From my diary – thinking about All Saints Day

Halloween is nearly upon us, and with it comes the incessant smug chanting that “Halloween is simply Samhain renamed”, and other cries of a similar kind.

Folklore is often a bit rubbish.  All sorts of claims are made, of the wildest kind, and those who make them often take offence if you ask what evidence there might be for them.  The truth is that a good many customs are of very recent coinage.  I can personally attest that in England the custom of “trick and treat” was unknown in the 1960s and 70s.  I first encountered it in the mid-1980s, and it was evidently borrowed from American TV shows.

But a claim that “Halloween is Samhain renamed” raises all sorts of questions.  Who renamed it, if so?  When?  In what country?

Of course these questions are never asked, and the answers never supplied.  This alone should make us very suspicious that an urban myth is involved.

Thinking about this led me to ask when All Saint’s Day is first attested.  After all, Halloween can hardly predate it.  This in turn led me into deep waters.  One of these was the Wikipedia page, which contained the following remarkable claim:

I was much more interested in the “references” than in the text, of course, and these were also interesting:

“Hutton” proved to be  Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford, 1996.  Three chapters were devoted to Samhain and Halloween, concluding that in the British Isles it was All Saints Day that had replaced whatever might have been done at Samhain, and that Halloween only develops after the Reformation.  The author had plainly tried to get to the primary evidence for everything; and the sheer effort involved can only attract one’s admiration.  Unfortunately the footnoting is rather more meagre than one would wish.

“Pseudo-Bede, Homiliae subditiae” turned out to be quite irrelevant, as well as incomplete.  The reference should in fact be Homiliae subditae 69, in the Patrologia Latina 114; but in actual fact this has nothing to do with the points made.  The mention of it is a digression by Hennig: that extracts from this (spurious) sermon are used in the readings for All Saints’ Day in some modern service book.  The Hennig article – in fact both of them – were grotesquely badly written and rambling horrors.  An example will suffice:

The Collect for the feast of All the Saints says that we celebrate on it the memory of all the Saints sub una. The Collect for the Votive Mass says that we rejoice in the intercession of all the Saints ubique. The Office seems to pay a tribute to the first martyrologist to record the name of this feast, by taking the lessons for the second Nocturn from what is described as Bede’s 18th Sermon on the Saints, the first of the two sermons for this feast listed by Migne as nos. lxix and lxx of Bede’s sermones subditae.[47]

47. PL 114.

By contrast the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church article was concise and to the point.

All Saints’ Day itself does not appear to have been established on November 1 until the mid-9th century.  An important witness to this is often given as “Bede’s Martyrology”, stating that all the saints are honoured at the start of November.  But in fact this text does NOT state this.  It is found instead in a metrical text, slightly later than Bede, and sometimes referred to as “Bede’s metrical martyrology”.

Working with all this scruffy material is a trial to anyone historically minded!


3 thoughts on “From my diary – thinking about All Saints Day

  1. Oh, man, that Oengus of Tallaght martyrology is evidence _AGAINST_ it being “Samhain renamed.” (Besides the whole “Samhain was a law and voting festival, and that’s why everybody including the dead had to be able to travel freely to attend it.”)

    As my “Christian Halloween FAQ” quotes Oengus’ Felire —

    The Felire of Oengus the Celi De says that November 1, “blessed Samain” [“samain slanaig”] was the feastday of Ss. Lonan, Colman, and Cronan, whom he describes as “the host of Hilary” [St. Hilary of Poitiers, who legendarily trained and sponsored a lot of missionaries for Ireland].

    He says that October 31 was the feastday of St. Quintinus/Quentinus, a Roman martyr, and of the martyred abbot St. Faelan (aka Foillan), brother of the better-known St. Fursa.

    And here’s what Oengus says about All Saints’ Day on April 20:

    “Day of the suffering of Herodius,
    priest who crucified desire;
    Feast in Rome – that noble town –
    of the whole of the saints of Europe.”

    In other words, in Oengus’ day, the Irish had no particular strong pagan or Christian interest in All Saints’ Day (April 20), or in Samain (November 1), or in October 31. April 20 was only of interest because Romans liked it, and November 1 was only interesting because it was the day of some important Irish saints, as well as being associated with a secular legal holiday. October 31st was associated with Sumdood 1 and Sumdood 2.

    (Although not many of the Irish managed to get themselves martyred, even in pagan/fallen-away Belgium, and even by disappointed bandits; so St. Faelan/Foillan/Feuillien was a semi-big deal. The Irish believed that it was because of her kindness to St. Faelan that St. Gertrude of Nivelles was granted the favor of dying on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day.)

    (Anyway, the reason St. Faelan and companions were on the road to get robbed and martyred was that they had traveled to Nivelles to say Mass for the nuns on St. Quentinus’ Day. So clearly Halloween, or Quentinween in this case, was more of a Romano-Belgic-Frankish thing.)

  2. Forgot to quote October 31 and Nov. 1. (It was actually Oct. 30 in Oengus.)

    “Quintinus fair, crucified;
    Faelan with many bands of men,
    with a host of fathers, they declare;
    October’s high ending.”

    Here’s November 1 —

    “Lonan, Colman, Cronan
    with their bright sunny followers —
    the hosts of Hilary, many, sure,
    ennoble stormy Samain.”

    (The poem says either “sianaig,” stormy, or “slanaig,” blessed. Editors differ.)

    St. Hilary of Poitiers has his feast on November 3. It’s a big deal to associate the pre-Patrick or contemporary-to-Patrick saints with Hilary (the Trinitarian theologian) and St. Palladius, Ireland’s first bishop, instead of with Patrick and his next-generation mentor, St. Germanus of Auxerre. It’s basically affirming the rights of monks from earlier saints’ monastic families to be somewhat independent of Armagh (Patrick) and Kildare (Brighid, Patrick’s protege).

    The stuff that the early medieval Irish historically cared about is not the stuff that modern people think they should have cared about.

  3. Ah, you know far more about this than I do! Where is your Halloween FAQ? I couldn’t see it on your site. (Nice looking site, by the way – great to see the translations that you do as well!)

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