Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day

Shane Claiborne recently shared a Halloween/All Saints Day reflection via his Facebook page. Part of this reflection reads as follows.

Before there was "Halloween," there was "All Hallows' Eve" – and All Saints Day. For hundreds of years, before jack-o-lanterns and zombies and candy corn, Christians around the world have remembered the dead, the saints, the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us.

Halloween comes from the same root word as "hallowed" or "halo", meaning holy. This weekend liturgical Christians around the world honor "all saints day" by reciting the names of the holy saints of God throughout the centuries.

Rather than glorifying death, Halloween is a time we can celebrate life, remembering the lives of our loved ones and the heroes of the faith. The dead can inspire the living to truly live.

. . . Halloween is a time to remember how "hallowed" – how holy – life is. And how death has lost its power over us.

Halloween is a time to cherish life, laugh at death, and remember that the tombs are empty.

Oh death, Thou art dead! . . .

Clairborne is correct in saying that what we now call Halloween has roots in the Catholic celebrations of November 1, “All Hollows Day” (or “All Saints Day”), and November 2, “All Souls Day.”

Yet the spiritual significance of the timing of these holidays (or holy days) pre-dates Christianity. After all, key elements of Halloween developed from a pagan holy day, namely the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) which for the earth/Goddess-based religions of ancient Europe was the eve of the new year. It was a time when the dead were remembered and when it was believed the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest and people and spirits could pass back and forth between the two worlds. Huge bonfires were lit on hilltops – some say to frighten away evil spirits; others, to warm the souls of the departed. Perhaps both.

Samhain was (and, for neo-pagans, remains) an important sabbat or holiday of the seasonal cycle, also known as the myth of the Wheel of the Year. This cycle is a key way in which one can see the processes of birth, growth, death, and rebirth played out. The various sabbats of the cycle call people to remember how holy all life is, and remind us that death isn't the end of life but rather a part of its cycle.

Given the message that is collectively conveyed by the key sabbats of the pagan seasonal cycle, one can begin to understand why the Catholic church appropriated a number of them to mark its own spiritual understandings, many of which share with paganism the themes of transformation and life beyond death. This really shouldn't be that surprising. After all, humanity's spiritual heritage is older than Christianity. It's therefore disappointing when well-known Christians like Shane Claiborne write about, for example, All Saints and All Souls Day yet don't acknowledge the deeper spiritual roots of these holy days.

Thankfully others aren't so hesitant. Bernd Biege, for instance, writes the following about the pagan roots of All Saints Day.

Since around the middle of the 4th century Christians set aside a special day in honor of all saints. And Saint Chrysostom fixed the date as the first Sunday after Whitsuntide. Pope Boniface IV in 609, however, converted this moveable feast into a fixed date, May 13th. But Pope Gregory III moved the feast again, this time to November 1st.

Why such a change? Historians point to simple economics - Rome was literally swamped by pilgrims on All Saints Day and the larders were running low in spring. So Gregory III sensible pushed the feast to the end of the harvest period.

Other theories point the finger firmly at the Irish. They were still feasting at Samhain, so a Christian alternative had to be provided. Not unusual - the date of Christmas, after all, was replacing winter solstice celebrations. And in Ireland Imbolc was replaced by Saint Brigid's Day. Early popes pushed such "syncretisms," the incorporation of pagan lore into Christianity.

Thus a Celtic day of reflection, new beginnings and communication with the otherworlds was usurped by a similar yet Christian feast.

Skeptical? It might just be coincidence, but May 13th also marked the Lemuria, the ancient Roman Feast of the Dead.

Personally, at this time of year, I like to gather all the names, origins, meanings, and dates and speak simply of Hallowtide, and emphasize the transformative power, the witch power, the time calls to mind.

I close by sharing two short excerpts from The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess by Starhawk. First published in 1977, The Spiral Dance has become a classic resource on Wicca and modern witchcraft, feminist theology, the Goddess movement, and eco-feminism. For many, the book is distinguished by its visionary mysticism and its highlighting of a "broad philosophy of harmony with nature" and an ecstatic consciousness.

These excerpts focus on the above mentioned seasonal cycle or myth of the Wheel of the Year. As you read them, I invite you to consider how the basic elements and themes of this myth mirror those of Christianity as celebrated in various holy days of the church's liturgical year, which, I would go so far as to suggest, is itself modeled on the ancient (i.e., pagan) Wheel of the Year.

Each key event in the myth [of the Wheel of the Year] is linked to one of the Sabbats. On Samhain, the Year Child of possibility is conceived. On the Winter Solstice, the Child is born. At the Feast of Brigid, the Child becomes the Promise we make to the cauldron [which in many Goddess-based religions is the center of the communal circle and the point of transformation] which sets our challenge for the year. At the Spring Equinox, the Child of Promise becomes the Child of Balance, who grows at Beltane [above left] into the Rising Desire that culminates at Summer Solstice and passes over into its opposite, the One Who Descends, who Gives Away, the Dreamer. At Lammas we hold the wake of the dying sun, and by Fall Equinox the Dreamer becomes our Guide into the place where birth, death, and regeneration are one. And so at Samhain the cycle ends and begins anew.

