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Holidays:  Halloween

Halloween Traditions
Wayne Goforth


Halloween means the evening before All Hallows or All Saint’s Day, which is observed November 1st by Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians, to remember all the saints who have died, known and unknown.

There is little agreement as to the “true” origin of Halloween. There is so much folklore, myths, wives' tales and tradition involved, that this yields multiple accountings of proclaimed “true origins” to this festival. Some things are known to be true about it, while other items reported often as “facts” have no supporting evidence, as we shall see. Even many encyclopedias repeat the myths without supporting evidence or consulting more recent studies.

Celtic Background

The Celts had only two seasons a year, winter and summer. A festival, Samhain, was observed on November 1st, the beginning of their winter, and said farewell to the season of sun. Samhain (pronounced "sow-" as in female pig "-en" — not "Sam Hain" — because "mh" in the middle of an Irish word is a "w" sound) simply means “end of summer” and was not, as some movies and books portray, some sort of Celtic version of Satan. They had no “God of the Underworld”, and their god of the dead was Gwynn ap Nudd. This misunderstanding came from some early studies of Celtic literature before reliable Celtic translating could be done through later archeological discoveries. It is likely that weak animals were destroyed at this time, which would not be likely to make it through the winter, in order to preserve the food (hence tales of animal sacrifices connected with this festival). The Celts did offer human sacrifices, but whether this was a part of Samhain is in question, and many of these appear to have been voluntary, http://www.digitalmedievalist.com/faqs/sacrific.html. The famous “bog bodies” and “bog mummies” of northern Europe were such Celtic sacrifices. The evening before Samhain was considered to be a magical time between the years when the spirit world was closest to the mortal world. At this time they would try to read fortunes, foretell the future, and contact the spirits.

There does not seem to be any truth to the tale which says the druids (Celtic priests) would go from house to house requesting young virgins to sacrifice, and when refused would place a pentagram upon their door to let the wicked spirits know to attack these people. According to this tale, to supposedly keep such malevolent spirits away, pumpkins with carved faces were put outside the door to scare them away. In fact, the jack-o-lantern tradition actually came from Ireland (see below), and pumpkins came from America. Also, pentagrams are used to keep the conjurers safe rather than to place a hex.

Another myth was that black cats were honored as reincarnated humans who possessed magical abilities. Druids did not believe in reincarnation but rather an afterlife much like the first life, and cats were not introduced to northern Europe until later, around 1050 AD. See http://www.religioustolerance.org/hallo_sa.htm for more on the myths of the Druid backgrounds.

Roman Background

When the Romans conquered the Celts in the first century A.D., they added parts of their festivals, Feralia and Poloma, to the Celtic traditions. Feralia was a festival to honor the dead. Poloma was a harvest festival named after the goddess of fruit (apples) and trees, which was celebrated with nuts and apples, probably explaining the modern practice of apple bobbing.

Catholic Background

As with other holidays, the Catholics attempted to appease the pagans by incorporating it into the church. They simply sprinkled a little holy water upon it and changed the name to All Saints Day. All Saints Day had been on May 13th, but was changed by Pope Gregory in 835 to November 1st. This continues to be a Catholic “Holy Day” observed each year. Certainly, there is no authority for a Christian to observe special “Holy Days” as such. Paul said, “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain” (Galatians 4:8-11).

English Background

The practice of going door-to-door, wearing masks while asking for treats, comes from an English background. During All Souls Day, the poor would ask for food, in return for praying for their dead. This was referred to as “going a souling.” Skull shaped cakes were baked and given out to the participants. Actors from the All Soul’s Day Parade would often put on short performances door-to-door for food. No doubt, this popularized the wearing of masks connected with this season.

Irish Background

Halloween was not widely observed in America until the potato famine of Ireland brought Irish immigrants to the new world, and their traditions with them around 1840. With them came tales of elves, fairies, and spirits (both good and bad). In Ireland, large turnips would be carved as lanterns, evolving into the pumpkin carvings of Jack-O-Lanterns in America. Again, some myths claim that Jack-O-Lanterns were used by the Europeans to either scare away demons or to house the spirits of the deceased, or even the popular story of the man named Jack, who tricked the devil and was forced to live in a pumpkin for eternity. Keep in mind however, that pumpkins were a new world product. The turnips were simply a poor-mans lantern in Ireland. More of our Halloween tradition comes from Irish folklore than anywhere else, (from material found at http://goireland.about.com).

