All Saints Day – Halloween – Celtic Tradition

A couple of Sundays ago, Gwen surprised me as well as others of us here who had not expected to be part of the sermon with some very affirming words .  The occasion was to speak the delights of a 25 year marriage and to welcome some of us as well as to say farewell for a time to others.
In her describing of me she spoke of me as having both a strong traditional Christian side and a “delightful”, I think, pagan one.  That she described me as such in church and without apparent distaste, indeed with both acceptance and affirmation, let me know I was home.
My pagan side has not allowed me a lot of affirmation in church and I have had to downplay my leanings in that direction to be accepted in many church circles with which I have been allied.
When I was a child, I couldn’t get enough of the natural world – the rivers and streams, the ocean’s mystery and magic, the forests and pine groves, the sunshine, indeed the whole natural world around me.
At my church camp, my Bethany Birches, they called me a “Blue Domer”, a description of people who found God more readily outdoors than in church on Sundays.  I got the idea that it wasn’t an altogether complimentary description.
While I don’t worship trees and the sun, I had a child’s wonder at such things the way the ancients must have done before God appeared to the Hebrew people and revealed himself as the creator of all that is.  The Celtic pagan tradition upon which many Christian traditions are based reflected the Celt’s view of the natural world.  The wonder and glory, the vastness, the power of the elements and the spiritual part of our humanness as it is reflected in the natural world were the things upon which the Celtic spiritual world was based.
I have always found irony in the fact that the church as a whole has looked upon the pagan’s view of the universe as not only wrong, but as blasphemy, because so many Christian celebrations and rituals come directly from pagan roots.  Nevertheless, I do not want to in any way fail to do God’s will.  It is not important to me to be right here.  It is important for me to find truth.  And I do invite anyone who has knowledge or a word on my reflection here to impart to me any wisdom he or she finds, because I really want to live in God’s will and to do what God wants of me.  I am on a life-long search here and I do not have any answers on this question – just reflections from a thoughtful and earnest Christian.
It is particularly this time of year when so many of the traditions permeate the holiday season that the tension between the spiritual Christian and the spiritual pagan collide in me, beginning with Halloween.
Halloween has its origins in Celtic pagan practice.  I think most of us know this, and we participate in the secular celebration or not based on mostly personal decision, but there was a time when the customs we practice at Halloween was a part of Christian spiritual practice.  There are remnants of some of these practices in the church today.
The ancient Celts divided their year into quarters determined by the summer and winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes, and then into cross quarters, the mid points between the solstice and the equinox.  These “cross quarter” celebrations were the most highly spiritual of the year and there are still remnants of these at the times in Groundhog’s Day (which is a remnant of the Celtic festival of Imbolc, from which the Christian Candelmas derived,  in which both the Celtic and the Christian tradition had it as not a good omen if the day was bright and sunny. If it was cloudy and dark that meant that rain and warmth would make the land ready for planting sooner.)  Other Cross Quarter celebrations are Beltane, which became May Day, and Samhain, which evolved into All Hallow’s Day.  Halloween is the Eve of all Hallows Day.
Samhain is/was  the first of November, and it literally means, “Summer’s End”.  It was the most important of all the Celtic spiritual days.  The Celts separated their year into the dark half and the light half, with the dark half perhaps having the most spiritual importance.  (The light half is full of all the good stuff – the planting and growing season, the season of plenty, the days of light, and the easy times.  The dark time is when we need our ties to our spirits the most.)  The Celts observed time as proceeding from darkness into light, because they understood that from the dark come the whisperings that of new beginnings, the stirrings of the seeds for the next season in the ground.  Samhain marked the beginning of the dark half of the year.  It was both the Celtic New Year and a harvest festival.
The eve of Samhain was the most important part of the celebration.  Villagers gathered the best of the autumn harvest and slaughtered their cattle for the feast.   The focus of each village’s festivities was the bonfire.  Villagers cast the bones from the slaughtered cattle onto the fire.  Our word “bonfire” comes from the Celtic “bone fire”.
Villagers put out their fires and made new fires from the huge village bonfire, signifying the bonding together of the individual villagers into a community who would care for each other and with whom they bonded for protection and unity while waiting for the light to return.  The lighting of the new fires marked a time of New Beginnings, much in the same way our New Year does.  It is a time when we can start over, undo a wrong and renew a relationship gone astray, or dream of new plans and hopes. Offerings and sacrifices were tossed into the fire, along with personal prayers in the form of symbols from supplicants seeking healing for themselves or others.
(Aside)  My husband and I saw examples of this in churches in Greece where one could buy, for example, a foot with a leg attached and light a candle, then throw the object into the fire to pray for the healing of someone’s foot or leg.
