Problems with Pagans
It seems that everyone wants to debunk faith with facts; they want to prove that their tradition, their holy day is older, richer, more original or authentic, and that the newer holy day celebrated by the opposing camp is just glomming onto an already established practice and is therefore invalid (or worse, unwittingly participating in rites or mysteries that they don’t understand). You’re likely to get this sort of argument around Christmas, but it crops up even more as we approach All Saints Day, Hallowmas, or Hallowe’en. I don’t really see how this exercise of pseudo-anthropological comparison is a useful endeavor. What difference does it make as to whose traditions are older, or who borrowed certain practices from whom? The important thing is the truth of what one is actually celebrating and not the facts about its origins. This was at issue in a post on the site Brothers of John the Steadfast, in the post Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Hallowe’en: A short history by Pastor Joseph Abrahamson. Well, here I take up the challenge of unpacking this pillowcase of treats and tricks and, perhaps putting an end to the ever-present “My Holiday’s More Important, Meaningful, Most Likely Older, But Definitely More Correct Than Your Holiday That Looks Very Much Like Mine” pissing match.
In his post Pastor Abrahamson states:
The earliest reference to a day being dedicated to the commemoration of All the Martyrs and All Saints of the Christian Church comes from the 2nd century. The document is titled “The Martyrdom of Polycarp”…
…Later, a Christian Bishop named Ephraim the Syrian mentions a common All Saints’ Day in 373. In 397 St. Basil of Caesarea chose a day when the churches of his bishopric would honor the memories of all Saints known, and unknown, alive or in heaven. Later, John Chrysostom mentions a common day of memorial for the Saints in 407 AD.
In the year 609 or 610 Pope Boniface IV established a date for All Saints’ Day on May 13th. And later, in the early 700s AD, Pope Gregory III changed the date to November 1st. Decrees like this took some time to propagate from Rome to the more remote areas where the Church was found. But the change in date had nothing to do with any pagan practices. Pope Gregory IV extended the celebration on this day to the entire Western Church in the early 800s. And again, the change took time as it spread from Rome.
The point is this: a common day for commemorating the Saints has been around throughout the Christian Church from very early times. And the fact that it falls on November 1st today has nothing to do with paganism.
He goes on to explain the changing calendars and the difference between a lunar calendar and a solar calendar to illustrate the fact that October 31st could not have been the day on which the Celtic Pagans celebrated Samhain, their New Year Festival. (This is of course a Celtic celebration, but closely related to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. This, along with the fact that the first written reference to Samhain is not recorded before the tenth century, nearly 700 years after the first mention of an All Saints Day celebration, would suggest to some that Samhain is the newer feast. But surely there were harvest festivals, no? Is not Samhain primarily a harvest festival? And just because we have no earlier Celtic written record of the Samhain festivities doesn’t mean that it wasn’t celebrated much earlier–I began brushing my teeth decades ago, but I’ve literally only just now, in this sentence, written about it. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.)
One of my favorite books to pick up this time of year is Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance by Clement A. Miles. In his imminently readable yet highly scholarly book, he makes connections between many of out Advent, Saint’s days, and Christmas traditions and traditions held by cultures and peoples before their encounter with Christianity, including simple agricultural/seasonal celebrations. The earliest of these days is Saint Michael’s Day, or Michaelmas, September 29th, which is celebrated with baking bannock bread and cooking goose. There’s a good article about Michaelmas at Anglicans Online. These traditions are clearly part of agricultural celebrations in Britain, as are the corresponding celebrations around Martinmas in Germany where the harvest comes in around November 11th, Saint Martin’s Day. I suppose one could even stretch the harvest festivals all the way back into August with Lammastide. Perhaps it is true that the neo-Pagans have chosen to rearrange their calendar to align with the Christian calendar and placed Samhain on the eve of All Saints, but it seems that many of the Christian feasts of saints and martyrs lined up nicely with agricultural feasts of pagans in many regions.
Michaelmas, Martinmas and Hallowmas, however, have many customs in common. There are parades, songs and feasts with special foods. They are times when the poor would be looked on charitably. Some of these customs became so popular that they spread and were adopted into other holidays. The custom of wassailing at Christmastide has a clear connection to All Saints Day. It is the song “Soalin'” or “Soul Cake” that most clearly illustrates this point. Paul Stookey, of Peter Paul and Mary, mentions some of the similarities in the video below, but gets some of the facts slightly wrong. A soul cake is like bannock bread or pan de muertos: baked especially on All Saints Day, and the song “Soalin'” is an All Saints Day carol that over time has been folded into the Christmas carol canon.
In his introduction to the song “Soalin,” Paul also mentions some of the ways in which the poor, who would go from door to door begging, have changed. What was at one time giving charity to the poor as they came singing and begging from door to door has become Trick-or-Treating. Perhaps Christian beggars during Hallowtide would be singing something like “Soalin’,” but they may have sung other songs as well. There are some Child Ballads that come to mind as particularly appropriate for the season.
