October 28, 2010

Society and Culture

Sugarcoating Halloween

Michael McKinney

Although Halloween did not originate in the United States, Americans spend more than six billion dollars each year celebrating their fastest growing holiday. With an estimated 70 percent of American households participating, it has clearly become a very popular occasion indeed. 

What isn’t as clear at first glance is exactly how the world got Halloween in the first place. Social and religious historians have supported varying approaches to the holiday by emphasizing one century versus another on the historical timeline. On one point, however, all sources seem to agree: Halloween’s origins have something to do with the dead and their spirits.

Centuries before the birth of Christ, the Celtic world of Ireland, Britain, Scotland and northern France were celebrating the end of summer on October 31. November 1 marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the new year. The holiday was called the festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-en) after the god of the dead. Samhain remains a popular entity among modern-day witches and neo-pagans to this day. 

As one story goes, on the last night of the old year, October 31, when the veil between the worlds was supposed to be the thinnest, the dead were believed to roam the countryside with the intent of possessing the bodies of those still living during the next year. On the bright side, we are told, the spirits of the dead mostly just wanted to have some fun wreaking havoc on crops and settling previous grudges or just visiting their loved ones and predicting the marriages, windfalls, illnesses and deaths that would occur in the coming new year. Depending on their view of all this, people would either welcome them into their homes or attempt to keep them away by lighting bonfires and carrying lanterns made from hollowed out turnips carved with frightening faces. 

Other stories describe somewhat darker traditions. In Halloween Through Twenty Centuries, co-authored with his wife Adelin, anthropologist Ralph Linton notes that the Druids believed the souls of sinners were banished at death into the bodies of animals to await the new year when their release could be secured through human and other sacrifices. “Men, mostly criminals, were imprisoned in wicker and thatch cages shaped like animals or giants,” the Lintons write. “The Druid priests set fire to the tinder cages and the men were burned to death.” This story is echoed in a 1972 book coauthored by Robert J. Myers and “the Editors of Hallmark Cards.” 

Exactly how extreme this festival became is unclear, but references to Druid practices of human sacrifice can be found in the writings of Tacitus, Caesar, Cicero and Strabo among others, and Geoffrey Keating connects such rites to the eve of Samhain in his History of Ireland, Volume II

When the Romans came along in the first century C.E., Linton notes, human sacrifices were outlawed. But they also added their own twists—fertility goddesses and the like—to Druid festivals such as Samhain. It was the Catholic Church that eventually brought the festival into the mainstream during the eighth century. With paganism still a nagging problem among the Christians of the day, Pope Gregory III offered an alternative. He moved All Saints’ Day from May 13th to November 1. The night before became All Hallows’ Eve, later known as Halloween. Now, instead of dressing up as animals or spirits to frighten away the dead, Christians could dress up as saints. And instead of appeasing the dead with food and wine, they could give “soul cakes” to the poor who, in return, would agree to pray for departed loved ones. 

Even through the Protestant Reformation and the growing hatred of purchasing indulgences and many other things Catholic, Halloween survived in various forms in the Old and New Worlds. The road to its most current form had its beginnings in the early to mid-1800s, when as a result of the Irish Potato Famine, more than a million emigrants made their way to America. Bringing with them little more than their traditions, they celebrated All Saints’ Day with gusto. In place of turnip lanterns, revelers carved them out of the abundant pumpkins of the New World. In an article for American Heritage, 2009 Guggenheim Fellow and social history writer Ellen Feldman comments on this period: “Instead of dressing up as saints in church parades and begging for soul cakes in return for prayer, these new urban Irish slipped into secular costumes and went from house to house, soliciting handouts.” 

Where there were Irish on Halloween, there were often ‘little people’ who had a tendency toward vandalism, and although most Irish immigrants had settled in the cities, the tradition of Mischief Night spread quickly through rural areas. On October 31, young men roamed the countryside looking for fun, and on November 1, farmers would arise to find wagons on barn roofs, front gates hanging from trees, and cows in neighbors’ pastures. Any prank having to do with an outhouse was especially hilarious, and some students of Halloween maintain that the spirit went out of the holiday when plumbing moved indoors. 

By the 20th century, Halloween was seen less as an occult festival and more as a way to boost community spirit. It was also found to have some redeeming value as a form of crowd control. It was in the 1920s that children began for the first time to dress up in costumes and go door-to-door to trick-or-treat. However, the downside was that in the cities the pranks often turned to vandalism. Various scares in the 1970s put trick-or-treating on the wane, but it came back in the 80s, and by 1999 it is estimated that 92 percent of all American children were trick-or-treating. Halloween was back. 