To the Celts, this was a very holy time, when the veil between our world and the next one was lifted and the gods were able to come closer to this world.  The dead could cross over at this time between the Otherworld and this one.  Many of the ceremonies at this time involved providing hospitality to dead ancesters.  Celts opened their gates and windows and doors and put out food and drink for their ancestors.  Bobbing for apples was a traditional Samhain practice because of a tradition called “Paradise of Apples” in which it was thought that the ancestors,  returned to the Otherworld to enjoy a blissful immortality, having eaten of the sacred fruit.
Of course not all of the spirits who crossed over on the eve of November first were friendly.  To ward off the unfriendly spirits, people carved out faces of their ancestors on turnips, which they hollowed out and lit from the large communal fire to take embers back to their own hearths and to light the new year’s fire.  These were called, “Jack’s Lanterns” because of an old Irish  story about a man named Jack who was a terrible person.  I have to tell this one because Andy, Ethan Lilli, Riley, Anna, Annabel, Micah, Cerri, and some of the rest of you already know the Appalachian version of it from Revels and the version of it that I did at Barnard.  Oh, and Molly from the one we did at WES. And I never connected it with our Halloween traditions.
Well, this guy Jack was a mean old cuss and he played mean, cruel tricks on people and tricked them out of their money.  Well, one day the Devil himself came-a-calling to Jack’s door.  You see, he had heard about Jack’s tricks and he was looking for souls, so he offered Jack a great deal of money in exchange for his soul.
Well, Jack, he knew he didn’t want to sell his soul to the Devil but he thought maybe he could have his cake and eat it too.  He agreed to the bargain and then tricked the Devil into climbing a tree saying something like, “Well, ain’t this a pretty autumn tree with the leaves all colored so pretty?  Don’t you just want to climb it?”
The Devil allowed as how he did, but Jack said it was a shame he couldn’t get up there with his cloven hoof and all.  The Devil took up the challenge and once he was up the tree, Jack carved a cross on the tree and now the Devil couldn’t get down.  So Jack made the Devil promise to relinquish his soul before he eradicated the cross he had carved and the Devil fled away fast, terribly humiliated.
So when Jack died, he tried to get into Heaven, but he had been such a horrible old sinner he was denied access, but when he went down to Hell, he was also denied access.  The Devil remembered his humiliation and denied Jack access there also.  So Jack had nowhere to go.  “Where will I go?”  he asked.  “It’s do dark I can’t see my way.”
So the Devil gave him a hollowed out turnip from his fields and then, picking up his tongs, he placed an ember into it so that Jack could see his way.  So, as he wanders, he is sometimes seen, and he is known as “Jack of the Lantern” or Jack-o-Lantern.”
Sorry for this little aside, but I included it partially because when we did the story we didn’t know the Irish version and I didn’t know about the lead-in to carving Jack o Lanterns, but I included it also because the early church had a childlike view of Christian theology based on pagan tales and custom.  That the Devil had cloven hooves or that he could be tricked were evidence of very early, indeed naïve practices and beliefs.  And it is important to acknowledge this naiveté, because it is reflected in early church beliefs and customs.  It is important to note that, while many of the customs have become secular, at this time period there was no separation of the sacred and the secular.  It was all one reality.
So back to traditions from Samhain.  There was a lighter side to Celtic New Year rituals.  Young people would put on disguises for the evening and pretend to be spirits of the dead.  Boys and girls would put on each other’s clothes and behave boisterously.  The idea was to flout conventional behavior. The youth and the lowly would play tricks on their betters.  The Celts welcomed the break from reality as not only providing a link between the Otherworld and this one, but also it was important to dissolve the structure of society for that night.
One custom that is easy to trace from the Celtic to its modern incarnation is the ancient Celtic custom on Samhain of the farmers going from door-to-door collecting food and materials for the village feast and bonfire.  Those who gave were promised prosperity, and those who did not were not.
On All Souls Day in England, people would go a-souling from door to door, receiving soul cakes in return for a crude play (a mummers’ play) and wishes for prosperity.  Children eventually adopted this practice.
I am departing for a minute to note why the practice of using the pagan festivals for the Christian observances began.  I am reminded of the Huron Indian Carol in which Jesuit Priests equated the birth of Christ with events which the Huron nation could understand and embrace.  “Twas in the Moon of Wintertide when all the birds had fled/ That mighty Gitchee Manitou sent angel choirs instead.”  The carol spoke of chiefs who came from afar bringing gifts of fur and beaver pelt and that the child was born in a humble lodge of broken bark.  If you present people with something with which they can relate, they are more likely to believe.
In the fourth century when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and pagans were made to join the Christian church, church leaders knew that simply telling the people that they were now Christians did not make it so, since their belief system would not change.  So, for example, when Saturnalia became Christmas, the holly and the ivy, which had been sacred plants to the pagans became symbols of Jesus’ promise of everlasting life, because they didn’t die in winter when everything else appeared to have no life.  The Saturnalian custom of masters and slaves switching places became one of electing a boy bishop for the day and having a feast of fools over which a peasant presides.  I know that we look upon this as secular rather than church practice, but we have to remember than in pagan practice there was no separation of the sacred and the secular, AND when it became a Christian custom, it fit nicely into Christian theology being a representation of Jesus’ having said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, or in the reading today from Matthew, “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled and whoever humbles himself shall be humbled.”