Starhawk then gives an example of how the seasonal cycle reveals itself in a particular locale, namely her home in northern California.

[We] begin when the year grows dark, but the very cold winter brings the heavy rains that renew the land. At Samhain, the Year Child is conceived, and Possibility manifests as the miracle greening of the hills. On the Winter Solstice, the Year is born in the time of gestation, and at Brigid, when fruit trees flower, bulbs blossom, and buds swell, the Promise of the Year is shown to us. The Spring Equinox is the Balance time, of day and night, of sun and rain, and at Beltane we say farewell to rain and dance Desire as the green hills blush with silver and fade to gold. At Summer Solstice, the Year gives itself away, the grass dies and turns brown, and the land is covered with a shroud of fog. At Lammas we keep the Wake of the Year and hope for the harvest as fruits begin into the Dreamtime of winter, which brings with it the return of the life-renewing rain. And so, at Samhain, the miracle renews itself, and even as fruits fall to earth, so new grasses sprout and cloak the land in green.

And so the Wheel turns, on and on.

Related Off-site Links:
Christian Feast and Celtic Beliefs in Samhain – Jack Santino (
Changing Ireland's Samhain Into Halloween: How Samhain took on a New Meaning – Bernd Biege (
Why We Need LGBT Saints – Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love Blog, October 30, 2015).
Remembering Fr. John McNeill, Gay Prophet and Pioneer, on All Saints Day – Bob Shine (Bondings 2.0, November 1, 2015).

See also the previous Hallowtide posts:
Halloween Thoughts
Our Sacred Journey Continues: An All Saints and Souls Day Reflection
A Hallowtide Reflection
The Ground Zero Papal Prayer Service . . . and a Reminder of the Spirituality That Transcends What All the Religions Claim to Represent
"I Caught a Glimpse of a God"
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Images: Michael J. Bayly, except the Beltane image of the Green Man and May Queen which is by Danny Williams (BBC).


Liam said...

Actually, All Saints has zip to do with the Celtic year. Turns out, it was based entirely on Roman things.

The original Roman Christian memorial of all saints was the anniversary of the rededication of the Pantheon as a Christian church under the title of St Mary and All Martyrs (in May). (The Eastern churches chose a day after Pentecost for their observance.) Eventually, the Roman observance shifted to anniversary feast of the dedication of a chapel shrine to all saints in St Peter's basilica on November 1, which anniversary became the universal one in the Roman calendar. Nothing to do with Celtic calendar; Rome was not former Celtic territory.

Unfortunately, there's a great deal of creaky attributions (from the Golden Legend onward) to pagan practices that actual scholars have been poking through over the past generation. (Like that Christmas was put on the calendar to displace the former Roman feast of Sol Invictus. Not so tidy. As it turns out, it derives from the notional dating of the first Paschal event.) The latter-day pagan characterizations of former Celtic feasts is pretty creaky in places, too. Beliefs, fortunately, don't have to be fact-based.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for this information, Liam. To my mind it doesn’t undermine the central idea of my post: that humanity’s spiritual heritage is older than Christianity. Rome may not have been “former Celtic territory” but it was and is part of Europe, and throughout Europe there were earth/Goddess-based religions and spiritualities that shared much in common with one another. Although it may be difficult to draw a direct line from some of these commonalities to later Christian practices, I find it difficult to believe that they did not influence and shape the development of certain ones. I don’t see this as diminishing Christianity, but rather as serving to highlight the shared spiritual heritage of humankind. It’s a heritage that’s deeply grounded in the experience of Sacred Mystery mediated through the natural world, a world that includes human relationships. Themes of transformation and life beyond death figure prominently . There are, of course, differences. But I believe beneath all our various religious traditions flows the same river of mystic truth which, as one Sufi writer puts it, is “the current of love that runs throughout all life, the unity behind forms."



Michael J. Bayly said...

Prompted by your comment, Liam, I've added to this post Bernd Biege's perspective on the pagan roots of All Saints Day.



Tc said...

A lot of the new so-called justifications for dates of feasts and observances have been contrived to make it appear as if syncretism has not been Christian history, particularly in Europe. However, there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.

That's not even taking into account the blatant Marian imagery that frequently comes directly from the Goddess who was known in a particular place.

None of this is to say that the Chrustian feasts and observances are imitations: they are not. But it's a matter of integrity to recognize that particular dates and customs had significance abs helped shape our Christian observances.

Mark G. said...

I am an acupuncturist exploring the cyclical calendars East and West. Trying to find textual sources about the Celtic calendar -- and its relationship to Christian feast days. Citations welcome! Thank you!