored martyrs on the anniversaries of their deaths.4 The persecution of the Emperor Diocletian in the 4th Century, however, led to the martyrdom of so many Christians that it was impossible to assign a separate day to each.5 This led to the designation of a day to honor all martyrs (later extended to include saints who were not martyrs as well); in the 8th Century, Pope Gregory III celebrated a feast of All Saints at the Basilica of St. Peter on November 1st. In the following century, Pope Gregory IV extended the November 1st All Saints' celebration to the entire Church.6 (In Medieval England, the Feast of All Saints was called All-Hallows or Hallowmas; the evening before was All Hallow Eve, or Hallow Even — thus Halloween.)7

The Feast of All Souls was established later in the Middle Ages and was intended to provide the dead with prayers to hasten their release from Purgatory.8 Although this celebration was held at first in May and then in early October, it had settled on November 2nd by the 14th Century.9 Alms were also given on behalf of the souls still in Purgatory.10

Thus two commemorations of the Christian dead — saints and martyrs on one day, souls in Purgatory on the next — came to be celebrated on the anniversary of the old pagan Samhain festival.
  

Connections

These brief histories reveal some important similarities between the Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls and the pre-Christian festival of Samhain. The first is the focus on the dead; both Samhain and the Feasts of All Saints / All Souls provide an occasion for remembering and honoring the departed. The second is the giving of gifts of food; ancient Celts celebrating Samhain offered gifts of food and drink to the wandering dead, Medieval Christians provided alms offerings, and in some places (Austria, for instance),11 All Saints' Day is still an occasion for giving donations of food to the poor. (The Samhain and All Souls' customs of giving food gifts live on most noticeably, of course, in the Halloween custom of trick-or-treating.) Another similarity (although this one may be coincidental) can be seen in the cycle of the year. The pagan year began with Samhain, at the beginning of November; the liturgical year of the Church begins, slightly later, with Advent.
  

Conclusions

Some fundamentalist Christians feel that the pagan "roots" of Halloween (and All Saints and All Souls Days) invalidate the latter as Christian celebrations. Some neo-Pagans, on the other hand, view the connections as proof of a newer religion's attempt to hijack their sacred days. Perhaps the real truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes. While it seems fairly certain that there are indeed connections between the old rites and our own, and that these connections are not coincidental, I would suggest that these links are in part attributable to the pragmatic yet compassionate policy of Pope Gregory the Great toward converts from pre-Christian religions. Rather than destroying pagan temples and outlawing pagan festivals, he ordered that both temples and holidays be turned to the service of God "to the end that whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted to them, they [the converts] may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God."12

  

© 2001 Jennifer Monroe Franson


  
Notes:
  1. "The Calendar of the Church Year", Book of Common Prayer (pdf), p. 15. Return to text
      
  2. "The Occasion and Purpose of the 'Mari Lwyd' Ceremony" by Ellen Ettlinger (in Man, v 44, pp. 89-93, 1944). Return to text
      
  3. Ibid. Return to text
      
  4. Catholic Encyclopedia Online, entry for All Saints' Day. Return to text
      
  5. Ibid. Return to text
      
  6. Ibid. Return to text
      
  7. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Return to text
      
  8. Catholic Encyclopedia Online, entry for All Souls' Day. Return to text
      
  9. Allerheiligen and Allerseelen website created by Robert Shea. Return to text
      
  10. Ibid. Return to text
      
  11. Allerheiligen and Allerseelen website created by Robert Shea. Return to text
      
  12. The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, by the Venerable Bede, quoted in "Pagan-Christian Calendar", Greenbelt Interfaith News website. Return to text
      

  
Originally prepared for a Christian education class at
St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church, Linda Vista,
in San Diego, California

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