 In preparing for this message, I have been re-reading Harvey Cox’s “Feast of Fools”.  The premise of the book is that the church of today (He wrote it in the 70’s but it is still true.) lacks the sense of humility that we need if we are to attract others to our faith and, indeed, if we are to do God’s will.
He says, “Šsecular critics of Christianity find (it) unreasonably affirmative in its estimate of man’s place” in the universe.  He points out that that is a grandiose view of our place in the universe, setting moral standards and putting our stamp of approval (or not) on societal issues.
He says that “men today do not simply complain that they cannot believe in God on intellectual grounds.  Indeed, a religious explanation of the universe may be just as conceptually adequate as another one.  The problem is that people do not “experience” or “encounter” God.
Cox urges a return to the pagan roots of Christianity so as to re-establish the very human need for a new flowering of the festivity and fantasy upon which the church was founded in order to encounter or to fully understand God.
“Christianity was born and preached first in cultures in which feasts and celebrations were an organic and essential part of the whole world view and way of life.  And whether we like it or not, Christianity accepted and made its own this fundamentally human phenomenon of feast, as it accepted and made as its own the whole man and all his needs.”
Just as an aside, This is the book upon which the musical, “Godspell” was based.  It too had its critics within the church, but I still think a torch singer coming from the back of the house singing, “Turn back oh man, forswear thy foolish ways..dah dah da dada”  did more to get the attention of the teens who did this musical about that Biblical passage than anything else we did in the church.
I have spent three weeks researching and writing and I was really doing it to find answers for myself because many of the things I love have pagan roots:   morris dancing, which had its roots in pagan fertility ritual, pounding sicks on the fground and jumping up and down with bells on to wake up the earth, Christmas Revels, which celebrates both Christmas and the solstice with the customs that were pagan become Christian and mummers plays.  I LOVE being involved in human activities that go back to far that they are a visceral part of our makeup, our connection to the universe.
I was looking for answers for me, but in doing it I have found reasons for the church not only to tolerate things of pagan origin, but understand if not embrace them.
First, I was amazed at how many of our customs come from the pagan – not just Halloween and Christmas, and the timing of Easter on the Church Calendar, but Halos, which were seen in paintings of Celtic Gods and Goddesses and then later on Saints and Jesus.  There are many more examples.
Christians used to meet on Saturday, according to the law of Moses, which was the last day of the week and God rested on the 7th day as did the Hebrew people for the same reason, but pagans were used to meeting on Sundays  It was a Sun Day to worship the sun god.  The emperor Constantine, who was a pagan declared that Sunday was to be the day of worship throughout the Roman Empire.
One web site, “Christianizing Secular Customs; a Biblical look at Secular Customs” represents the Christian/pagan dilemma fairly accurately. Some believers who discover the pagan origins of these customs find themselves struggling to celebrate themŠ.They imagine God is dishonored when naïve Christians participate in customs that were once associated with darkness (Samhain being the beginning of the dark half of the year and Christmas taking on the celebration of the longest night of the year. )
This writer quotes Romans 14, “One man considers one day more sacred than another.  Another man considers every day alike.  Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.  He who regards one day as special, so does the Lord.  He who eats meat eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.
This same website offers this:  “The modern church has many customs that were borrowed from the (pagan) world but which give opportunity for believers to advance the word of God”, such as:
“The custom of churches meeting in buildings, rather than in homes was adopted from the pagan traditions of Rome.  In the fourth century when Christianity was declared the only acceptable religion in the Roman Empire, pagan temples were converted into churches.”
This site makes the argument that when we discover that all the days of the week are named after pagan gods, should we than stop using the names of the days of the week?
Paul is the person who most addressed this issue, because in his epistles he was writing letter to people who were Christians and who were fighting a strong pagan opposition.  Paul admonished these people not to violate their conscience, but to allow others to question with impunity.
Romans 14:20  “Therefore, let us stop passing judgement on one another.  Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”
Regarding the Christian’s decision regarding whether or not to participate in activities within or without the church, the writer of the site warns us against the danger of becoming Pharisees.  If we choose to abstain from these customs, we must be careful not to judge others who have made different choices and to remember that Jesus emphasized the importance of cleaning up the inside of a person, allowing a clean heart to be the source of outside changes.
This has been a good assignment.  I have found a place where I can be comfortable inside my “pagan” skin.  I know that God is my God and that Jesus is my savior.  That is, in the end, my declaration.  Father, I ask for your blessing on me for all that I am and all that I represent, for I am wonderfully and fearfully made by your hands.  Amen.
Sharon Groblicki