Diary Entry of the Abbot of Kells, Ireland – November 3, 1012 A.D.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) was here a couple of days ago. The Celtic people celebrate this day as the start of a new year each November 1. The summer was at an end and the harvest was beginning. The dark, cold winter was on the way and the harsh Irish winter always brought death. The Abbey has been spreading the Gospel in the area for two hundred years or so, but there are still many pagan Celts.
The Celtic people believed that Samhain was the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. On this last day of the year, the line was blurry enough for the dead to appear to the living. The celebration always happened the same way. The hearth in every home would be extinguished. Then, the Druid priests would light huge bonfires and crops and animals would be sacrificed to the Celtic gods. The next morning, the hearths would be lit from the “sacred” fire.
Almost a thousand years ago, the Romans had left a few festivals in late October as well. The first was Feralia which commemorated the passing of the dead from that year. Second, there was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. These two festivals were meshed over the years with Samhain. So, the Celts had bobbing for apples and rites honoring the dead along with their bonfires, fortune-telling, and animal sacrifices.
Then, the Christians came and things began to change, slowly.
The Christians are rightly wary of some of the practices like fortune-telling and animal sacrifices. But, we have no problem with the bonfire. We have told the people that it symbolizes the great light of Jesus Christ. We do not have a problem with bobbing for apples, because they are fruit from the earth, formed by the hand of the one God. We have no problem with commemorating the dead either. In fact, we have been able to show many of the pagans how we pray for the dead at every single offering of the Holy Mass. They were astounded that we do this every day.
We at the Abbey have been working hard to clean up these pagan festivities of the problematic parts. In 609 A.D. Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to honor all Christian martyrs and established All Martyrs Day. This was expanded by Pope Gregory III in the 8th Century to include all of the saints. The Pope also did something quite providential for us: he moved the feast from May 13 to November 1! We have been working to combine our celebration of All Saints Day with Samhain as much as we are able.
About 12 years ago, Rome gave us another gift with the November 2 feast of All Souls’ Day. The people we serve here in Kells were very open to this feast! The night was a beautiful celebration. We modeled it after their own Samhain: there were bonfires, parades, the adults and the children dressed up as saints, angels, and devils, and we had bobbing for apples. There was not a Druid priest in sight and no animal sacrifices or fortune-telling. Hopefully within a few years Samhain will be completely replaced.
Of course, the above diary entry is historical fiction. But whoever the real Abbot of Kells was in the year 1012, he got his wish! Within a few years, Samhain was no longer celebrated. It was replaced with the All Saints’ Day celebration which they called All-Hallows Eve, which we now call Halloween. This is what the Holy Mother Church does. She takes what is good and leaves what is bad. The Gospel does not come into an area and destroy culture: it elevates it and purifies it.