Resources on the History of Halloween
Part 1. Origins of All Saint’s Day and the Origins of Samhain
This article is an effort to gather together resources on the origin and historical development of Halloween. The intent is to supplement the previous article not only with resources so readers can dig into the topic themselves, but also to add some information on a couple of topics that are relevant some other modern claims against the Christian origin of All Saints’ Day. I tried to find these resources in online versions to make it easier for the reader to go through the original documents. But many of the resources are in print editions only.
This is a chronologically arranged annotated/narrated bibliography. The next article will deal with the documentary origins of witchcraft/witch-hunts, modern Wicca, Neo-Paganism, and the Wheel of the Year.
Documented Origins of All Saints’ Day
Earliest record of an annual commemoration of martyrs.
The earliest surviving record of an annual commemoration of a saint or saints dates to the 2nd century A.D. There is no reference to any pagan festival. The purpose of the day is to remember the testimony to faith in Christ that the saints gave with their lives and deaths. Polycarp’s martyrdom ties together both Rome and Smyrna on the southwestern edge of modern Turkey.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp, c. 150 AD
of Smyrna, on the western coast of Turkey.
Ante-Nicene Fathers I, p. 43
Origins of annual commemoration of martyrs in the East
Through the persecutions of the early centuries so many Christians were killed because of their faith, that churches in different areas began setting aside a particular day of the church year dedicated to All the Saints and Martyrs.
Gregory Thaumaturgus before 270 AD
of Neo-Caesarea a city in Tokat Province, Turkey.
Sermon on the Festival of All Saints Ante-Nicene Fathers VI, p. 72 [https://ecmarsh.com/fathers/anf/ANF-06/anf06-28.htm#P1299_353736]
Ephrem the Deacon 306-373 AD of Edessa, Syria
Ephrem’s Nisibene Hymn 6:30f mentions an annual feast of Martyrs/Champions that co-occurred with the Feast of the Ascension. NPNF-2:13 p. 176
According to the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia Ephrem notes the observance of an annual Festival of All Saints’ in Edessa on the thirteenth of May. We are looking for an English translation.
Mershman, F. (1907). All Saints’ Day. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 30, 2013 from New Advent: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htmEphrem’s works https://www.doaks.org/research/byzantine/resources/syriac/brock/ephrem
The Synod of Gangra 340 AD,
modern Çankırı, capital city of Çankırı Province, in Turkey
- Cannon 20 forbids the the condemning or speaking ill of assemblies and days in commemoration of the Martyrs.
NPNF2-14: p. 100 https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.viii.v.iv.xx.html
Council of Laodicea 363-364 AD
- Canon 51 established that the annual commemoration of Saints’ days (their nativities) that take place during Lent should be held on the Sabbath or Sunday following so that they can be commemorated with the full Liturgy rather than with the partial liturgies that were prescribed for weekdays in Lent.
NPNF2-14: p. 156 [https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.viii.vii.iii.lvi.html]
St. Basil of Caesarea 379 AD a city in Central Anatolia, Turkey.
Also noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia, though the year is recorded there as 397. Probably that was a typographical error in transposition of the numbers. Basil chose a day when the churches of his bishopric would honor the memories of all Saints known, and unknown, alive or in heaven. We are looking for the reference.
Mershman, F. (1907). All Saints’ Day. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 30, 2013 from New Advent: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm
John Chrysostom, died 407 AD of Constantinople.
The Reference typically given is to his 74th Homily, or his Homily for the First Sunday after Pentecost. In this referenced sermon Chrysostom wrote that a festival of All Saints was observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost in Constantinople during his episcopate.
2006 John Chrysostom: The Cult of the Saints: Select Homilies and Letters. Introduced, translated and annotated by Wendy Mayer and Bronwen Niel, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
[This book is helpful in understanding how important and widespread in the Church the commemoration of the martyred Saints had become at such an early date.]
The African Code 419 AD at Carthage
- Canon 46 (Greek 50) prescribed that the passions of the Martyrs may be read on their annual day.
