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Changing Samhain Traditions

All Hallows' E'en and Halloween - How Samhain took on a New Meaning

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Memento Mori at Mount Jerome Cemetery

Memento Mori at Mount Jerome Cemetery

© 2007 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

Have you ever wondered how the Irish-Celtic feast of samhain became the carnival-like Halloween? Blame the popes, the reformation and European emigration.

All Hallows - A Moveable Feast

Today November 1st is the feast of All Hallows or All Saints or Allhallowmas - and "Halloween" derives from the evening before, "All Hallows' Evening" or short "Hallowe'en". Easy. And a direct link to the Celtic tradition of samhain, for the Celts the day started at sundown.

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.

So Halloween is a Catholic Feast?

Hold your horses - other traditions had a bearing as well. All of which combined created Halloween as we know it ...

In Britain All Hallows was celebrated with a procession ... of children dressed up as saints, angels and devils. And they were rewarded for their enthusiasm with "soul cakes", sweet biscuits. And in Brittany All Hallows was connected to pranks, some of them quite macabre.

But the main new influence came with the reformation - even though the reformed churchmen did not encourage the belief in saints. All Hallows was basically replaced by "reformation day", a day of a new beginning, quite fitting in with the samhain tradition.

Then in 1605 Guy Fawkes made a spirited attempt at revolution, his plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament failed ... but "the 5th of November" shall be forever remembered. With dressing up, bonfires and fireworks. And begging children ("A penny for the Guy!"), mischievous pranks and the burning of the pope in effigy.

Coming to America

The puritans finally started to bring some of these traditions to America - first and foremost an anti-catholic sentiment and a pathological fear of witchcraft. Which in turn mingled with mysticism and superstition found amongst German immigrants, a belief in the power of saints preserved by Anglican settlers, Catholic influences from French or Spanish migrants and even pagan beliefs preserved by outwardly "Christian" slaves. All this together culminating in autumn festivities after the harvest. Which in turn were revitalised by Irish immigrants of the 19th century, bringing with them remnants of the samhain tradition.

Halloween as We Know It

By the end of the 19th century "Halloween" was established as a uniquely North-American festivity. Complete with the main characteristics of

  • Trick or Treat - a combination of the British processions, the Irish lait bhain, "soul cakes" and the "penny for the Guy";
  • Pumpkinheads - derived from scurrilous Irish lanterns made from turnips to keep evil spirits away and
  • Parties everybody was celebrating something around the time anyway.

Today Halloween is the third most popular day to throw a party in the US - beaten only by New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday! And the once typically "American" feast has slowly started to conquer the world ... with Halloween parties and parades far outweighing a traditional samhain celebration even in Ireland.

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  5. Samhain and Halloween
  6. How Samhain Became All Hallows' E'en and Halloween - Samhain or Halloween in Ireland

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