Of the six billion dollars now spent on Halloween in the U.S., almost two billion goes to sweets, more than a billion goes to costumes, with the balance going to food, drink and decorations. Not the food, drink and decorations that you might traditionally associate with Halloween, however. Adults are taking over the festivities. As Feldman, put it, “Men and women spend small fortunes and long hours dressing or undressing as their favorite fantasies. While juvenile celebrations become more controlled, with parents vigilant against excessive sugar consumption shepherding their children from house to house, adult festivities grow more licentious.”

And more violent. As adults slip on masks, they can tend to slip out of constraints.


It might be assumed that these tendencies, as much as the celebration’s past associations, would raise concerns for those who profess to be followers of Christ. However, the mainstream Christian community is unevenly divided over Halloween’s applicability to their faith. While some are vocal in their opposition to the Christianization of Halloween, many others see no inherent contradiction. 

In response to e-mail criticism accusing the Web site of glorifying evil, Halloween.com posted an article titled “A Christian Perspective on Halloween: An Episcopal (e.g. Protestant) Christian’s View.” It protests in part that, “the Church for centuries, however, has seen All Hallow’s Eve not as a glorification of evil, but as a chance to affirm eternal life in the face of the death of our mortal bodies. Just as Easter is a celebration of Jesus’ victory over death and evil, so is Halloween!” 

Some may interpret this as simply a naive attempt to sugarcoat Halloween’s darker origins, but a similar, if more secular, opinion is expressed by Ed Williams, a professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University, Alabama. He concludes that “Although some pagan groups, cults and Satanists may have adopted Halloween as their favorite “holiday,” the day itself did not grow out of evil practices. It grew out of the rituals of the Celts celebrating a New Year, and out of Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans. And today . . . the day itself is only as evil as one cares to make it.” 

Would modern neo-pagans accept that they have merely “adopted” Halloween as their “favorite holiday?” Wiccan Ashleen O’Gaea notes that the rituals of Samhain (October 31) are not recreational. Rather, they are literally and highly sacred to those, like her, “of Neo-Pagan faith.” In her book Celebrating the Seasons of Life: Samhain to Ostara O’Gaea explains that the customs of Halloween are old, and easily recognizable to Wiccans. And just as Williams notes the Celtic roots of Halloween, so O’Gaea notes this same, shared Celtic heritage between Wicca and Druidry. 

To some Christians, the adoption of pagan practices into their faith is no cause for alarm. But understandably, it may be also difficult for some to reconcile such a course with the words of Moses, which the Bible says were given to him by God: 

“When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For these nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not appointed such for you” (Deuteronomy 18:9–14). 

The apostle Paul’s writings present a similar dilemma. He pressed the early followers of Christ to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). His stance was that playing with Satan’s way of thinking would be bound to affect other behaviors as well. It was more than a matter of appearance. He wrote to Jesus’ followers in Corinth that “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (I Corinthians 10:20, NIV). “You” meant people who considered themselves to be followers of Christ. To attempt to reconcile Halloween and Christianity requires making rationalizations that are not consistent with the teachings of the Bible. On another level, this review of Halloween does leave us with practical questions: Do origins matter? Does sugarcoating Halloween present risks? Are lies harmless to society in general?

Rationally, most people might not choose to associate with the ignorance and pagan practices found at the origins of Halloween. Unfortunately, cultural relativism or adaptivism has obscured the reasons for many of our behaviors: we don’t think rationally about many of the things we do. Cultural anthropologist  Marvin Harris concluded in Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going, “The decisions our predecessors made and the changes these decisions brought about show that there was a disjunction between the two, and that all the major steps in cultural evolution took place in the absence of anyone’s conscious understanding of what was happening.” He adds, “the twentieth century seems a veritable cornucopia of unintended, undesirable, and unanticipated changes.” And unwittingly we go along.

As Albert Einstein wrote in a letter to Werner Heisenberg, “only the theory decides what can be observed,” our understanding is dependent on what we believe. The lies we tell ourselves affect our experiences. To understand, we most often first must make the change. Psychiatrist Milton Erickson noted, “Change will lead to insight far more often than insight will lead to change.”

To rid ourselves of the myths that surround us is to live more fully, intentionally and with understanding.