NPNF2-14: p. 463 [https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xv.iv.iv.xlvii.html]
- Canons 60-61 prescribed that Christians should not celebrate Greek feasts or go to improper entertainments or the games at the circus, especially if those celebrations coincided with the memorial of a Martyr, a Sunday, or a Church Festival.
NPNF2-14: p. 473 [https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xv.iv.iv.lxi.html ]
Council in Trullo (The Quinisext Council) 692 AD in Constantinople
- Canon 63 forbids the use of false histories of the Martyrs because they misrepresent their testimony and mislead the faithful.
NPNF2-14: p. 394 [https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xiv.iii.lxiv.html]
Documented celebrations of the festival in the West
Readers should be aware that the East and the West were not isolated from each other. Even before Polycarp’s martyrdom, he and others before him had traveled to Rome. And others from the West had traveled to places in the East. We find documents from Rome that the annual celebration of an All Saint’s day which was widespread in the East was also the practice in Rome and the West.
Pope Boniface IV in 610 A.D.
All Saints Day commemoration celebrated May 13 at the dedication of Sancta Maria ad Martyres
There was also liturgical contact between Rome and England. Under Boniface IV, Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, went to Rome “to consult the pope on important matters relative to the newly established English Church” Bede, H. E., II, iv.]
Standardizing the Date in the Western Church
While an annual celebration of All Saints was widespread throughout the east and the west from very early, the dates chosen for this festival differed. The documentary evidence we have shows a movement as early, and possibly before 740 AD to celebrate the festival on November 1.
Pope Gregory III, died 741 AD
Gregory dedicated a chapel in Saint Peter’s, Rome, for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.”
[“All Saints Day,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, ed. E. A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 41-42
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. 1911 “All Saints, Festival of”. Encyclopædia Britannica 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/All_Saints,_Festival_of ]
There are several other sources listed by Todd Granger in his article on “All Saints’ Day,” a similar list is given in Hutton’s The Stations of the Sun, p. 364. [https://forallsaints.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/all-saints-day/] These include
- Arno, bishop of Salzburg (†821), had it adopted by a synod in the year 798.
- Alcuin (†804) mentions the date in a letter of that year,
- Manuscripts of the Martyrology of Bede have it on November 1st as marginal addition at about the same time.
- A November commemoration of All Saints was already widespread in Frankish lands during Charlemagne’s reign (†814).
- Pope Gregory the Fourth, under Gallican influence, ordered the observance of the first of November as a feast of All Saints,
- Early ninth century an English calendar (of Oxford) on November 1st ranks the day as a principal feast. There were over twelve hundred ancient church dedications to All Saints in England,
Saint Óengus of Tallaght ( Oengus the Culdee) died c. 824 AD
- Félire Óengusso (The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee) 8th or 9th century
A metrical martyrology ascribed to Oengus which contains a note on All Martyrs on the seventeenth of April and of All Saints of Europe on the twentieth of April.
The earliest Manuscript for this from the early 15th century. Internal evidence, the names of the particular kings listed, indicates the text was originally written before 833 AD.
[Irish text https://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/G200001/]
[Bilingual text https://archive.org/stream/martyrologyofoen29oenguoft#page/106/mode/2up ]
- The Martyrology of Tallaght 8th or 9th century
A narrative martyrology ascribed to Oengus which also confirms the practice of this festival in Ireland before the end of the first millennium.
1857 Calendar of Irish saints, the martyrology of Tallagh, with notices of the patron saints of Ireland, and select poems and hymns (Google eBook) Matthew Kelly, Tallaght abbey, J. Mullany,
All Saints’ Day is included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, from 1549.
Documentary History of Samhain
In the first article I pointed out that the ancient Celtic calendars that we actually have and know about are luni-solar. That is, the months were lunar months tied to the phases of the moon, and that an extra batch of days was added at the end to tidy up with the solar year. Because the calendar was based on the phases of the moon the claim that October 31 must be historic Samhain is patently false.
