A reflection on why I don’t seem to enjoy Halloween

by Anna Blanch on November 1, 2009

Halloween is not my favourite holiday. When asked to list my favourite holiday it wouldn’t even be in the top 10. Actually, I am not sure it would even occur to me for it to even be on the list.

Given how big a deal it is in the US and the preparations being made for various Halloween parties here in Scotland last night I’ve been thinking about why it doesn’t fill me with any excitement at all.

It isn’t that i am a party-pooper. I like parties, gatherings of friends – I like people. It can’t be the food – I have a reasonably sweet tooth. It can’t be the dressing up per se – I like costumes and roles and fun.

Maybe it’s cultural. We don’t celebrate Halloween in Australia so I don’t have any childhood memories of costumes made by my mum (unless you count the ones for boiok week) nor visiting the houses of strangers to receive lollies, or sweeties, or candy (whatever your native dialect calls them).

Maybe it’s that although it seems fun to dress up as ghouls, witches, demons, and all manner of horrible creatures, I don’t find the spirit world funny. I know most are naive and their ignorance may be bliss. But between the glorification of demonology, however innocent, and the excuse to dress up in clothing that is designed merely to highlight ones finer points, it all leaves me a bit cold and wanting to boring and to dress up as myself. I told you I enjoy dressing up – the costume party we had to celebrate the end of this summer was a perfect example of the genre done well – but for some reason halloween for adults just is not my thing!

It got me thinking about the history of Halloween.

History of Halloween
Wikipedia has a quite detailled article on Halloween and it seems as good a place as any to begin. Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while “[s]ome folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, [it is] more typically [l]inked to the celtic festival of Samhuin or Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in),” which is derived from Old Irish and means roughly “summer’s end.” The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”, and is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” A similar festival was held by the ancient Britons and is known as Calan Gaeaf (pronounced kalan-geyf).

The celebration has some elements of a festival of the dead. The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honoured and invited home whilst harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. Bettina Arnold writes about this. I saw a few young people dressed up like this in Dundee yesterday. The name ‘Halloween’ and many of its present-day traditions derive from the Old English era. My old English scholar friends could probably describe the etymology better than I, though I will give it a “red hot go” (yes, that is a reference to “could have been champions” – but only the aussies will get it!).

Origin of name
The term Halloween, originally spelled Hallowe’en, is shortened from All Hallows’ Even – e’en is a shortening of even, which is a shortening of evening. This is ultimately derived from the Old English Eallra Hālgena ǣfen. A time of pagan festivities, Popes Gregory III (731–741) and Gregory IV (827–844) tried to supplant it with the Christian Feast Day (All Saints’ Day) by moving it from May 13 to November 1. It is now known as “Eve of” All Saints’ Day, which is November 1st.

In the 800s, the Church measured the day as starting at sunset, in accordance with the Florentine calendar. Although All Saints’ Day is now considered to occur one day after Halloween, the two holidays were once celebrated on the same day.

Symbols
On All Hallows’ eve, many Irish and Scottish people have traditionally placed a candle on their western window sill to honor the departed. Other traditions include carving lanterns from turnips or rutabagas, sometimes with faces on them, as is done in the modern tradition of carving pumpkins. Welsh, Irish, and British myth are full of legends of the Brazen Head, which may be a folk tale of the ancient Celtic practice of headhunting. The heads of enemies may have decorated shrines, and there are tales of the heads of honored warriors continuing to speak their wisdom after death.

The carving of pumpkins is associated with Halloween in the US and Canada where pumpkins are both readily available and much larger- making them easier to carve than turnips.The American tradition of carving pumpkins preceded 1840’s Great Famine period of Irish immigration and was originally associated with harvest in general, not becoming specifically associated with Halloween until the mid-to-late 1800s.

The imagery surrounding Halloween is largely a mix of the Halloween season itself, works of Gothic and horror literature, in particular the novels of Shelley and Bram Stoker, and the horror films and stories produced by Hollywood, British Hammer Horror, and Graphic Magazine artists. Modern Halloween imagery tends to involve themes such as death, evil, the occult, magic, or mythical monsters. Traditional characters include the Devil, the Grim Reaper, ghosts, ghouls, demons, witches, goblins, vampires, werewolves, zombies, skeletons, black cats, spiders, bats, and crows. The two main colors associated with Halloween are orange and black – seemingly as a conflation of the association with darkness and night and the themes and colors of harvest.

