Bonfires, sacrifices, demons, nudity and booze: Celtic festivals were wild, and Christian missionaries wanted to wipe them out.
But this wasn’t an easy task.
You couldn’t walk into a village, burn everything the people loved, and cancel everyone's favourite party: because this would cause a riot and convert nobody.
So, the missionaries were clever about it.
Way back in 600 A.D., Pope Gregory told missionaries to work with the traditions and customs rather than destroy them.
If a group of people worshipped a field, missionaries should make it a place of Christian worship. If the Celts had a celebration, the Christians should move their celebration to that day. In a sense, their strategy was to merge the religions together and crash every Pagan party.
And this strategy worked. Christmas Day and Easter moved to the same dates as Pagan festivals. And even the Vatican in Italy was once a Pagan site of worship. Everything from worshipped trees to burial sites became Christianised.
Yet there was one festival they struggled to convert. It was the biggest festival of the year and obscenely heathen. It was Samhain, the festival of the dead.
Celts believed Samhain was the day the underworld collided with the world of the living. It was when the season of sunshine became the season of scarcity. It was both an end and beginning to life’s eternal circle.
The Celts would party long into the night with huge bonfires. They left food for the deceased outside their houses. They slaughtered animals, bobbed for apples and dressed up as demons.
Missionaries told the Celts this ‘underworld’ they celebrated was hell. They said the spirits were evil and said they were worshipping the devil.
History tells us none of the Celts cared.
So, the Christians moved All Saints’ Day (or All Hallow’s Eve) to the same time, November 1st. This was the traditional day when Christians feasted and celebrated their dead saints. In a sense, it was the Christian festival of the dead.
But this abstract festival didn’t capture the Celts’ interest. The Celts still believed all the dead roamed the streets at this time of the year, and still wanted to dress up as demons.
The Christians then decided to make it bigger and moved another festival of the dead, All Souls Day, to 2nd November. Again, this didn’t change much. All it did was add Christian devils and beasts to the things people would dress up as.
There was little else the Christians could do. It seemed humans just love being ghoulish. All the Christian efforts did was stop people sacrificing animals and changed the name from Samhain to All Hallow’s Eve, and eventually, Halloween.
So, next time you dress up for Halloween, remember it as one of the oldest Celtic and pagan events in the world. When your kids dress up as evil spirits they are re-enacting the day the spirits come to visit and mingle with the living.
You can enjoy a traditional Samhain festival in Edinburgh on 31st October.