Samhain as Part of the Ancient Celtic Calendar
The oldest fairly complete ancient Celtic calendar we have that includes a mention of something like Samhain is the Colingy Calendar. The Colingy Calendar was found at Colingy, Ain, France in 1887 and is now held at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon, France.
The Calendar itself is dated to the late 2nd century AD on the basis of its linguistic features.
The wikipedia article on the Colingy Calendar has a good bibliography for extended research. You can see the calendar and how Archaeologists, Historians, and Linguists have worked to interpret the text at the Roman Britain Organisation’s website by Kevan White, as well as at John Bonsing’s website.
Some of the things learned from this Celtic calendar are pointed out by Kevan White;
1. “The Celtic month started at the full-moon, rather than the new-moon, probably because the full-moon is easier to observe and record. Each month alternately contained 29 or 30 days, making a Celtic year 354 days in length.
2. “The calendar took into account the differing time periods taken by the moon and the sun to circle the earth (prevalent geocentric terminology used), and reconciled the differences by inserting an extra month on a regular cycle. This method of intercalation meant that most years contained twelve months, and approximately every third year contained thirteen months. This extra month was called Mid Samonios, and was intercalated between Cutios and Giamonios in the calendar.
3. “The month was divided into two parts, a ‘light’ half, and a ‘dark’ half, each approximately of two week’s duration; the division marked by the word Atenoux ‘returning night’ on the Coligny fragments. This confirms that the new-moon also played a part in the Celtic calendar, and very likely had some religious significance. This also bears-out the impression we get from the traditional Celtic folk-stories which maintain that the normal period of Celtic timekeeping was the fortnight.”
Both White and Bonsing have done calendar calculations attempting to synchronize this ancient Celtic calendar with our current system. A very important point to note is that for the years worked out 24 AD to 54 AD the first day of Samhain never occurred on October 31. It occurred on November 1 only once in that span of years in 38 AD.
Also, there is no mention of or description of any calendrical festival cycle that would in any way compare to the Neo-Pagan and modern Wiccan “Wheel of the Year”.
2007 The Celtic Calendar.
See also the bibliography on the Colingy Calendar at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coligny_calendar
Finally, there is no explicit mention of a holiday called Samhain in this calendar. No such holiday is mentioned until 1,000 years later.
Medieval Celtic References to Samhain
The Laws of Hywel Dda ca 1285 AD
Harleian MS 4353 (V) with emendations from Cleopatra A XIV (W)
Welsh King Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) reigned 880 AD to 950 AD. The earliest copies of laws attributed to his rule are from 1285 AD. In this calendar the “calends of winter” = Samhain is used to fix an end to an economic activity. No festival is mentioned. Of course, King Hywel Dda lived in a time after the festival of All Saints’ Day had been introduced to the British Isles. The manuscript comes from well after the November 1st date had been established in the region.
Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer“) maybe 10th century AD, certainly older than the 15th c.
from the Ulster Cycle in Irish mythology.
The earliest manuscript is from the 15th or 16th century A.D. Some scholars conjecture that the story may go back to the 10th or 8th century AD. But there is no manuscript evidence for this. In any event, this is after the Christianization of Ireland and after the celebration of All Saints’ Day had been introduced in that land. In this document the word Samhain is understood to mean “the end of summer.” While this document describes druids working ritual at Beltane, there is nothing mentioned of ritual at Samhain. Even if the story goes back to the 10th century this is still after the festival of All Saints’ Day had been established on November 1st in the region.
https://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/G301021/ [paragraph 27]
Serglige Con Culainn (“The Sick-Bed of Cú Chulainn”), written maybe the 10th or 11th century A.D.
Also known as Oenét Emire (“The Only Jealousy of Emer:) is a narrative from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. This is the oldest reference from the medieval period and it comes from a 12th century AD manuscript. Note that this is well after All Saints’ Day is established on November 1st in the region.
