HALLOWEEN: PAGAN ORIGINS, CHRISTIAN CO-OPTATION, AND RETURN TO PAGANIST ROOTS
I know this article may be a little late for publication before Halloween, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyways. How many people today actually know what the word ‘Halloween’ actually means, and why we get dressed up as ghosts and goblins?
The origins of the word go back many hundreds, if not thousands of years to pre-Christian Europe, when the people, living in their villages across the continent, celebrated the period after the harvest, which marked the end of ‘life’ as they knew it, and the onset of the month of ‘death’, being that of November, when nature retreated into a form of hibernation, to die, in a manner of speaking, until spring, and ‘life’ reappeared. Therefore, around the end of October, the people of the village would have a big feast with a bonfire and honour all of the dead of their community, as well as attempting to ward off evil spirits, since it was believed in some Celtic cultures that the borderline between this world and the spirit world became thinner at this period of the year, and therefore it was best to wear a mask or costume to impersonate an evil spirit so as to protect oneself from a genuinely evil one, hence beginning the tradition of dressing up in funny costumes such as ghosts and goblins.
In later Christian times, around the 16th century, as Christianity continued to co-opt pagan ways more and more, the term ‘Halloween’ was first seen coming into common usage, and comes from the words ‘Hallow’ , or ‘Holy’, and ‘even’, or ‘evening’. So this formerly pagan celebration began to be associated with the Christian holy day which celebrated all the ‘holy people’ who’d died in the period of Christendom up to that period, known as ‘All Saints Day’, which falls on November 1st, followed by All Souls Day, in honour of all the faithful departed, which falls the day after on November 2nd.
So essentially, what started out as a pagan celebration of the dead around the period after the harvest, turned into a Christian celebration of the dead, neatly co-opting the ancient pagan traditions so as to better have this new Christian feast day better accepted by the faithful, who, by all accounts probably may have still been hanging onto some of their old pagan superstitions at the time, so it was felt that doing it this way would not antagonize them so much.
This is the same reason why one finds so many gargoyles and intricate pagan ornamentation on the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. It’s because when they were built, Europe was still in the process of making the transition from paganism to monotheism, and Church officials, as a way of enticing local pagan craftsmen to come and work on the new monotheistic temple, were promised that they could integrate their depictions of local ancient pagan legends, customs, and traditions into the stonework of the Cathedral. In this way, the Church was able to get the labour it needed, and at the same time co-opted all of these ancient pagan cultures into the bosom of this new monotheistic form of spirituality, thereby increasing its power.
Now, however, the gargoyles seem to be taking over again. With the decline in traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism, for reasons which we see documented in the media every day (secularization, sex scandals in the clergy, etc, etc…), feast days such as Halloween have most definitely reverted back to their pagan origins. However, most people, especially the children who are getting all made up to go ‘Trick or treating’ don’t seem to have a clue as to the historical origins and progression (or regression, as the case may be), of the actions in which they are partaking.
As the harvest recedes further into the background, and the gray veil of November’s ‘death’ draws nearer upon us, I wonder aloud as to whether some of those evil spirits should perhaps come and haunt our young people and inform them of the antecedents of the actions they are embarking upon? Or perhaps the next day or the day after, a ‘Hallowed’ soul, or ‘dearly departed’ one will come in an apparition to give them the briefing they require to hoist them out of deep dark abyss of ignorance in which they wallow.
If I’m late bringing forth my words of wisdom, at least I will feel at peace knowing that I will have done my ‘Hallowed’ duty to inform all and sundry of the origins of such a widespread popular phenomenon.