A few years ago, I discovered Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization and was utterly fascinated. A longtime Anglophile, the Celtic traditions of Ireland and Scotland weigh heavy in my heart and my imagination. I was able to travel to Scotland for the first time in 2017 and I’ll never forget that first sighting. As much as I had loved England’s countryside, the deep greens and rugged wildness of the Scottish highlands, compared to England’s neatly manicured hedges and gardens, was so enchanting. You can almost feel the spiritual history around you, which some find alarming, but I find rather comforting and intriguing.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the Celtic culture, and Celtic Christianity which followed, is their reliance on and respect for the seasons. This could, in truth, be said about many ancient cultures – in particular, I think of Ayurveda and its significant focus on living with the natural ebb and flow of both seasons and days. However, the Celts had a particular way of taking their time honored traditions and infusing them with their newfound Christian beliefs that was unique to the time. Celtic deities before they largely embraced creation were not quite like the deities of ancient Greece or Rome – like the elements (which, in the Northern hemisphere and specifically the terrains of the Northern British Isles, were rugged and dangerous) they were fierce to behold. There was a fear associated with both nature and the gods which precipitated a need for festivals, services, and sacrifices in order to maintain a sense of balance and harmony between the earth, the gods, and the people. Christianity offered a change to that. The world, and nature, were still full of magic – but this magic “come[s] from the hand of a good God” and therefore
“This magical world, though full of adventure and surprise, is no longer full of dread. Rather, Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out. We have only to be quiet and listen.”Cahill, p. 131 – 133
Prior to conversion, the Celts held four annual festivals, timed with the equinoxes and solstices. One of those, and arguably the most important, was Samhain. Samhain marked the end of the harvest, the beginning of a new year, and the transition into the darkness. It was the time of year that the veil between the gods and the earth was thought to be the thinnest, making it a time when spirits walked and monsters roamed. Druid rituals were performed, sacrifices were made, and debauchery was likely at an all time high. Over time, new traditions were added. As Christianity began to take hold, new holidays were born: All Saint’s Day celebrated on November 1st and All Soul’s Day celebrated on November 2nd. In modernity, another holiday emerged: Halloween, celebrated on October 31st. An interesting merging of ideas took place as these new holidays and celebrations emerged. Trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns, pranks; increased interest in ancestors, ghosts, and the mystery of darkness; respect for saints who have passed and the “cloud of witnesses” we, as Christians, are encouraged to study and emulate; all of these late October markers have their making in Samhain.
The church year begins in darkness. During Advent, we focus on the anticipation of the coming of Christ. Built around the experience of the Jews who, for centuries and centuries, waited the coming of the Messiah, we join in on that wait. Although the time between Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and Christmas is what we now think of as “Christmastime,” according to church history, we’re not yet there. It will come, yes. But first, we ruminate on a world and a people that need Jesus.
It seems fitting, really, that Advent should follow on the heels of All Saints and All Soul’s, particularly as it is traditionally observed in similarity to Samhain. Ordinary Time fades from outward growth and green into inward growth and darkness. We harvest what we’ve cultivated in preparation for a time of rest. We look back on those who have gone before us in our last days of Ordinary Time, a cloud of witnesses who have lived out this Gospel story, before we turn back to anticipation of, ultimately, the second return of Christ and the resurrection of the saints.
And so, as a Christian, we can marry the time of Halloween and November with our beliefs and our history. It doesn’t mean foregoing trick-or-treating or Thanksgiving. It just means going inward for a bit – using this time of darkness to cultivate a sense of gratitude for what you’ve been given, of appreciation for those gone before, and of anticipation for what is to come.