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The crisp autumn air rustles the leaves on the ground, just before a group of excited children trample over them, rushing to the next house to ring the doorbell. Their parents stopped trying to keep up about a block and a half into the journey they had embarked on. The kids smile widely, one in a witch’s hat, another wrapped in gauze like a mummified pharaoh. “Trick or treat!” they squeal simultaneously, though they don’t comprehend their own words. The mysterious air that surrounds this night of Halloween is one with a complicated history.
Most often, Samhain, the Celtic festival celebrated on the thirty-first of October to mark the transition from summer to winter, is considered to be the foundation of Halloween. Ray Bradbury’s Halloween Tree tells the story of several young boys who learn the origins of Halloween by exploring its roots.
The novel features the character of “Samhain,” for whom the Celtic Druids sacrifice animals:
The illustrative view presented by Bradbury’s characters lends way to beliefs held by the ancient Druid people, or the upper class Celts from Gaul, Ireland and other Western European tribes in the medieval era. The true activities of Samhain, however, remain unclear to modern day historians. Nicholas Rogers’ book, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, explores the Celtic origins of the festival from a scholar’s perspective. In his non-fictional text, Rogers compiles information from over a hundred sources to present his readers with answers to and analyses of questions that surround the celebration of Halloween. Several different views of the Druids’ sacrificial rituals at the time of Samhain are offered in his book. Julius Caesar and the ancient historian Tacitus, for instance, both believed that the Druids were guilty of committing human sacrifice. Tacitus wrote of the Druids as “savage cults” who pleased the gods with the entrails of other human beings. Similarly, Caesar, in The Gallic War, relayed the beliefs of the Druids as compensation for one human life with another. Rogers points out, though, that these perspectives could be construed by a Roman bias in the hopes of “denigrating the Celtic character and way of life.” The idea of human sacrifice for the gods is an ominous one which holds a dark veil over the holiday. The darkness surrounding Halloween is present in many popular culture derivations of Halloween.
Though the possibility that Samhain was related to ritualistic human sacrifice stands, the relationship between All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, and the supernatural comes from several different areas of influence. Samhain was held for the Celts at the beginning of a new year. It was a liminal festival representing the threshold between the death of the past year and the birth of a new one. According to Rogers, Samhain in Celtic Lore was “a time of divine couplings and dark omens, a time when malignant birds emerged from the caves of Crogham to prey upon mankind.” Jenny Butler’s chapter in Trick or Treat? Halloween in a Globalising World, a collection of Halloween-inspired anecdotes, delves into the religious practices of neo-Paganistic Samhain. Neo-Paganism is the broad term for modern “earth- based” religious practices including, but not limited to, Wicca or witchcraft. Through the celebration of Samhain, Pagans can connect with other worldly beings and see it as a time of vulnerability to the supernatural, an idea very prevalent in many modern myths and customs of All Hallows’ Eve.
Contemporary practices of Halloween are less derived from those of Samhain than those of All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day. These Christian medieval holidays were celebrated in European countries to recognize the powers of spirits and break the barriers that stood between the dead and the living. Feasts were held and bells rung in recognition of these lost souls. As well as being a time in recognition for the dead, All Saints’ Day became associated with maskings and role-reversals through the mischief of the youth, who would take on positions of leadership to prank their elders. As this custom eventually became the roleplay seen often on Halloween night, similarly, the tradition of trick-or-treating finds its origins in this time. “Back in the 1950’s, on the evenings of October 31st I would go round to neighborhood houses with a turnip and candle lantern carved with a crude ‘witch’s’ face,” recalls Doug Sandle, a psychologist at Leeds Metropolitan University in his chapter of Trick or Treat? This custom, very similar to modern day trick-or-treating, began with the act of “souling,” which according to Rogers was the task of baking soule-cakes to give to those who prayed for the souls in purgatory. Souling became a prominent custom in England after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. With candle lit turnip lanterns, beggars were welcomed to the doors of homes, asking for soule-cakes in return for prayers. In the 1930’s, trick-or-treating, as a transformation from its preceding form in early modern Europe, was established firmly in North America as a resolution for vandalism and partying on Halloween night. Children would go from house to house, giving their neighbors the ultimatum of vandalism or compensation with candy.
