Ever since the first humans felt a need to celebrate, there have been
holidays. The earliest followed the seasons, with fertility and rebirth
holidays in the spring, and harvesting and death holidays in the fall.
Holidays were intimately connected to religious beliefs, which were, in
turn, intimately connected to agriculture. Their world revolved around
birth, death, and rebirth, whether it was in the nearby field, or in the
When Christianity swept through Europe, it conflicted with the "pagan"
religion. The old ways were impossible to fully eradicate, so the clergy
did the only thing it could. If you couldn't convert the people, you
converted the holidays. The pagan holiday of Yule, or Winter Solstice,
was turned into Christmas, to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Even though
many scholars now believe that Jesus was born in the early fall, Yule was
chosen because it was the holiday when the Goddess was honored for giving
birth to the sun. Samhain, the pagan New Year, when the boundaries
between the spirit world and the living world grew thin, was
converted into All Saints' Day (also known as All Hallow's Day,
making the night before it Hallow's Eve, or Halloween). Spring Equinox, a
celebration of growth and rebirth, was turned into Easter, the day Jesus
came back from the dead. The rituals involved with these holidays were
banned, but managed, through adaptation and secrecy, to make their way
back into the mainstream, their original meanings forgotten.
Do you buy a Christmas tree? Burn a Yule log? Carve a Jack
O'Lantern? Wear a costume on Halloween? Read all the warnings
against buying ducklings and chicks around Easter? Ever danced around a
May Pole? All of these were originally pagan rituals.
When the Church was in control of most people's lives, a new holiday
genre was born -- feast day for saints. A saint is a person who lived a
particularly holy life and is now interceding on the behalf of
supplicants. Saints become known, through their life stories or through
mere tradition, as particular patrons or patronesses of particular things.
There is practically a saint for everyone!
Are you an ice skater? St.
Lydwina is your patron. Struggling with class? Try St.
Augustine of Hippo, patron saint of academia. Or have you finally
admitted that you might be a little crazy? St.
Dymphna is the saint for you.
Celebrating the feast day of your patron saint meant that everyone had
a holiday. Everyone, whether you were suffering from scrofula, a Peruvian
television worker, or even a princess, had a day that was their very own.
And you could have more than one day! You could have a patron saint for
your origins, your profession, whatever illnesses you're suffering, your
age, your marital status, and your name!
The pagan holidays were still there though, hiding behind saints'
days. Several saints, including St. Brigid in Ireland, seem to be the
Church's version of the local goddess. And several saints are patrons
and patronesses of harvesting and crops. It would appear that the ancient
crop gods and goddesses survived until the present time, albeit in a
rather adapted form...
Europe wasn't the only area where "pagan" traditions were adopted and
changed by the Church. In Mexico, the Aztec beliefs in birth, death and
sacrifice blended with the Catholic tradition of All Saints' and All
Souls' Days to form Dia De Los Muertos, a celebration of the dead. During
the two days, families clean and repair the graves of their relatives, and
make little shrines to them. During the night, the spirits of the dead
come into the house and eat the food left on the shrine. The entire
tradition is to honor and respect the dead, but does have the overtones of
placating the dead.
Throughout history, you can be sure that if a holiday is popular with
the masses, it will still be celebrated, in some form or another.
In the past, these holidays were celebrated only in a religious context,
but after the Industrial Revolution, when the world became more and more
secular, celebrating strictly religious holidays fell out of vogue.
Saints' days no longer held the celebratory power they held before.
Instead, holidays became more secular and more commercialized.
Now, many holidays are associated with commercialism only. Read Sara
Bonisteel's Working Holiday to find out
Back Home for the Holidays