I LOVE Halloween! I always have, while I’m not heavily into blood and guts (even pretend), I’ve always liked the tradition of dressing up and going “trick or treating.” As I got older, the costume party always seemed like a lot of fun. And, as I got older yet, I realized that I got a big kick out of seeing little kids in their costumes or going out with my kids to collect their “loot.” I just think it’s a lot of fun.
The idea of a seasonal festival at the end of the harvest or the beginning of winter is common to most societies and many religious traditions. It is/was widely accepted in many belief systems that this time of year brought the world of the living in closest contact with that of the deceased, so it is/was also widely used as a time for remembering ones’ ancestors. I rather like that idea, too. Just as what has become Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for the blessings of life, the idea of taking a bit of time to think about those who came before us doesn’t seem like it hurts anything.
Of course, in relatively recent times, certain groups of religious fanatics have decided that since the Halloween/Samhain tradition has origins in pagan belief, it’s the “Devil’s Night” and recognition of it is a form of satanic “Devil Worship,” requiring “anti-Halloween” (CHRISTIAN!) festivals, etc., to combat the “satanic” practice of putting on costumes and collecting candy door to door. In fact, I strongly suspect that very few, if any, of these people are aware that the Roman Catholic Church (back in the days when it was the ONLY Christian church [pre-Reformation]) established All Saint’s (Hallow’s) Day as the first of November, so Halloween is actually “All Hallow’s Eve” (the eve of All Hallow’s Day).
I’m also pretty sure that the church created this celebration on this particular date in an attempt to “christianize” the earlier, pagan, harvest/ancestor celebrations. On the other hand, the Church did that with a lot of other celebrations, as well. After all, the Romans were NOT stupid enough to schedule a census of Judea which required everyone to go to their place of birth in the middle of the winter when travel was the most difficult. No, the Church placed the birth of Jesus near the midwinter solstice much later in an attempt to combat traditional Yule celebrations, as they moved Christianity throughout Europe. Even Easter has many associations with pagan spring festivals, although most of us only associate it with the Jewish Passover and/or the Passion of Jesus.
I suspect that the widespread use of witch costumes and thinking about magic as a part of Halloween are (at least in part) responsible for the notion that Halloween is really all about worshiping the Devil, in spite of the fact that devil worship is not a requirement for “witchcraft” and the “wise old man or woman” was/is a significant part of many traditional cultures as healers and the like. I suppose that the idea is based on the notion that we “good” people worship the proper sort of deity and have the “correct” sort of beliefs, so there must be “bad” people who worship the wrong sort and this is an easy group to mark as “bad,” since they seem to have knowledge which is not necessarily available through our religious teachings. There’s nothing very profound about that idea. It’s been around a long time. After all, religions (at least every one I can think of) are based on the idea that “we” (the adherents of the “true” faith) are RIGHT and everybody else is wrong, so, if they don’t appear to be strict followers of the “correct” belief system, they must be “bad.”
Certainly my ancestors who came over on the Mayflower and lived in the Massachusetts Bay area in 1692 would NOT have approved of the Halloween celebrations which are now a major tourist feature of modern Salem, MA (“The Witch City”). It is also true that the New England Puritans didn’t seem to find much of anything worthy of a celebration. That sort of thing was “frivolous” and not worthy of the Chosen people, so they didn’t celebrate Christmas, or Easter, either. They were perfectly happy to take steps to try to make sure that the Devil wouldn’t get a foothold in their community, however, so they hanged my ancestor, Martha Carrier, and eighteen others and tortured another person to death, while seven died in jail and about 150 more were accused of practicing “witchcraft.” Obviously, the colonists were VERY concerned about the devil being so well entrenched against them. Eventually, the conclusion was reached that the entire “Witch Trial” episode was a mistake: that none of the dead were actually guilty of any crime, official apologies were made, and a pittance was paid to the families of at least some of the victims. To those of us who had ancestors killed, however, it seems a bit too little and rather late.
“Magic” is more complicated in that it clearly must be the devil’s work (since we can’t really explain it), except when it’s a “miracle” in which case it’s okay (?). So turning water into wine, or unleavened bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is okay, but turning water into rum, as Seamus Finnigan tries to do in the movie of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or healing the sick with various folk remedies, is clearly the work of the devil. Just the fact that many of the Harry Potter characters are described as witches and wizards and engaging in “magic,” justifies to some the censorship of these books, in spite of the rather obvious Christ-like qualities of Harry’s character and sacrifice and the obvious evil of Voldemort’s ideas and followers. I’m afraid that I just don’t get the logic of this sort of prejudice. But, I’m not a “born again, true believer,” so I guess I’m clearly not qualified to have an opinion….
The facts seem pretty simple to me. Many celebrations and ideas, which MAY have had a religious basis, or may have acquired one along the way, have become so widespread as to have lost specific, exclusive contact with those religious roots. In fact, those roots were often complicated by historical changes in religious practices so that they have, at least in significant part, become secular, social celebrations.
I’m not going to get into whether this is a good thing, or not, but the “Jesus is the reason for the season” fanatics who show up every year (recently) objecting to “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” from merchants seem to be woefully out of touch with the reality that their version of Christianity is not, in fact, the dominant religion of the world, nor is the Nativity, which was moved to this time of year by the Church in an attempt to minimize pagan celebrations the only religiously oriented celebration of this time of year. It’s often struck me as amusing, for example, that we still speak of having a “Yule log” during the holiday season, but most people don’t seem to know that Yule is an indigenous, Germanic midwinter festival, so it’s a pagan practice.
Personally, I’d suggest that if one wishes to emphasize the religious aspects of various celebrations, that’s fine; provided that one accepts that their personal beliefs are not likely to be accepted by the rest of the world as dominant “truths,” so others are going to treat these same occasions differently, and some are going to make them completely secular.
So, if it makes you happy, you are welcome to hide under the bed while witches rule and the spirits are abroad. (Anybody remember Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Now there’s a case of scary spirits abroad in the night, but that’s not Halloween, so it doesn’t count, I guess.) If that doesn’t make you happy: put on a costume; stick a candle in a pumpkin (historically, it should be a large turnip); dress up your home with spiders, witches, monsters, etc.; have a party, celebrate the season with your kids and friends. Remember, as Orson Welles said at the end of his famous radio broadcast in 1938: “So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Halloween.”