As I discard the last of the Halloween candy (I thought of donating it, but who needs donated candy?), I found myself thinking about holidays and ancient heresies. Though we live in a modern world, we keep old pagan notions closer at hand that most of us are aware of.
Halloween was not always Halloween. The Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve began as the Celtic festival of Samhain. Throughout Ireland and Scotland, bonfires were lit to mark the moment when the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest, and the souls of all those who died during the year could pass through.
When the coming of Christianity, the good Celts were not keen to give up their traditions, so the holiday was reassigned, made a Christian holiday. But it’s still Samhain deep down.
The Spring festivals honoring the fertility goddess Eostre were similarly re-imagined. The Saxons would invoke Eostre using the egg as a symbol of birth and renewal. Often depicted with a rabbit at her side, Eostre moved into Britannia with the Anglo-Saxon invasion, finding a fertile new home.
But converting pagans is never light work, and the cults of Eostre were not going to give up their long-held traditions and beliefs. The Christians had little choice but to allow the worship to continue, so they created Easter, modifying the name only slightly, and reassigning it a Christian meaning.
Perhaps the toughest pagan holiday to dislodge was Saturnalia, the wine-fueled orgiastic festival that gave praise to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The Christians were just going to have to find something else to do with December 25.
Not to be forgotten, Saturn still lives on in our western concept of time - we honor him at the end of each week with his own day - Saturday.
Lest the gods of the Vikings feel left out, the most powerful among them, Odin, gets his due every Odin’sday or Wednesday as we pronounce it. Odin’s wife, the goddess Frigg, gets her due on Friggjardar, or Friday.
So as the grocery stores stuff away their Halloween wares, briefly replacing them with Thanksgiving themes, before the arrival of Santa Claus (a pagan Icelandic figure who rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, for whom children left food by the chimney), I’ll be thinking of what to get my wife for Christmas.
I still have time. Besides, it’s only Thursday (Thors-day, named for the Norse god of thunder, the mighty Thor.)