The festivals celebrating the spirits of deceased individuals that had evolved from the Celtic Samhain and Roman Feralia were abhorrent to the early Christians and thus put them into fundamental conflict with the state. The refusal to participate in this festival was one of the many factors that lead to the extensive persecution, torture and execution of Christians in the first three centuries of the Christian Era. It was only in 312 CE, when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and issued his Edict of Milan (requiring tolerance of all religions), that the state persecution of Christians came to an end.
Christianity had already secretly converted a significant proportion of the urban population. With the protection of the Edict of Milan, early Christian churches were rapidly established by 325 CE throughout the empire. With the collapse of the Western Roman empire over the next century, the Christian church became the only governing alternative to the Germanic and Goth tribes that now controlled most of Europe.
As the church spread throughout England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, it encountered once again the Celtic tribes and the celebration of Samhain. Perhaps remembering the consequences of early Christian inflexibility in the first couple of centuries of Roman rule, Pope Gregory I (590 – 604 CE) advised missionaries going to the Celtic lands to make no attempt to do away with their religious customs but rather to find a way to convert them to a Christian religious purpose.
In a remarkable example of “thinking outside the box”, these missionaries saw a connection between the wandering ghosts and threatening spirits of Samhain and the Church’s saints – devout Christians who had died but continued to be involved in miraculous occurrences among the living. In 609, Pope Boniface IV officially created the feast of All Martyrs Day on 13 May to honor all the Christian martyrs. In 731, Pope Gregory III expanded the festival to include all saints as well and moved the observance back to 1 November when the ancient Samhain festival was originally celebrated. (See the previous blog for more details.) Sometime around 1000 CE, All Martyrs Day was supplemented by All Souls’ Day on 2 November. This was a day to honor all Christians who had died. It was a clear attempt to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned one.
The Middle English word for All Saints’ Day was Alhalowmesse. Over time the name of the holiday evolved to Allhalowmas and then to All-hallows. Although broadly accepted by most of the population, the old beliefs associated with Samhain remained. Somehow the idea of roaming spirits and ghosts had too strong a connection to the human psyche to be completely satisfied with an abstract celebration that honored saints.
As a result, the night before the saints were to be venerated came to be the time when the supernatural symbolism and rituals of Samhain could be turned into a fun and scary time of connection with the world of the dead. The evening of 31 October became All-hallows Eve and eventually Halloween.
In the next couple of centuries, people began dressing up as ghosts and demons, visited their neighbors, and performed antics in exchange for food and drink – a custom known as mumming.
Poor people would visit the houses of wealthy families and promise to pray for the souls of their dead relatives and would receive “soul cakes” in exchange – a practice called “souling.”
In Scotland and Ireland, they would dress up in costumes and go “guising”, where they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform some other kind of entertainment in order to collect a treat of fruit, nuts or coins. All of these customs are obvious antecedents of our modern practice of trick-or-treating.
In the next part of our series, Evolution of Halloween in the Medieval Churches, we will follow the Halloween story through the darker time of the Reformation when it became a tool of competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches.