- by Dr Anne Mathers Lawrence
- Was Halloween a medieval festival?The origins of Halloween have often been traced back to the middle ages, and the usual ‘early witness’ is Bede. His The Reckoning of Time, an extremely influential book on the calculation of time and the Christian calendar, was written in the eighth century. Bede discussed how the ‘ancients’ and the pagan Anglo-Saxons divided the year into months. For the English, he says, November was ‘Bloodmonth’; and it followed the religious rituals celebrated in ‘Holymonth’ (September) and the onset of winter in ‘Winterfilleth’ (October). The name Bloodmonth he explains as meaning ‘month of immolations’ – November was the month when cattle were consecrated to the pagan gods and slaughtered. There is no mention here of any significant Christian festival held at this time, but the association with death is clearly strong.The feast of All Saints, celebrated on 1st November, appeared first of all in England – again in the eighth century – and seems to have been introduced to the Carolingian Empire by the English scholar, Alcuin. It was in the ninth century that this feast spread throughout the Empire, and also that the celebration of all the saints became linked with the commemoration of all the dead. An early example of this is found in the ninth-century liturgy of Metz.
In the early eleventh century the abbot of the great Burgundian monastery of Cluny, the saintly Odilo, took another important step. He had received an extraordinary appeal from a monk, who while returning from Jerusalem had been driven by a storm to a rocky island near Sicily, where he had encountered a hermit. It was the hermit who begged the storm-tossed monk to make his way to ask Abbot Odilo to do something for the souls of the dead, since he had personally witnessed them being tortured with fire by demons. Accordingly, Odilo instituted the feast of All Souls, which was celebrated on November 2nd, the day following the feast of All Saints, and put the powerful prayers of his monks at the service of all the Christian dead.
None of this is contested – but the same cannot be said for the question of the relationship between this two-day Christian feast of the dead and the Celtic festival of Samhain, on 1st November. That Samhain was associated with the onset of winter and was a time for royal gatherings and feasts, seems clear; but associations with death, and the return of the dead or of their spirits, are never clearly recorded in the early sources.
The importance of the feasts of All Saints and All Souls is confirmed by the extremely influential Golden Legend. This was first written in the 13th century; but was frequently translated. Demand was so great that it was one of the earliest books to be printed. The 15th century English version has long commentaries on, and explanations of, the two feasts of ‘Hallowmass’. All Saints is explained as having originated in Ancient Rome, and having been converted to a Christian feast of All Saints by Gregory the Great, celebrated on 1st November because of the ‘great abundance of good things when the corn has been gathered and the grapes have been harvested’. It is helpful to the busy Christian, who may not be able to celebrate the feasts of every saint individually but can catch up on 1st November; and it is an opportunity to reciprocate the joy of the saints in heaven whenever a sinner receives grace. Thus feasting is appropriate, and does honour to the help given by the saints. Finally, the feast is also a celebration of the relics of the saints remaining on earth. Gathering together on this day and offering reverence to the saints and their relics can atone for spiritual negligence through the rest of the year, and even offer a greater chance of having prayers heard, since the saints also gather together in heaven for the occasion.
The Golden Legend goes on to make it clear that this a two-part celebration, and the feast of All Souls, on the following day, is an opportunity for communal altruism towards the non-saintly dead. Emphasis is placed here on the advantages received by the dead who have living believers praying for them. For some, such individual commemorations began on the day of death, and were maintained regularly (or at least annually). But those who had no such specific help were in great need, and so the company of heaven had sent a message to the pope to create the feast of All Souls. The explanation of All Souls focuses on remembering the dead, and on the power of the living. This feast puts the living almost in touch with the dead, whilst pointing out the power given by God to demons to torment and punish sinners. There is a message of hope since prayers from the living can make a real difference for the dead – and the dead can reciprocate. A story told to support this describes how the bodies of the dead rose from the grave to fight for a man who regularly recited the psalm De Profundis for them. After all this it is perhaps hardly surprising that by the late middle ages the two or even three-day feast of Hallowmass was celebrated by lighting candles and torches, by musical performances in church, and by ringing church bells (often until midnight).
The rituals now associated with Halloween are different from the medieval emphasis on attendance at special, night-time church services. In countries such as England the Reformation made it necessary to manage the relationship between the living and the dead in a different way, but the shared elements are still strong. The ritual contact with the dead, the feasting, the lighting up of the night, and communal protection against danger are all important – but it will be noted that in the medieval Hallowmass these were focused on the night of 1st November, not 31st October. There are also no records of lanterns made from turnips or pumpkins being used in medieval churches or households.
The answer to the question seems to be a definite maybe!
- From Reading Book of Hours
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