Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween: Holiday or "Helliday"

Printed in the U Matuna, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Hagatna, Guam, October 23, 2011.

Halloween was probably my mother’s favorite holiday. There was no end to her creativity. She would blindfold an unsuspecting trick-or-treater and stick his hands into a bowl of cold spaghetti and tell the already frightened kid it was a dead man’s brains, or make him feel a hard-boiled egg and tell the poor child, who only wanted a handful of candy, that it was the man’s eye. 
She would make our costumes. Her masterpiece was the one she made for my brother. She stuck his head through a large piece of cardboard with a table cloth over it, fit a paper plate around his neck, taped a fork and knife next to the plate, and then poured ketchup over his head. Human head for dinner anyone?
My annual sojourn to different neighborhoods on Halloween with my own kids tells me that the creativity and gusto for Halloween is just as alive today as it was in my youth. The National Retail Federation reports Halloween festivities continue to increase in popularity and Americans will spend nearly seven billion dollars this year on Halloween paraphernalia. 
Halloween is unique among our cultural celebrations. We know why we celebrate Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July, but Halloween? It’s origins and the reasons for its place among our annual cycle of holidays is as masked and mysterious as the identities of the bands of ghouls and goblins that make their way to our door each year with their bags and baskets.
Recently, an anti-Halloween movement has been making its presence felt. Its central claim is that Halloween is the “devil’s holiday” and that Christians should have nothing to do with it. (1)  The anti-Halloween message seems to have resonated a bit within Catholic circles because some Catholics are now eschewing traditional Halloween activities and turning their focus to All Saints Day, which is the next day and from which Halloween (All Hallows Eve) gets its name.
But while there is nothing wrong with dressing up little Johnny as St. Michael instead of Caspar the Friendly Ghost, merely swapping out costumes is actually a tacit acknowledgement of the case against Halloween. For if in fact Halloween is the “devil’s holiday”, then Catholics must do more than just switch costumes. So it is important that we examine the claims about the supposed dark origins of Halloween lest we persist in perpetuating an alleged unholy activity.
The central claim in the case against Halloween is that Halloween has “demonic” origins in an ancient Druidic festival in which “Samhain”, the Celtic god of the dead, was worshipped. During the celebration, the Druids (Celtic priests), were alleged to have offered human sacrifice upon great bonfires while dancing about in animal skins.
The Druids were also thought to have gone “door to door” (trick or treat) during this time seeking virgins to rape and sacrifice. If they were given a virgin, they supposedly would leave a carved pumpkin illuminated by candles made from human fat as a sign to the other Druids that this house had given them what they wanted. Demonic assassinations were said to be arranged for those who refused to give them a virgin. 
So here we see several things associated with Halloween: bonfires, costumes (animal skins), “trick or treat”, illuminated pumpkins, and generally scary stuff. Let’s address each. 
First, there is no Celtic god named “Samhain”. “Samhain” is a Celtic word meaning “summer’s end”,  and like many ancient peoples of northern climes, the Celts marked the transition between the seasons with a celebration. (2)
The Celts believed that at this time of the year when the season of life (summer) waned, and the season of death (winter) loomed, the veil between the “worlds” was temporarily lifted and the dead were allowed to revisit the realm of the living, sometimes causing mischief.
Bonfires were lit, not for any demonic purpose, but to symbolically ward off the approaching darkness of winter and herald the hoped-for coming of the sun in the next cycle of seasons. Animals were sometimes sacrificed during these festivities, but archeologists have turned up no evidence of human sacrifice. (3)
Dressing up and dancing about in animal skins was not an uncommon practice amongst primitive peoples. It was believed that the qualities of the animal could be imputed to the wearer such as the strength of a bear or the speed of a deer. In this, we might even see a foreshadowing of the Christian admonition to “put on the mantle of Christ”.
While such beliefs and practices may have been pagan, there was nothing satanic about them. The existence of Satan is of Judeo-Christian origin and Christianity had not yet reached the Celts. The Celtic belief system, though it allowed for mischievous fairies, elves, and the like, had no concept of demons and devils. (4)
There is also no evidence of a Druidic “trick-or-treat”. The closest thing we can find is the Christian practice in the Middle Ages of poor folk going door to door asking for food in exchange for prayers for the benefactor’s dead relatives on the eve of the “Day of the Dead” (later called the “Feast of All Souls”).
The practice of hollowing out certain vegetables to be used as lanterns was common. However, we know that the pumpkin was not used because the pumpkin is indigenous to the New World and did not show up in Europe until explorers had begun bringing back items of interest from their excursions.
Most of the misinformation about the activities of Samhain and the Druids seems to have been based on the research of a British officer in the 1770‘s who was trying to prove the inferiority of the Irish and Scots, the modern day descendants of the Celts. Typical of a researcher with an agenda, he got several things wrong and inserted implications that served his skewed ends.
The origin of any popular tradition is always complex, having usually grown organically over centuries and through a multitude of cultures and with little documentation. This is especially true of Halloween. However, there really is nothing wrong with the practice of dressing up as ghosts and goblins and knocking on strangers’ doors to ask for candy. As a matter of fact there may be something even quite Christian about it.
First, what other time of year do we freely give to strangers at our door? (Here in Guam we even invite people in to eat.) Second, the “scary” costumes and clowning around do not celebrate death, they mock it. Satan hates to be ridiculed and true satanists take their rituals very seriously. Yet, that is, in effect, exactly what we do on Halloween. Consciously or not, we mock death and the devil. We turn him into a clown. We laugh at him, give him candy, and send him away.
Given that Halloween is a deeply popular custom and seems to have grown quite organically through the ages, it is easy to see how a pagan celebration, originally enacted to ward off death (winter), could have gradually grown, once Christianity seeped into the culture, into a celebration mocking death and the devil since Christianity is a victory over both.
Thus does St. Paul say in Colossians: “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made public example of them (one translation says “parading them through the streets”), triumphing over them in Him. Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” (Col 2:15-16)


(1) While there are many and varied sources for these claims, Chick Publications is probably most responsible for the spread of these misconceptions. See “Boo” at Chick Publications

(2) An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, MacBain, Alexander,Gairm Publications, 1982

(3) See The History of Halloween -- It's Probably Not What You Think, Dennis Rupert, pastor New Life Community Church of Stafford

(4) Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, Margot Adler, Penguin (Non-Classics); Revised & Expanded edition (March 1, 1997)

Also see:

Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers; Oxford University Press, 2003. 198 pgs.

History of Halloween: Myths, Monsters and Devils by folklorist W.J. Bethancourt III

Bethancourt’s extensive bibliography on this topic

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