Religious Perspectives
In the US, Canada, and Mexico, Christian attitudes towards Halloween are quite diverse. In the Anglican and Episcopal Church, some dioceses have chosen to emphasize All Saints’ Day, while some other Protestants, including Presbyterians and Lutherans commemorate October 31st as Reformation Day.

Many Christians ascribe no negative significance to Halloween, treating it as a purely secular holiday devoted to celebrating “imaginary spooks” and handing out candy. Halloween celebrations are common among Catholic parochial schools throughout the US as well as Ireland. 

Some Christians hold the view that the tradition is far from being “satanic” in origin or practice and that it holds no threat to the spiritual lives of children: being taught about death and mortality, and the ways of the Celtic ancestors actually being a valuable life lesson and a part of many of their parishioners’ heritage. Other Christians reject the holiday because they believe it trivializes (and celebrates) “the occult” and evil. One response has been the use of Hell houses or themed pamphlets which attempt to make use of Halloween as an opportunity for evangelism. Some resources exploring these divergent views can be found here:

  • Halloween: Satan’s New Year (2006) – Billye Dymally, 
  • Halloween: Counterfeit Holy Day (2005) – Kele Gershom, 
  • Halloween: What’s a Christian to Do? (1998) – Steve Russo. 
  • An opposing viewpoint is found in The Magic Eightball Test: A Christian Defense of Halloween and All Things Spooky (2006) by Lint Hatcher.

Some consider Halloween to be completely incompatible with the Christian faith because of its origin as a pagan “Festival of the Dead.” Many contemporary Protestant churches view Halloween as a fun event for children, holding events in their churches where children and their parents can dress up, play games, and get candy. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Halloween for they believe anything that originated from a pagan holiday should not be celebrated.

Religions other than Christianity also have varied views on Halloween. Celtic Pagans consider the season a holy time of year. Celtic Reconstructionists, and others who maintain ancestral customs, make offerings to the Gods and the ancestors. Some Wiccans feel that the tradition is offensive to “real witches” for promoting stereotypical caricatures of “wicked witches”. Interestingly, in Arab countries where it is celebrated, devotion is given to St Barbara. Saint Barbara’s day or Eid il-Burbara is celebrated in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine among Arab Christians annually on December 4, in a feast day similar to that of Halloween. The traditional food for the occasion is Burbara, a bowl of boiled barley, pomegranate seeds, raisins, anise and sugar offered to masquerading children.The general belief among Lebanese Christians is that Saint Barbara disguised herself in numerous characters to elude the Romans who were persecuting her.

Finally, I think it is worth noting that Luther’s timing in nailing the 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg was hardly accidental. The Castle Church in Wittenberg held one of the largest collections of relics outside of Rome.

Pieces of bones from saints, locks of hairs from martyrs, a piece of the true cross, a twig from Moses’ burning bush, bread from the Last Supper, a veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ — all were venerated and held in holy awe. The relics were kept in special reliquaries, ornamented with gold, silver, and precious stones. They were exhibited on All Saints Day. By 1518, 17,443 pieces were on display in twelve aisles!

The church taught that paying the special fee and viewing the relics would shorten a soul’s stay in purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days! This is one of the teachings challenged in the 95 theses.On Halloween, the day before All Saints Day when the relics were always specially exhibited, Luther nailed his theses on the church door, challenging the church to debate the virtue of indulgences, the church’s teaching that by certain works a person could hasten his entrance into heaven. In this way the celebration of Halloween in modern contexts overshadows discussion and commemoration of one of the most significant events in Western history and the history of Christianity world-wide. It was the beginning of the Reformation.

My objection to Halloween is not based on theology per se, it is more a cultural indifference, a lack of familiarity but I have at least developed a deeper understanding of the history of Halloween in thinking it through.

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  • Carly

    You’re a real deep thinker. Thanks for sharing.

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