YULE, BELTANE, & HALLOWEEN FESTIVALS:
Survivals of Ancient Sun and Fire Worship,
The northern nations, like the Hebrews, began their day in the evening. Thus we have Yule Eve, and Hallow Eve (Hallowe'en), the evenings preceding the respective feasts. The name Hallowe'en is of Christian origin, but the origin of the feast itself is hidden in ancient mythology. The Celtic name for the autumn festival was Sham-in, meaning Baal's Fire. The Irish Celts called it Sainhain, or Sainfuin; Sain, summer, and Fuin, end,—i.e., the end of summer. The Hebrews and Phoenicians called this festival Baal-Shewin, a name signifying the principle of order. The feast day in Britain and Ireland is the first of November. The Druids are said on this day to have sacrificed horses to the sun, as a thank-offering for the harvest. An Irish king, who reigned 400 a.d., commanded sacrifices to be made to a moon idol, which was worshipped by the people on the evening of Sain-hain. Sacrifices were also offered on this night to the spirits of the dead, who were believed to have liberty at this season to visit their old earthly haunts and their friends,—a belief this, which was entertained by many ancient nations, and was the origin of many of the curious superstitious customs still extant in this country on Hallowe'en. Dr. Smith, commenting in Jamieson's Dictionary on the solemnities of
Beltane, says, " The other of these solemnities was held upon Hallow Eve, which in Gaelic still retains the name of Sham-in,—this word signifying the Fire of Peace, or the time of kindling the fire for maintaining peace. It was at this season that the Druids usually met in the most central places of every country to adjust every dispute and decide every controversy. On that occasion, all the fires in the country were extinguished on the preceding evening, in order to be supplied next day by a portion of the holy fire which was kindled and consecrated by the Druids. Of this, no person who had infringed the peace, or become obnoxious by any breach of law, or guilty of any failure in duty, was to have share, till he had first made all the reparation and submission which the Druids required of him.
Whoever did not, with the most implicit obedience, agree to this, had the sentence of excommunication passed against him, which was more dreaded than death; none being allowed to give him house or fire, or shew him the least office of humanity, under the penalty of incurring the same sentence. "The ancient Romans held a great and popular festival at the end of February, called the Ferralia. At this season, they visited the graves of their departed friends, and offered sacrifices and oblations to the spirits of the dead; they believed that the spirits of the departed, both the good and the bad, were released on that particular night, and that, if they were not propitiated, these spirits would haunt throughout the coming year their undutiful living relatives. In all probability, though the time of celebration is different, these Roman ceremonies and the Hallowe'en ceremonies in this country had a common
origin. In the year 610, the Bishop of Rome ordained that the heathen Pantheon should be converted into a Christian church, and dedicated to all the martyrs; and a festival was instituted to commemorate the event. This was held on the first of May, and continued to be held on this day till 834, when the time of celebration was altered to the first of November, and it was then called All Hallow, from a Saxon word, Haligan, meaning to keep holy. This change was doubtless made in order to supply a Christian substitute for some heathen festival—in all probability the festival of Sham-in, which, as we have seen, was an old Druidical feast. Some time after this alteration in the time of holding the feast in honour of the martyrs, in 993, another festival was instituted for the purpose of offering prayers for the souls of those in purgatory, and this feast was kept on the second of November, and was called All Souls. The following legend was either invented as a plausible reason for instituting this additional feast, or the legend, being previously well known and accepted as truth, was really the bona fide reason for the institution: —" A pilgrim, returning from the Holy Land, was compelled by storm to land upon a rocky island, where he found a hermit, who told him that among the cliffs of the island was an opening into the infernal regions, through which huge flames ascended, and where the groans of the tormented were distinctly audible. The pilgrim, on his return, told the Abbot of Clugny of this, and the Abbot appointed the second day of November to be set apart for the benefit of souls in purgatory, which was to be kept by prayers and alms
festival of Hallowe'en we have the survival of the old Druidical festival of thank-offering to the sun-god for the
ingathering of the fruits of the earth, we have also in these two festivals of All Saints and All Souls the survival of the ancient Ferralia, or festival to the dead, when offerings were made to both good and bad spirits, to prevent them haunting the living; and thus we can account for the prevalence of the numerous superstitions concerning ghosts and evil spirits connected with the festival of Hallowe'en. That these Church feasts were regarded as the substitute for the Ferralia of Pagan Rome is verified by Father Meagan in his work on The Mass. We quote from Jamieson:—" Such was the devotion of the heathen on this day by offering sacrifices for the souls in purgatory, by praying at the graves, and performing processions round the churchyards with lighted tapers, that they called the month the month of pardons, indulgences, and absolutions for souls in purgatory; or, as Plutarch calls it, the purifying month, or season of purification, because the living and dead were supposed to be purged and purified on these occasions from their sins by sacrifices, flagellations, and other works of mortification." Plutarch, I think, must have referred to the month of February as the purifying month. Father Meagan has not referred to the change of date made by the Church. Doubtless the Christian Church, in instituting these festivals, intended, by divesting them of their heathen basis, to christianise the people; but, like Naaman of old, the worshippers, while they worshipped in the buildings in conformity with the regulations of their new teachers, yet retained many of their old Pagan beliefs and ceremonies, and
even their teachers were not thoroughly de-Paganised, and so the old and new commingled and crystallized
In all the four festivals we have been considering, there survive relics of fire-worship, and through all there runs a similarity of observance and belief; but the special practices are not everywhere joined to the same festival in all localities. In this part of the country, the special observances connected with Hallowe'en were, in other parts of the country, observed in connection with the summer festival. Now, however, we are glad to say, these superstitious ceremonies and beliefs in their old gross forms are fast passing away, or have become so modified that we can scarcely recognise their relations to the old fire-worship.
