The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







The historical phenomenon of Christianization, the conversion of individuals to Christianity or the conversion of entire peoples at once (a political shift as much as a spontaneous mass shift in individual consciences), also includes the practice of converting pagan cult practices, pagan religious imagery, pagan sites and the pagan calendar to Christian uses.

Humanistic studies of Antiquity and the Reformation combined in the 16th century to produce works of scholarship marked by an agenda that was occupied with identifying Roman Catholic practices with paganism. The sober Lutheran scholar Philip Melanchthon produced his Apologia Confessionis Augustanae (1530) detailing the rites derived from paganism. Heinrich Bullinger, De origine erroris libris duo (1539) detailed the pagan "origins of [Catholic] errors". Isaac Casaubon, De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticus exercitationes (1614) makes a third familiar example, where sound scholarship was somewhat compromised by sectarian pleading. Thus such pagan precedents for Christian practice have tended to be downplayed or even sometimes dismissed by Christian, particularly Roman Catholic apologists, and the subject is sensitive for the faithful.

The 20th century saw more purely historical inquiries, free of sectarian bias; an early historicist classic in this field of study was Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods: the mythological tradition and its place in Renaissance humanism and the arts. (1972).


Christianized populations

When referring to Northern Europe, the means of this conversion were chiefly Proselytism directed towards monarchs and chieftains whose people then followed their conversion.

Crusades against the Wends, Balticum, and present-day Finland were also organized, although it is disputed how much these served a religious purpose or the power ambitions of kings, princes and noble bishops.

Christianized sites

Few Christian churches built in the first half millennium of the established Christian Church were not built upon sites already consecrated as pagan temples or mithraea.

The Christianized landscape

The British Isles and other areas of northern Europe that were formerly druidic are still densely punctuated by holy wells and holy springs that are now attributed to some saint, often a highly local saint unknown elsewhere. These water sources have always been guarded by supernatural forces in the European imagination. An example of the pre-Christian water spirit is the melusina.

The Christianized calendar

Several Christian feasts occupy moments in the year that were formerly devoted to pagan celebrations. Familiar examples are the Roman Saturnalia, converted to Christmas, the festivities of Yule in northern Europe, the name of Eostre converted to English "Easter" to identify the Paschal festival, the celebration of Midsummers Day as the birthday feast of John the Baptist, and the celebrations of Celtic Samhain transferred to the eve of All Saints Day or Halloween.

Other seasonal manifestations had unexpectedly long pagan traditions. At the Eastern Council of Constantinople in 691 A.D. it was expressly forbidden for the treaders of the grapes at harvest to call out "Dionysus" as they had been doing. The council ordered instead that when each load of grapes was brought in, the treaders should cry "Kyrie eleison!" (Kerenyi 1976 p 67).

Christianizing the Lemuria

May 13 was the culmination of the Roman Feast of the Lemures, in which the restless wandering spirits of the dead were propitiated with offerings and incantations. Pope Boniface IV at the Feast of the Lemures, 13 May, either in 609 or 610 (the day being considered more significant than the year), reconsecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, ordering an anniversary. The feast was to honor all the saints, 'known or unknown' and is taken as the early Latin version of All Saints, which was transferred to November 1 in the 8th century (see below).

Cultural history of Halloween

Although modern Halloween is a secular holiday, cultural historians recognize its connections with the pagan Celtic season of Samhain, a connection stoutly denied by official Roman Catholics. Like other feasts in the Christian year, the earlier observations were Christianized as the feast of All Saints. Roman Catholics object. They localize the revised autumnal date for All Saints in Germany, and identify the celebration of All Saints with feasts of groups of martyrs, in distant centers such as Antioch.

Celtic observation of Samhain

In the 19th century, James Frazer and John Rhys claimed that the Christian establishment had successfully Christianized the Samhain season, although neither of them had any written record available of any such "Samhain" festival, beyond the existence of a month in the old Irish calendar with that name. So the particular details of observations that follow deserve to be considered with some reserve.

The earliest roots of Halloween are found in the Druidic observation which took place each year the night of October 31 (Celtic days beginning with the eve), opening the season of Samhain. A three-day festival called Samhain (pronounced "sow-inn") followed. After the crops were harvested, Druids in Ireland and Britain would light fires and offer sacrifices of crops and animals. As they danced around the fires, the season of the sun passed and the season of darkness would begin. This was a time of year when the veil was thin between worlds. In Ireland it was believed to be the night on which the invisible "gates" between this world and the Other World were opened, and free movement between both worlds was possible. In the Other World lived the immortal "Sidhe" (pronounced "shee"), the female members of whom were called beán sidhe or banshees.

Bonfires played a large part in the festivities and hundreds of fires are still lit each year in Ireland on Halloween night. The obscure origins of the word "bonfire" are sometimes derived from "bone fires:" villagers, the thought goes, would cast the bones of the slaughtered cattle upon the flames. The suggestion that, with the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires and that each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the common flame, may confuse Samhain with the midsummer festivities.

In the three days preceding the Samhain month the Sun God, Lugh, maimed at Lughnassadh, dies by the hand of his Tanist (his other self), the Lord of Misrule. Lugh traverses the boundaries of the worlds on the first day of Samhain. His Tanist is a miser and though he shines brightly in the winter skies he gives no warmth and does not temper the breath of the Crone, Cailleach Bheare , the north wind. In this may be discerned the ageless battle between the light and dark and the cyclic nature of life and the seasons.

It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health and death. It was supposedly the day, Christians imagined, that the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes.

Christianizing the Celtic Samhain

The first of November, as a day to commemorate all the saints, was interposed to counter Samhain, when Pope Gregory III (731-741) consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all the saints and fixed the anniversary, not by chance, for 1 November, in accordance with practices in Frankish territories. In 835, Pope Gregory IV extended to all the churches this celebration for all the martyrs (which later became later "All Saints"), on November 1. When November 1 became the new date for the feast of All Saints, all the Saints and Martyrs being called upon to sanctify the season, the pagan Celtic Samhain became merely "Hallows Eve." It was converted to a vigil of preparation for the morrow, which was made a day of obligation, when Christians were obliged to attend mass.

Even later, in the 11th century, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor all the dead: all the Christian souls in the half-world of Purgatory. Catholic doctrine clearly reveals the liminal or threshold connection between the two worlds: "that the souls which, on departing from the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from the beatific vision, and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, almsdeeds and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass." (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910: 'All Soul's Day').

All Soul's Day was accepted by Odilo (died 1048) in the Cluniac monasteries, and its observance spread through the Celtic north before it was introduced into Italy.

Christianizing the Saturnalia

See the details at Saturnalia and Christmas. The example of the Christmas tree as a widespread ancient pagan symbol of the renewal of life is a familiar one. In Roman mosaics from Tunisia showing the mythic triumphant return from India of the life-death-rebirth deity Dionysus, the god carries a tapering coniferous tree.

Suppressing Yule

Christians in authority frowned upon the riot and disorder of Yuletide in northern Europe. The friend and biographer of Saint Eligius recorded that the bishop called the "Apostle to the Frisians" would caution his flock "[Do not] make vetulas, (little figures of the Old Woman), little deer or iotticos or set tables at night (for the house-elf, compare Puck) or exchange New Years' gifts or supply superfluous drinks." The Yule customs would appear to be harmless, except that they were pagan. Soon wassail and gift exchanges would become part of a Christianized Yuletide, however.


  • Kerenyi, Karl, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 1976.
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