Samhain Celebration?

A dear friend sent me this question:

Jack,  I’ve been wanting to ask you something...Why would you celebrate or even call attention to Halloween or Samhain when it is a dark, pagan holiday and has nothing to do with furthering the cause of Christ?  I copied the following...simply from Wikipedia...

Samhain (pronounced sow-en) is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. Most commonly it is held on 31 October – 1 November, or halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh it makes up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. It was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Kindred festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).

Samhain is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature. Many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. In much of the Gaelic world, bonfires were lit and there were rituals involving them, as at Beltane. People and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Samhain (like Beltane) was seen as a time when the “door” to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead, and other beings, to come into our world. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. It has thus been likened to a festival of the dead. People also took steps to protect themselves from harmful spirits, which is thought to have led to the custom of guising. Divination was also done at Samhain.

It was popularized as the “Celtic New Year” from the late 19th century, following Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer. It has been linked with All Saints’ Day (and later All Souls’ Day) since the 9th century, when the date of that holiday was shifted to November 1. Both have strongly influenced the secular customs of Halloween.

Samhain is still celebrated as a cultural festival by some (though it has mostly been replaced by Halloween) and, since the 20th century, has been celebrated as a religious festival by Celtic neopagans and Wiccans. Neopagans in the southern hemisphere often celebrate Samhain at the other end of the year (30 April – 1 May).

This is such a great question that I decided to forgo the quick reply and offer a more reflective response.

First of all, I send out well wishes to people of other faiths for the simple fact that I love and respect my family and friends! Just as Jesus had table fellowship with outcasts and sinners (and, in that culture, that meant one was considered an equal or part of the family; see Matthew 9.9-12; cf. Matthew 12.46-50, Acts 17), I welcome people of all faiths, not only by treating them with respect, but would (and have) gladly opened my home to them. Christ welcomes all people and so should his followers.

Second, Pope Gregory the First issued an edict in the 7th century to consecrate local customs and beliefs instead of obliterating them (Celtic Christian missionaries were doing this for quite some time). This included their holy days (holidays). Samhain became All Saints Day (it starts at sunset on 31 October and ends at sunset on 1 November). Of course, this practice changed over the years when the Church started wiping out those it considered “outside” God’s grace (including other Christians!). And, unfortunately, this practice still goes on in a lot of churches.

Third, I want to talk about some of the specific things you stated. You wrote, “...Halloween or a dark, pagan holiday and has nothing to do with furthering the cause of Christ.” I want to push back against this a bit.

While I am no expert on the ancient Celts (not yet, anyway), I’ll offer my understanding of Samhain. The ancient Celts (people from Ireland, Scotland, Britain, Wales, etc.), like a lot of ancient cultures, were very connected to nature. Their lives were governed by the seasons and they had celebrations marking those seasons. Whereas Beltaine was the festival (feast day) of “life,” Samhain was the festival of “death.” It marked the end of Summer (Samhain literally means “summer’s end”), the beginning of Winter, and the New Year. It represented the end (i.e., “death”) of the harvest season and was the time when the livestock would be culled - animals not expected to survive the winter were slaughtered to prepare the meat stores for the coming cold season.

Since Samhain was the “death” festival, it was also a time to remember, celebrate, and honor loved ones who had passed away, relationships that had broken, seasons past, etc. This celebration was also a time when clans or tribes reconnected, family ties were strengthened, and loyalties pledged to the High King (Ard Ri).

Part of the Samhain celebration was a purification ritual and a grand communal feast. The Druids (the priests of the ancient Celts) would erect large bonfires and light them before the last Summer sunset. The people would bring animals and grains for offerings, passing between the bonfires to purify them before they were offered to the gods. These offerings and some of the culled animals were then used for the communal meal. Later, families took embers from the bonfires back to their homes to light their hearths with the last glowing fire of summer - symbolically using “the summer sun” to warm them through the harsh winter weather.  

The ancient Celts believed that our world and the world of the departed, sometimes called the Otherworld, overlapped and interlocked. They believed that both worlds were part of a whole intertwined and integrated reality. There were places and times were the distance between these worlds were short or “thin” (i.e., the veil between our world and the Otherworld was almost nonexistent). We can see this expressed in their artwork, especially throughout the medieval period (see some great examples here).

Since Samhain marked the “death” of Summer and the old year, it was a “hinge time” or  a“time between times,” and especially a “thin” time. Because of this, the ancient Celts felt loved ones from the Otherworld could visit their families during Samhain. In preparation for that, the people would set extra places at the table for their departed loved ones at the feast.

With all of that stated, I think that there are some clear images that “further the cause of Christ.” I’ll work backward through the points.

One of the things that is extremely powerful about the Christian faith is that the “river is wide.” That is, there are several different views and understandings within the tradition and all of those understandings are considered “orthodox” or “right belief.” This means that while a particular doctrine or understanding is not held in one part of the Christian household, it is held in another part and still considered correct. And while there may be differences, they are still part of the same family.

Many Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) leave out places at the table for departed loved ones, especially during the holidays (holy days, feast days). For example, during Pesach, a place is set and a glass of wine was left for Elijah (and some people leave the door open for a while), who was supposed to come during the Seder.

Another image is that of thin places. Within the wide river of the Christian tradition, there is the idea of thin places. This is seen especially in the Celtic Christian traditions, but also within the Orthodox traditions of the East, and others. Admittedly, for quite sometime the mystical side of Christianity has been dormant. But in recent years it has been gaining a comeback, especially with the resurgence of contemplative prayer and Celtic Christianity.

The taking of the “summer sun” home from the bonfire brings to my mind a couple of images - Eucharist and salvation. Let me explain. The ritual celebration is like a “church service” in that it was facilitated by clergy (the Druids, the priestly order of the Celts1), the congregation or parish brought offerings, and left purified. The people would then take with them something that would save them from the world (in this case, fire so they wouldn’t freeze to death). In a church service, and depending on that service, a person can take Christ home with them - in their heart and/or within them (by way of Eucharist). Either way, Christ is within them and saves them from the “world.” Also the communal meal is clearly tied to the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper or Communion).

And let’s not to forget that part of the Samhain ritual was to make offerings and be purified, both of which are things that people do in Christian services. Especially during the persecution periods of the Church (that is, when the Church was being tortured and slaughtered, not when they were doing the persecuting), people met together for support and solidarity - to pledge allegiance to each other and to Christ, their High King. They were (and still are) part of the same family (or tribe or clan).

The Church has clearly marked seasons as well (whether some parts of the family use them or not). And each new season has it’s own special services. The churches “new year” begins with Advent, the preparation time leading up to the birth of the Christ child. Next year’s Advent begins December 2, 2012.

Lastly, I whole heartily believe that God speaks through various means to different people. God is not limited to “our” institutional religions to guide and speak to people. Sometimes, even “pagans” have more faith than God’s people (see Jesus admonition of the Roman centurion in Matthew 8.5-13).

So, I hope that helps in understanding why I offer holy day greetings to my family and friends who are of a different wisdom tradition. Thanks again for the great question!

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

1.  As an interesting aside, St Colum Cille (Columba) stated that “Christ the Son of God is my druid.” He’s one of my favorite saints. You can read more about him regarding this quote here.


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