Friday, October 28, 2011

Week 4 - "How Christians stole Halloween"

This week's topic is obviously going to be Halloween, since you know, this weekend is Halloween. I've been hearing a lot of uproar from (once again) uneducated Christians on how "evil" this holiday is and how they are "against it in every way." Contrary to popular (Christian) belief, this holiday has more to do with Christianity than many people realize.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way. Halloween is not a "satanic" holiday. It's not evil. The only thing that's evil about it, is what commercialism in present days has chose to glorify. Witches, vampires, ghosts, devils, it's all part of that one special time of year that everyone can dress up and pretend to be someone they aren't for one night. Halloween was originally a Pagan celebration. Now when most Christians hear the word "Pagan," they cringe just as badly as if someone had said "Satanist" or "Atheist." This is mainly programming, Christians are taught to hate anyone or anything, especially religions, that directly oppose their own ideas. They're conditioned this way through fear... as in, anything different from them is wrong, evil, and trying to "divert you away from God." There's a huge misconception about Paganism, that it's essentially witchcraft under a different title. This is wrong. It is not witchcraft. Paganism, to it's core, is a religion based around nature. Pagans, loosely defined by Wikipedia, are:
"Another definition, currently used by some religious studies scholars, uses the term to apply to religions which adhere to a belief in polytheism, animism and a concept of divine immanence; under this category therefore comes the pre-Christian and pre-Islamic religions of Europe and Asia, the indigenous religions of the world and new religious movements that consider themselves to be a part of the Contemporary Pagan movement. They are polytheistic, recognising a plurality of divine beings, which may or may not be avatars or other aspects of an underlying unity/duality/trinity etc. They view Nature as a theophany, a manifestation of divinity, not as a 'fallen' creation of the latter. They recognise the female divine principle, called the Goddess (with a capital 'G' to distinguish her from many particular goddesses), as well as, or instead of, the male divine principle, the God."

Now, obviously the Pagans didn't refer to this holiday as "Halloween" and they definitely did not dress up in costumes to go door to door collecting candy for their children. There were at first two festivals which eventually became the one "Halloween" that we know today. First was a Celtic celebration called Samhain. The Celtic peoples, who were once found all over Europe, divided the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. The date marked the beginning of winter. Since they were pastoral people, it was a time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures and all livestock had to be secured for the winter months. Crops were harvested and stored. The date marked both an ending and a beginning in an eternal cycle.

The festival observed at this time was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies, and demons--all part of the dark and dread.

Samhain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. In the early centuries of the first millennium A.D., before missionaries such as St. Patrick and St. Columcille converted them to Christianity, the Celts practiced an elaborate religion through their priestly caste, the Druids, who were priests, poets, scientists and scholars all at once. As religious leaders, ritual specialists, and bearers of learning, the Druids were not unlike the very missionaries and monks who were to Christianize their people and brand them evil devil worshippers.

As a result of their efforts to wipe out "pagan" holidays, such as Samhain, the Christians succeeded in effecting major transformations in it. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship. In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and it became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary work. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native holy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples. Likewise, St. John's Day was set on the summer solstice.

Samhain, with its emphasis on the supernatural, was decidedly pagan. While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion's supernatural deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. As representatives of the rival religion, Druids were considered evil worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. The Celtic underworld inevitably became identified with the Christian Hell. The effects of this policy were to diminish but not totally eradicate the beliefs in the traditional gods. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted, while the church made deliberate attempts to define them as being not merely dangerous, but malicious. Followers of the old religion went into hiding and were branded as witches.

The Christian feast of All Saints was assigned to November 1st. The day honored every Christian saint, especially those that did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. This feast day was meant to substitute for Samhain, to draw the devotion of the Celtic peoples, and, finally, to replace it forever. That did not happen, but the traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns of more recent traditions.

The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with the new, more abstract Catholic feast honoring saints. Recognizing that something that would subsume the original energy of Samhain was necessary, the church tried again to supplant it with a Christian feast day in the 9th century. This time it established November 2nd as All Souls Day -a day when the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. But, once again, the practice of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a sustaining effect: the traditional beliefs and customs lived on, in new guises.

All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed means sanctified or holy), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. The folk continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe'en--an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year's Day in contemporary dress. Many supernatural creatures became associated with All Hallows. In Ireland fairies were numbered among the legendary creatures who roamed on Halloween.

Virtually all present Halloween traditions can be traced to the ancient Celtic day of the dead. Halloween is a holiday of many mysterious customs, but each one has a history, or at least a story behind it. The wearing of costumes, for instance, and roaming from door to door demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christian era, when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and around, along with fairies, witches, and demons. Offerings of food and drink were left out to placate them. As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This practice is called mumming, from which the practice of trick-or-treating evolved. To this day, witches, ghosts, and skeleton figures of the dead are among the favorite disguises. Halloween also retains some features that harken back to the original harvest holiday of Samhain, such as the customs of bobbing for apples and carving vegetables, as well as the fruits, nuts, and spices cider associated with the day.