America, the Melting Pot

All of these cultures intertwined in America, with the legends and tales mingling into the modern Halloween. Beginning with the Irish immigration of 1840, Halloween slowly began to take the shape we see today. By the late 1800’s, so much crime was connected with Halloween that trick or treating was discouraged, and schools and churches were encouraged to arrange parties instead. The gore was dropped and the festival took on more of a family, fall harvest theme. With this, Halloween became secular and all religious connotations were dropped. Starting with the 1930’s, Halloween again began to resume the traditions of trick or treating, mischief, etc., but this time without the religious background. In many communities, the emphasis is still on the fall harvest, and many groups have “fall carnivals” rather than “Halloween carnivals.” Today, Halloween is the second largest selling holiday, amounting to more than 2.5 billion dollars in Halloween paraphernalia yearly. (from material found at http://www.historychannel.com).

Other Popular Versions:

Virtually every culture has had their version of Halloween. Perhaps none have carried it to the level that Mexico has developed it into with their Day of the Dead, or Dia De Los Muertos. This festival is portrayed in the song by popular Tejano folksinger Tish Hino josa, Even The Dead Are Rising Up To Dance. In this, the dead loved ones are honored with a picnic, often on the graves of loved ones. Skull shaped candy, cookies and bread are popular with this festival. The more traditional Mexican Indians may even dig up the grave of the loved one and re-wrap the body in a new blanket that they have woven and rebury them after a visit! For more detail see: http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/feature/daydeadindex.html. This has also become popular in the southwestern United States in heavily Hispanic communities.

Modern Cultic Practices

Halloween is one of the eight sacred sabbats to modern day neo-pagans, witches and Satanists. Among other things, Samhain is the beginning of the Winter Half of the Year (the seasons of Geimredh & Earrach) and is known as "the Day Between Years”. The day before Samhain is the last day of the old year and the day after Samhain is the first day of the new year. Being "between years," it is considered a sacred time, “when the dead walk among the living and the veils between past, present and future may be lifted in prophecy and divination” http://www.witchvox.com/holidays/samhain.html. An example of modern day pagan rituals for Samhain may be seen at http://www.geocities.com/athens/8526/samhain.htm. It must be understood that there are differences between neo-pagans and Satanists. The paganists (wiccans, i.e. witches) believe in “natural magic”, by which you can control the elements of nature. They are nature worshippers. Satanists on the other hand, practice “personal magic”, and glorify whatever is against what they perceive to be Christian (usually Catholic) so that upside down crosses, Lord’s Prayer said backwards, Black “Masses” etc. are used. It is the Satanists that generally would be involved in the animal mutilations or harming of humans and/or property at Halloween as they see this as being against the “Christian” All Souls Day.

Should Christians Observe Halloween?

As with most every American holiday, there are backgrounds of paganism and Catholicism involved in Halloween. Certainly, we want to make sure we avoid any appearance of these, even as we would of Christmas. In one community in which we lived, the Satanists were prominent enough (there were three active covens) that the local police suggested bringing in any black animals the week prior to Halloween. There, most people who professed Christianity did not go door to door, but had private parties or would go treating in the mall. The local culture will determine to some degree whether the Christian can participate. Just as if one lived in a country where Christmas was ~only~ celebrated religiously one would want to avoid it, so too with Halloween. If one lived in an area where it was viewed only, or primarily religiously (whether by the neo-pagans or Catholics) then it should be avoided lest one give the appearance of participating. Frankly, having lived in such regions, and having dealt extensively with the occult, I simply do not care to participate in Halloween as such. Nor do I criticize anyone who merely wishes to observe it as purely as an American holiday. More communities and groups are opting for “Fall Festivals” in the place of Halloween, with carnival type games and activities, which I believe to be a healthy trend. Halloween may not be Satanic in and of itself, but allowing our children to dress up as murderers and characters from slasher films is certainly inappropriate! Too, young people must remember the golden rule (Luke 6:31) at Halloween as at any other time, and refrain from any kind of “tricking” at the expense of others, such as the eggings and “rollings” of property. Though we all like a good scare once in a while, we must be careful that we are not desensitizing our young by exposure to gore, blood and violence. That will simply produce a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2) and is the same concern we have raised concerning the television and the movie industry.

Conclusion

A good rule of thumb as to whether a Christian can participate in any activity, recreation, sport or holiday is the words of Paul in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things.” Can I participate in a way that will let me pursue what is noble and to be able to think on pure things? If not, then I should refrain. In the prior verse Paul stated that by following these principles, “... the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

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