Thursday, October 30, 2008

Catholicism, Christianity and Halloween

The Roman Catholic Church was faced, early on, with the daunting task of trying to convert a continent of pagan Barbarian tribes and get the converted to accept the new Church’s Holidays.

The pagans of Europe had long marked their celebrations around the changing seasons, thus the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, the Autumnal Equinox (Fall) and the Winter and Summer Solstices marked the major pagan celebrations.

In an accommodation with these tribes, the Roman Catholic Church sought to meld its own Holy Days with the pagan celebrations to make it easier for the pagans to accept Catholicism.

In that regard, Christ’s birth was moved from what scholars believed to be September to the Winter Solstice, when the days grew longer and the “Sun was risen.”

Easter was melded into the Vernal Equinox celebrations, but that still left one of the most highly celebrated pagan feasts “the Final Harvest,” disconnected from the Roman Catholic Church’s Holy Days.

Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) – Celtic for “Summer’s End.”

Pope Gregory III was the first Roman Catholic Pope to try and meld this pagan celebration with the Catholic Church’s traditions. In the 8th Century Pope Gregory III started the Feast of All Hallows Day, a day in which all the Saints, known and unknown, were honored, later this came to be “All Hallows Eve” and later still, “All Saint’s Day.”

The Celts, who lived over 2,000 years ago, in the areas that are now the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their New Year on November 1st. This day marked the end of summer with the final harvest and marked the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with death.

The Celts believed that on the night before the New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, a night when it was believed that the spirits of the dead returned to earth.

These spirits could be benign or troublesome, either blessing/protecting homes or bringing death or future damaging crops. The Celts believed that the presence of the spirits of the dead made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people, like the Celts, entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead.

The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain may explain how the tradition of "bobbing" for apples became associated with Halloween.

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the Pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but Church-sanctioned Holy Day. The celebration was also called All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

By 1,000 A.D., the Roman Catholic Church made November 2 All Souls' Day - a day designated to honor the dead. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the Eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas, which became Halloween.
In transforming pagan Europe the Roman Catholic Church transformed itself and Christianity, as well.
Happy Halloween!

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