In 1860, 1 was residing near the head of Loch Tay during the season of the Hallowe'en feast. For several days before Hallowe'en, boys and youths collected wood and conveyed it to the most prominent places on the hill sides in their neighbourhood. Some of the heaps were as large as a corn-stack or hay-rick. After dark on Hallowe'en, these heaps were kindled, and for several hours both sides of Loch Tay were illuminated as far as the eye could see. I was told by old men that at the beginning of this century men as well as boys took part in getting up the bonfires, and that, when the fire was ablaze, all joined hands and danced round the fire, and made a great noise; but that, as these gatherings generally ended in drunkenness and rough and dangerous fun, the ministers set their faces against the observance, and were seconded in their efforts by the more intelligent and well-behaved in the
community; and so the practice was discontinued by adults and relegated to school boys. In the statistical account of the parish of Callender, the same practice is referred to. It is stated that "When the bonfire was consumed, the ashes of the fire were carefully collected in the form of a circle, and a stone put in near the circumference for every person in the several families concerned in getting up the fire; and whatever stone is moved out its place or injured before next morning, the person represented by the stone is devoted or fey, and is supposed not to live twelve months from that day.''
In all probability this devoted person was in olden times offered as a sacrifice to the fire god on the great day of sacrifice, which was the festival day. The belief that the spirits of the dead were free to roam about on that night is still held by many in this country. Indeed, where the forms of the feast have all but disappeared, the superstitious auguries connected with it survive. Bums particularises very fully the formulae of Halloween, as practised in Ayrshire in his day, and as this poem is well known, it would be superfluous to follow it in detail here; but I cannot refrain from drawing attention to the suggestions which one of the practices which he mentions affords in favour of the supposition that it is a relic of an ancient form of appeal to the fire god—I refer to the practice of burning nuts. It seems likely that in ancient times the priests, who claimed prophetic power through the reading of auguries, used this method of deciding the future at this particular season of the year, and chiefly during the holding of the feast.
Although I have confined my remarks to the four
feasts, Yule, Beltane, Midsummer, and Halloween, because they are the oldest and most properly national, there were a number of other heathen feasts, emanating principally from Roman practice, which the Church converted into Christian feasts, notably what is now called Candlemass. On the second day of February, the Romans perambulated their city with torches and candles burning in honour of Februa; and the Greeks at this same period held their feast of lights in honour of Ceres.
Pope Innocent explains the origin of this feast of Candlemass. He states that "The heathens dedicated this month to the infernal gods. At its beginning Pluto stole away Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought for her in the night with lighted torches. In the beginning of this month the idolaters walked about the city with lighted candles, and as some of the holy fathers could not ex tirpate such a custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honour of the Virgin Mary."
This method of keeping the feast of Candlemass does not now prevail in this country ; so far as the laity are concerned, the festival may be said to have died out, but according to Dr. Brewer, the festival is kept by the Roman
Catholic Church as the time for consecrating the candles used in the Church service.
Formerly there were other public festivals, as Lammas, Michaelmass, &c., which the Church had substituted for
heathen feasts which have ceased to be public festivals, and I trust we may indulge the hope that the time is not far distant when, instead of all such festive relics of heathenism, the Church and people will substitute one daily festival of obedience to the honour of the founder of Christianity, viz., the festival of a righteous life.