This text mentions a festival in connection with Samhain:
“EVERY year the men of Ulster were accustomed to hold festival together; and the time when they held it was for three days before Samhain, the Summer-End, and for three days after that day, and upon Samhain itself. And the time that is spoken of is that when the men of Ulster were in the Plain of Murthemne, and there they used to keep that festival every year; nor was there an thing in the world that they would do at that time except sports, and marketings, and splendours, and pomps, and feasting and eating; and it is from that custom of theirs that the Festival of the Samhain has descended, that is now held throughout the whole of Ireland.”
Sanas Cormaic (“Cormac’s narrative” “Cormac’s Glossary”) manuscripts from early 15th c. AD
An early Irish glossary with etymologies and explanations for more than 1,400 words.
Ascribed to Cormac mac Cuilennáin (d. 908).
Significant because the glossary does mention Beltane and the rituals around it, but does not mention Samhain at all.
Due to the fact it describes some detail of pagan practice at Beltane it is not likely that Samhain was left out of the glossary out of religious prejudice.
Here we would expect to find something if there were because of the nature of the work and its contents. But we find nothing on Samhain.
Samhain in the Early Folklorists
Seathrún Céitinn, known in English as Geoffrey Keating, c1569-c1644
Irish Roman Catholic priest, poet and historian from County Tipperary
Keating wrote what looks like an observation of folk customs:
“there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax of a screaball, or three-pence, since the land on which Tlachtgha is belongs to the part of Munster given to Meath.” (p. 247)
Keating’s account of the Feast of Tara and his treatment of Samhain has been found to be creative anachronistic fiction by Daniel Binchy (pp 129-130 of his 1958 ‘The Fair of Tailtu and the Feast of Tara’, Eriu, 18:113-38).
Foras Feasa ar Éirinn: the history of Ireland D. Comyn and P.S. Dineen (eds.) 4 vols. Irish Texts Society, London 1902-14.
Grimm, Jacob 1785-1863
German philologist, jurist and mythologist who was very creative in his association of ideas and imaginative in his conclusions.
1883 Teutonic Mythology, Volume 2, Tr. James Steven Stallybrass, from the 4th ed. 1877, George Bell and Sons.,
-p. 614 in his discussion of religious fire his claim is based on sources which repeat Keating;
-p. 627 where Grimm claims that the Yule Log and Samhain are equivalent religious expressions without regard to cultural, seasonal, and regional differences.
See also the supplement volume 4 p. 1465f
Rhys, John 1840-1915
First Professor of Celtic at Oxford University.
Citing Keating and his experience in contemporary folklore was the first to suggest that Samhain was the ‘Celtic’ new year celebration. But there is no concept of “The Wheel of the Year” yet.
1886 Lectures on the origin and growth of religion as illustrated by Celtic heathendom (1892 ed)
Hutton notes two recent authors who have revived Keating’s fiction.
1981 Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin Books picks up Keating’s story and conjectures about a possible ancient mythological nature of Samhain.
1970 Celtic Mythology. New York: Hamlyn, bases some mythological conclusions on the same discredited evidence.
[Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 361f, 508]
Frazer, James 1854-1941
Scottish social anthropologist very influential in the early stages of the modern studies of folklore, mythology and comparative religion, especially with respect to his 1890 publication, The Golden Bough.
Frazer was the first to suggest that Samhain was an ancient pan-Celtic festival of the dead that had been taken over by the Church. Still no suggestion of a ‘Celtic’ “Wheel of the Year.”
1907 Adonis, Attis, Osiris: studies in the history of oriental religion, 2d ed., rev. and enl., Macmillan and co., limited in London . Pages 301-18 particularly p. 315 to 318.
Frazer’s comparative religion and folklore research methods and analytical methods have been largely discredited today.
At this point we are up to the 20th century and there is no real credible evidence that Samhain was any kind of ancient pan-Celtic festival of the dead, or that it was a new years celebration, or that it was even a fixed festival. There is definitely no evidence for a Celtic “Wheel of the Year.”
1996 Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.
Probably the single best volume addressing seasonal holidays and the claims of pagan or Celtic origins by looking at actual parish and county records.