History of Halloween

It’s that time of year again… That time of candy corn and haunted houses.  Of grinning pumpkins and costumed kiddies.  Of nocturnal creatures and creepy critters, monsters, skeletons, and ghosts.

I have very fond memories of celebrating Halloween as a child.  Picking out the pumpkin that would adorn our front stoop was a task to which I proudly lent my assistance, as my family and I would drive to one of our local patches or stands to select the one that possessed the most uniform shape, the brightest color, and the largest size.  Picking out my costume was also a fun task; it was sometimes store-bought, sometimes scrounged together from miscellaneous household garments and accoutrements, and, on one rare occasion (my dalmatian year), handmade by my mom.  Trick-or-treating, of course, is the prime attraction of Halloween for most kids.  But perhaps just as fun for me was the “after party” at my house.  My brother and I loved spilling out our sugary spoils on the living room floor, and then, after carefully dividing the candies into groups and counting up our individual totals, we’d make trades—my green and yellow Skittles for his reds and purples, a pack of Gobstoppers for a Twizzler or two, and so on.  And then we’d drink hot apple cider and watch a rented copy of Hocus Pocus while we discussed our favorite costumes of the night.

Unfortunately, many Christians are strongly opposed to the celebration of Halloween in any form, denouncing it as a pagan holiday that worships Satan and glorifies evil.  But the only part of this claim that bears even a slight truth is that it is a pagan holiday.  While Halloween as it is celebrated in the U.S. today is a secular holiday, divested of any religious significance, its date and customs are derived in part from the ancient Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween, literally “summer’s end”), which was celebrated from October 31 to November 2.  The Celts believed that during this three-day span, the veil between the world of the dead and the world of the living became very thin, enabling spirits to pass through and roam the earth.  While the Celts welcomed and honored the spirits of their ancestors, they sought to ward off evil spirits by wearing masks to repel or confuse them.  They would also leave fruits, nuts, and wine outside their homes to appease the evil spirits and prevent them from playing tricks on the house.  So, contrary to the claims of ignorant Christians, this festival from which Halloween evolved did not promote evil; rather, it sought to deter it.  Nor did the Celts worship Satan.  Being a pre-Christian culture, they worshipped multiple gods and goddesses.

Maybe some Christians are wary of joining in the Halloween festivities because they tend to focus on the theme of death.  But what’s so wrong with that?  The Celts acknowledged death as a part of life that was beyond their control, but it was not something to be feared.  Many Neopagans use the holiday as an opportunity to confront their personal and cultural attitudes toward death and to discuss the topic with their children.  Christians, more than anyone, need not fear death; Jesus Christ has defeated death, after all, so that we can live eternally with Him.

Perhaps more bothersome to Christians are all the superstitions associated with Halloween.  But we can still partake in Halloween without buying into all the superstitious hype of black cats and ghosts and all that.  Ghost stories can still be fun and chilling even if you don’t believe in ghosts, much like fairytales don’t require belief in fairies and monsters in order to be considered magical and inspiring.

Its pagan influences are well-cited by many, but interestingly enough, Halloween also has Christian influences.  In trying to reform the superstitions of pagans into God-worship, Pope Gregory III declared November 1 The Solemnity of All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, to commemorate the saints in heaven.  “Hallowmas” is a term that encompasses three consecutive Christian celebrations:  All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Hallows’ Day (or All Saints’ Day, November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2).  This November festival was founded in the eighth century, and by the ninth, it was already widely celebrated throughout the Frankish empire.

Some scholars trace the origin of trick-or-treating to the practice of souling in medieval Britain, in which beggars would go from door to door on November 1 singing and saying prayers for the dead.  They would ask the homeowner for a soul cake (small, round cinnamon-raisin cakes) and in return agree to pray for that person’s family members in Purgatory.  Shakespeare alludes to this practice in his 1593 play The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which the character Speed accuses his master of “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.”  (Also, check out this Peter, Paul, and Mary song called “A Soulin’.”)

I am in no way denying the danger of the occult or the evils of polytheism.  I am merely saying that just because a holiday has pagan influences doesn’t mean it should be dismissed (just as we shouldn’t throw away our calendars just because the days of the week and months of the year are named after pagan gods).  It’s important to remember that when today’s Wiccans or Druids hold celebrations on October 31, they are not celebrating Halloween; they are celebrating Samhain, which has its own unique set of customs supported by its own unique set of beliefs.

I don’t believe that celebrating Halloween is spiritually harmful because it doesn’t have anything to do with paganism (at least not to me, nor to its mainstream celebrants), nor does it have anything to do with Christianity—but that doesn’t make it “evil,” at least not any more than playing Checkers or reading Green Eggs and Ham or doing a thousand other things that are not directly tied to God are evil.  Christianity shares the dates of its holidays with those of pagan religions and even borrows some traditions from them, such as Christmas trees, mistletoe, Yule logs, and caroling—but we’ve adapted them to a new context, as has been the way of cultures since the beginning of time.  When I say that I “celebrate” Halloween, I don’t mean that I try to communicate with dead spirits or deepen my connection with different deities.  Halloween is not Samhain, even though it may have roots there, nor is it All Hallows’ Eve.  Halloween is its own distinct holiday characterized, for whatever reason, by pumpkins, costumes, candy, and scares.  The term “Halloween” didn’t appear until the 16th century, and its main customs developed in 20th-century America.  (For example, national attention wasn’t given to the practice of trick-or-treating until the late 1940s.)  Wherever it may have originated, the emphasis of Halloween has since shifted to a secular time of imagination, treats, and fun.

Halloween does have value.  I agree with American author Richard Seltzer, who says that Halloween reinforces the social bond of a neighborhood, especially the bond between strangers of different generations; the holiday enables children to overcome their fear of strangers, Seltzer says, and enables adults to vicariously relive their own childhood adventures.  It also encourages creativity in children as well as family bonding.  Halloween was always a special time for me when I was young—I still light up whenever I see stretched-cotton-cobwebs on front porches and gigantic candy displays in grocery stores and little girls dressed up like princesses, pitter-pattering to the nearest doorstep—and I plan to pass that joy on to my future children.

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