Welcome back to our ongoing lesson on the history of Halloween! When we left off last time, the Druids were calling the clans together to celebrate their connection to the dead and the harvest.
By around 37 CE, Christianity began to become more popular in the Roman Empire, but it wasn’t until Constantine the Great came to power as the Emperor that the Empire was declared a Christian one in around 314 CE. One of the first orders of business under the new regime was the systematic dismantling of the faith of the non-Christians. This was a huge turnaround from Rome’s stance before this time. In the past, it had been the way of Rome to allow a conquered people to continue their faith and practices within a region. This, more than anything, lessened the blow of people taken over by Rome. After all, their taxes might go up and they may be paying them to a different government, but they could still receive the comfort of their familiar Gods and Goddesses when they entered the temple.
Not so with the new Christian regime. Many scholars believe that this stringency came not only from the belief in singular deity (almost unheard of at the time) but also because of the way they were treated early in their development. You see, they had once been considered an insidious cult by Roman leadership, and belief in the new cult-like faith which taught that Roman leaders were teaching the people evil doctrine and should be overthrown saw many Christians thrown to the lions in the gladiatorial games. Now that they were in power, they were definitely ready to let everyone under their rule know that it would be their way or death.
While many eventually bowed to the new Christians leaders, the Celts and their Druid priests and priestesses were not so willing to let go of their faith. In fact, the Celts and their Saxon counterparts caused more problems for Rome than almost any other section of the Empire. When Christian priests attempted to tell the people that their Gods were demons and their celebrations were Satanic (Can something be Satanic if you don’t believe in Satan?), they had a tendency to find themselves on the receiving end of an uprising. The Druids led these uprisings and so they became public enemy number one in the Celtic lands under Rome’s rule.
What do you do in a situation like that? The solution was simple. Get rid of the Druids! That’s right, it became illegal to practice the rituals and beliefs of the Druids and doing so was punishable by death. As the Druid numbers decreased, larger numbers of Christian priests were sent into the area, but they still could not manage, especially in the areas of modern day Ireland, to completely beat down the old faith. So, they took an “If you can’t beat them trick them into joining you” attitude. It was an enterprise that would take centuries to complete, and some would argue that it never fully did.
Pope Gregory I in the late 6th century sent his priests into pagan temples to re-consecrate them in the name of the Christian God. The Goddess Brigid of Ireland was so loved by the people they could not get rid of her, so they told the people it was okay to still pray to her because she was obviously a saint. While they were at it, they started renaming some of the beloved celebrations of the Celts and Saxons. Yule became Christmas; Oilmec/Ostara became Easter, and you guessed it, Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve followed immediately by All Saint’s Day.
The bonfires and other rituals were obviously out of All Hallow’s Eve. There would be no celebrating the return of the ancestors because the souls of all good people were carried away to Heaven after death. So if your dead Uncle Finn showed up in your house on Samhain night, he was obviously evil and an agent of Satan. There was, however, one other possibility. If someone you knew wasn’t bad enough to be sent to hell, but not quite good enough to get into Heaven, they might find themselves in Purgatory. All Hallow’s Eve began to evolve into a night of prayer and fasting for those who might be caught in Purgatory so that they could move on to Heaven.
This worked well in the larger parts of Britain, but once again, the early Irish Celts just couldn’t be kept down. They were more than willing to pray and fast, but there would definitely need to be a celebration to follow that time. And the Romans…well, they just couldn’t think of a good enough way to get them to stop.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the second leg of our journey in the history of Halloween. We have moved from dancing and bonfires to prayer and meditation and we’re not nearly done with our journey! Join me again next week for part 3!