One of the arguments made in Pastor Abrahamson’s post is as follows:
The claim is that the old folklore demonstrates where we got Halloween. But folklore does not support the Neopagan or the Wiccan claims about Halloween. Instead they depend on fakelore: invented, and fake, pretend folklore, like Pecos Bill and the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
The typical claims in current sources are that Halloween come from “ancient Celtic practices, Catholic and Roman religious rituals and European folk traditions.” With respect to the origins of All Saints’ Day these claim are false. With respect to the modern re-paganizing of Halloween, the Neopagan version of Halloween doesn’t really come from ancient pagan sources. It comes from modern sources that pretend to be old but are not. These modern sources are simply fiction.
I must admit I’m unsure what he means by “modern.” I usually place Modernity as beginning some time around the American Civil War, or with Walt Whitman, but there are others who place it as far back as the renaissance. If I stick to my guns and exclude neo-Classicism and Romanticism both from modernity, then Robert Burns and the Child Ballads are not Modern, and the mentions of Hallowe’en in Child Ballad #35 Alison Gross, and Child Ballad#39 Tamlin, as well as the Burns poem Halloween, fall into a pre-Modern, or folkloric Hallowe’en tradition that is clearly Pagan, or at least not necessarily Christian. They hold what some people may call spooky aspects of the holiday.
The Burns poem mentions many of the traditional “games” that may be played at a Hallowe’en party. These games usually involved some sort of divination, or even some form of spiritism or necromancy. There was much mischief in All Hallows Eve celebrations in the early 20th Century and before. The world was a much more dangerous place. There was a very real danger in the woods, not only from wild animals, but from people, highwaymen and robbers: even the beggars who came by singing folk songs on holy feast days may have mischievous motives. You can see that even in the idealized American past of the film Meet Me In Saint Louis that Trick-or-Treating was much more about mischief than getting a handout, but still the threat that if you do not give a treat you will get a trick is present even if people planned ahead to leave unwanted, old or broken furniture out so that youngsters might take it away for their bonfire revels.
Halloween, October 31st is Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517 the Church of Christ began to return to the authority of Scripture alone over the traditions and will of man. It was the day that the Church began to return to salvation by Faith in Christ alone over the works of human will and deeds prescribed by humans. The day that the Church began to return to salvation by Grace alone, rather than the effort of the individual or that individual’s reliance upon the efforts of the saints who had gone before him. It was the day that the Church returned to reliance upon Christ alone and not upon self…
…Halloween, Reformation Day, All Saints’ Day is a very special day of the year for the Christian Church. We commemorate all saints past, present, and future with the confession that we cannot save ourselves with our own works, no price we could ever pay would be good enough. But Christ has paid for the whole world. And all believers in Christ, and these are the Saints, will be raised on the last day to eternal life.
But arguing over what traditions came first, arguing over whose customs are oldest, misses the point. Acculturation of agricultural and cultural traditions into our Christian celebrations is not diabolical. As Paul said in I Corinthians 10
23 All things are lawfull for me, but all things are not expedient: All things are lawfull for mee, but all things edifie not.24 Let no man seeke his owne: but euery man anothers wealth. 25 Whatsoeuer is solde in the shambles, that eate, asking no question for conscience sake. 26 For the earth is the Lords, and the fulnesse thereof. 27 If any of them that beleeue not, bid you to a feast, and yee be disposed to goe, whatsoeuer is set before you, eate, asking no question for conscience sake. 28 But if any man say vnto you, This is offered in sacrifice vnto idoles, eate not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake. The earth is the Lords, and the fulnesse thereof. 29 Conscience I say, not thine owne, but of the others: for why is my libertie iudged of another mans conscience? 30 For, if I by grace be a partaker, why am I euill spoken of, for that for which I giue thankes? 31 Whether therfore ye eat or drinke, or whatsoeuer ye doe, doe all to the glory of God. 32 Giue none offence, neither to the Iewes, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the Church of God: 33 Euen as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine owne profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saued.
Some of the people who commented on Pastor Abrahamson’s post were concerned that their children would unwittingly be worshiping Satan, or that Trick-or-Treating would be the same as getting a handout and not learning that one must put in honest labor in order to reap an honest profit. Although the later seems like playing into works righteousness (capitalism is, after all, a materialist argument for works righteousness), and the former seems to be covered in the quotation from I Corinthians, there are other ways to celebrate the holy day. Like: GO TO CHURCH! Why would you go to church on the vigil of Christmas and again on Christmas morning, but not on other feast days? If your church is not having services (and perhaps you need to talk to your pastor or priest about that), dust off your hymnal, your prayer book, your worship book or whatever you call your family’s liturgical resource (you have one of those, right? If not, shouldn’t you?) and say the daily office at home. You may even incorporate it into a Hallowe’en party, or family celebration. It would certainly be a better “game” than the Ouija Board by Hasbro.