Today Halloween is becoming once again and adult holiday or masquerade, like mardi Gras. Men and women in every disguise imaginable are taking to the streets of big American cities and parading past grinningly carved, candlelit jack o'lanterns, re-enacting customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night, of the soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night of reversible possibilities, inverted roles, and transcendency. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening. 


Jack-o-lantern: Originally, they were turnips hollowed out and equipped with candles to light the way of “guisers” and beggars roaming about on All Hallow’s Eve for a bite to eat or rousting neighbors door-to-door for a donation to their cause. With their mass migration to the United States after the potato famine, the clever Irish replaced their illuminated turnips for more accommodating pumpkins. Carved in various grotesques and ghoulish faces; maladjusted spirits are kept at bay or frightened away entirely by the sight of these luminous lamps. Various legends speak of the name Jack. Most popularly is the persona of Jack as a weather sprite (Jack-in-the-Green, or Jack Frost). Undeniably, this Halloween symbol welcomes the oncoming winter season while simultaneously lighting the night.
Bats: A common practice among our ancestors at the time of summer’s end (Samhain, Oct. 31) was to build tremendously brilliant bonfires. These fires would blaze the night for many reasons: Warding off maladjusted energies, soften the chill in the air, prepare harvest feasts, mark the occasion with a powerful solar symbol, etc. Anyone who has lit their own campfire knows the light magnetizes all manner of insects. In turn, their natural predators will also come to the flame looking for an easy insect meal. And so, bats were a common sight at Halloween-time festivities. By association, bats are viewed to be connected with this holiday’s theme of magic and a time of passing from one phase of life to another (both in the timeline of human life and seasonal cycles).

Cats: Mysterious, precocious, sleuthy, and seemingly able to stalk the darkest nights without aid of light – the cat has long been considered to be closely linked with otherworldly concepts. Indeed, many practitioners of energetic communication welcomed the company of felines as it was understood these creatures could serve as a facilitator to opening otherworldy doors. Black is a common color of mystery and the unknown. Black is also considered to be an absorbing element – taking on off-kilter energies and transforming them into purer frequencies. When we view the meaning of Halloween symbols based on the understanding it is a time of transitions – the black cat becomes a suitable totem for the celebration. The black cat augers our connection with the intangible, and serves as a bridge from the mundane to the magical.

Owls: Following the same fashion as Halloween bats (see first entry), owls were commonly seen around Samhain bonfires lit in honor of the night of transitions. Furthermore, owls have long been symbols of wisdom of an esoteric (hidden) nature. This time of year held much mystery for our ancestors. With questions such as: “Will we survive the coming winter?”, “Are the spirits of our transitioned clansmen and women at peace?” it took wise auguries to identify subtle communications to answer these questions. Due to their status as wise creatures, and their long-standing association to the spirit side of life, (and their common appears at bonfires) it made sense to hold owls sacred to this time of year. It took the keen perception of a good witch to understand the language of the owls to answer clan questions. Thus, considering the time of year, this is one reason these two are commonly seen together as a Halloween symbol.

Skeletons: Continuing in the knowledge that Halloween is a time to honor the memories of those who no longer share the physical stage of life with us, the skeleton is a symbolic (and physical) reminder of the remnants of life. Skulls in particular were considered by many ancient cultures (including the Druids of the Celts) to be the psychic seat of the human whole. As such, skulls are powerful symbols invoking a heightened awareness of our psychic potential. Incorporated during this powerful time of year doubles their profound symbolic purposes.

Spiders: Much like the bat, cat, and the owl – spiders (as Halloween symbols and otherwise) are creatures considered to be endowed with supernatural qualities which make them harbingers of mystic energy. Witches often invite the spider into their homes and practices as a method of enhancing understanding of energetic patterns. Why are they so mystical? Predominantly because of their ability to weave webs, which has long been symbolic of time, fate, progress and the representation of the human journey (on both physical and philosophical levels).

Witches: Witches and Halloween are perfect pairs as Oct. 31 is a time most advantageous to tap into supernatural perspectives. This time of year is situated in the crevasse of transition in both constellational, and seasonal aspects. It’s a time when the Veil between mundane and magical are quite thin and energies tend to take on more revealing forms. As witches are devoted to utilizing, interpreting, magnifying, and manipulating unseen energies – their presence upon the cultural stage of this time of year is only common sense. Witches are gifted at energetic interpretations; and in ancient times their talents, perspectives and expertise would be called upon during this time of year for help in understanding messages from the non-physical side of life as well as forecasts for seasons ahead (long before the Farmer’s Almanac, there were soothsayers :-). And so, witches as a Halloween symbol are understandably vital to the occasion.

So, to sum things up since that's quite a lot of information to throw at someone over one holiday...

Halloween may have once been, but is no longer a Pagan/Celtic holiday. It's origins began as Pagan/Celtic in nature, but was quickly squashed out by Christians back in the first few early centuries AD. Christians saw it as evil, as they see most things that contradict what they believe, and decided to take over the holiday so as to make the transition between Paganism and Christianity easier for the people they were forcing to convert. You'll find this a common theme with many other modern day "Christian" celebrations, I like to think of Christianity as a hijacking culture killer. I'll make sure to write about all of the holidays that have been stolen by Christianity later on, probably around the time of the holiday in question. You know, to be festive, and stuff.

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