When it comes to the controversy that surrounds Halloween, Evangelical Christians tend to have the most prominent arguments against the holiday’s festivities. Satanic and pagan practices stand at the center of these concerns. In medieval Europe, witchcraft was seen as a Satanic religion, as was shown by the events later on in the Salem witch trials. From scripture, Evangelists also find support for their views:
No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits or who seeks oracles from the dead. (Deuteronomy 19:10-11)
Through this quote from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, it is very clear that Christians are not to be associated with any kind of witchcraft or dark magic. Therefore, by its pagan roots, Halloween is a holiday in direct relation with these practices, a fundamental argument used to discourage the celebration of Halloween. An article in Challenge Newsline, an Evangelically centered news source, urges readers to avoid the festivities of Halloween and instead “seek the Lord Jesus Christ.” In this same article, the reader is reminded of the Bible’s words taken from Deuteronomy and how the imitation of sorcery is a sin in itself. Many groups abstaining from Halloween use other alternative activities to instead celebrate more Christian values. For instance, Brad Winsted, in his opinion piece on the Christian Broadcasting Network, suggests for practicing Christians to have a Reformation Day celebration instead of observing Halloween, wherein they would acclaim the accomplishments of Martin Luther and other historical reformers. There are, however, as Nicholas Rogers describes, some less passive methods to the Evangelist’s nonparticipation in Halloween. One such method is the Hell House. Hell Houses are Christianized haunted houses aiming to showcase the horrors of committing sins such as homosexuality, abortion and suicide. As Ann Pellegrini, author and religious studies professor at New York University, states in her essay titled “Signaling Through the Flames,” hell houses “aim to scare you to Jesus,” and, presumably, away from the Satanism that they see as being intrinsic in Halloween. No matter their approach, these conservative Christians have the same intent: keeping Christians on a righteous path and encouraging others to do the same.
However Evangelical Christians see the holiday, it does not negate the widespread success of Halloween in both commercialization and entertainment. According to Pellegrini, in 2006, Americans were predicted to spend 4.96 billion dollars on Halloween, between costumes, candy and decorations, and the amount has only risen since. As the majority of the United States population is Christian, it seems unlikely that the holiday would have such a large turnout. However, much of the Christian population is not against Halloween. In her anecdotal chapter of Trick or Treat?, Fran Ota, minister at Glen Ayr United Church in Canada, makes a convincing argument to explain why: “All of our religious celebrations incorporate elements of what we call ‘pagan’ faiths. If we are going to eliminate Halloween because it isn’t Christian, then we also have to eliminate Christmas and Easter.” While many Pagan religions see Halloween as a religious holiday for cleansing and remembering lost loved ones, the modernized holiday heavily draws its roots from the aforementioned medieval Christian All Saints’ Day. Granted, All Saints’ Day, to some, is a Christianized Samhain. This Christianization, however, according to Ota, was an attempt in the first stages of the spread of Christianity to welcome in people accustomed to other religions. By doing so, the heads of the rising church could allow new lay people to maintain their rituals, but in the light of Christian beliefs. One such festival is Christmas, or, originally, Saturnalia, which was the harvest festival for the Roman god Saturn. The adaptation of these religions carried on through the years to become the modern versions seen today.
Though the Pagan origins of Halloween can be construed into Christian derivations, they do not negate the association between Halloween and evil spirits and sorcery. Anderson M. Rearick III, assistant professor of English at Mount Vernon Nazarene College, writes his article “Hallowing Halloween” to discuss why the connection between Halloween and sin, and by connotation, the devil, should not be a deterrent from the holiday, but instead an attractor. He states, “The one thing Satan cannot bear is to be a source of laughter. His pride is undermined by his own knowledge that his infernal rebellion against God is in reality an absurd farce.” While Rearick makes a good point in acknowledging contemporarily Halloween’s fun-filled festivities, he lacks the proof of a connection between Satan and the holiday itself. From its roots, Halloween has no correlation with the existence of Satan, because the ancient Celts did not have a Satanic figure that stood opposed to a power of good (God in the case of Christianity). “Although a few pre-Christian religions depicted a dualistic struggle between the God of Light and the God of Darkness, Satanism is essentially a Christian creation, a travesty of Christian forms centered on the fallen rebel angel, Lucifer.” Halloween’s roots have been misconstrued over time with a link to Satan through witchcraft and other demonic ideals, while no true link exists.
“In our culture, Halloween traditionally has allowed us to look at what frightens us–to experience it, to laugh at it, and to come through it. So at the end of October, we are visited by cute Caspers, laughing pumpkin heads, and goofy ghouls,” opines Anderson Rearick. Halloween is an enjoyable holiday for children and adults alike, and it represents centuries of adapted rituals. While a child may dress up as the devil to ring his or her neighbor’s doorbell, the holiday itself bears no relation to the king of Hell. Halloween is a Christian holiday, though its roots may be unclear in some respects. As with any ritual, it is important to be mindful of the origins of Halloween, knowing the reasons why society celebrates this holiday and how it has been passed down between generations. Misconceptions are easily formed when the history is overlooked.
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