October 31 brings to the United States and parts of Western Europe the pagan ritual known as Halloween. I have long wondered why the people in the West – societies ostensibly based on Judeo-Christian principles – celebrate a festival that likely traces its ancestry directly to pre-Christian, pagan rituals of the ancient Celts of Ireland.
With its focus on ghosts, witches, warlocks, goblins, skulls, horror, death and the supernatural, Halloween would appear to be almost completely incompatible with the tenets of Christianity. Yet, Halloween remains a wildly popular holiday.
It's one of many ancient rituals that have miraculously survived into the modern world (even if many people who enjoy Halloween are oblivious to its pagan/Druid origins). Even the holiest events of the Christian calendar -- Easter (bunny rabbits, colored eggs) and Christmas (trees, Santa Claus) -- have retained elements of pre-Christian, pagan conventions and symbols.
Some scholars believe that Halloween originated with “Samhain,” the most important festival of the Celts of ancient Ireland. October 31-November 1 coincided with the passing of one year to the next and the commencement of another long, hard, bleak winter. These ancient peoples feasted and also believed strongly they could communicate with their deceased forebears. To show respect for their ancestors, they would make offerings and sacrifice animals. Crucially, to ward off evil spirits, these hardy folk would wear frightful masks -- which may link directly to the practice of trick-or-treating by children today in a vastly different world.
In subsequent centuries, when Christian missionaries -- including the legendary St. Patrick -- arrived in Ireland and sought to convert the local population, they discovered they could not eliminate their deeply-ingrained pagan beliefs – so they relented and accommodated some of the older pre-monotheistic practices within the context of the new faith.
Moreover, many of the pagan holy days were arbitrarily (and conveniently) reconstituted as “Christian” holidays – with a fairly seamless transformation. Pope Gregory the First from sixth century AD was particularly adept at this.
Still, the Christian clergy regarded the old pagan belief systems as “evil” and “demonic.” So, among other things, they designated November 1 (the day after Halloween) as “All Saints Day” – to set aside for the veneration of all Christian saints, as a way to supersede the pagan rituals (which, of course, did not completely happen to their liking).
However, Rosalie Beck, associate professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, notes that all agricultural societies have celebrated important junctures in the year -- harvests, plantings, solstices, the equinox, etc. She also does not buy the notion that Halloween necessarily came directly from Samhain.
“I think the real influence for the creation of Halloween comes from a broader-based agricultural cycle shared by all rural peoples in ancient Europe,” she told International Business Times.
“As the veneration of saints became an important part of medieval Christian spirituality, some local festivals were ‘baptized’ into the faith to celebrate the triumph of Christianity over the evils of the world," Beck said. All Hallows Eve [Halloween] traditionally was a time of evil in the world. A day of respite always follows a day of tension and fear; so, the church developed All Saints Day [All Hallows Day] to affirm the superiority of Christianity over all pagan rituals and beliefs. Halloween and All Saints Day are two sides of one coin.”
Now, in the 21st century, Halloween coexists uneasily with traditional Christianity. Some have made a compromise in this seemingly unsolvable conflict.
Father Gabriele Amorth, who has worked as an exorcist for the Vatican, was once quoted as saying: “If English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year, that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that.” However, some fundamentalist churches in the U.S. refuse to abide by Halloween, which they deride as nothing short of “satanic.”
One church issued this grave warning: “Halloween… poses huge risks as it is a dangerous celebration of fear and the macabre. Halloween promotes death and encourages children and young people to take part in witchcraft, undermining the sacred. Halloween emphasizes violence. It exposes people to sadism, sexual violence, Satanism, torture, mutilation and strange death. It exposes vulnerable children to fear which could lead them to suffer from sleep walking and emotional harm. Halloween pushes people to practice occult practices. Other things that attract children to the occult are heavy metal music, fantasy games, sadistic pornography and literature about the occult and Satan. Be careful and guide children, but also adults, towards the right track so that they will always think positively and choose Jesus Christ above everything.”
However, Beck commented: “I would not label all the folks opposed to the celebration of Halloween as fundamentalists. Socially conservative, yes, but not fundamentalist.”
Beck explained that some socially conservative Christians do oppose the celebration of Halloween because they see it as a European pagan ritual brought into Christianity.
“Some of those who object to Halloween will add that the holiday celebrates evil and that is never appropriate,” she added.
Indeed, in 2009, Spain’s Catholic Church came out strongly against Halloween. In 2012, the Catholic Church of Poland has also advocated against the practice. The director of the Liturgical Commission of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, Father Joan Maria Canals, complained to El Mundo newspaper: “Young children dress up as witches, vampires and ghosts; they wear the masks of cadavers and skeletons.” As an alternative, he suggested: “Parents ought instead to encourage the participation of their children in the Christian days of festivity that have to do with the signs of death and life in holiness.”
Perhaps the larger issue at play here is the inexorable secularization of the Western world. Religion is dying across much of the planet – atheism, materialism and apathy are increasing. Halloween, because it is such a lively and fun holiday for children, will likely continue to flourish – even among those who proudly describe themselves as “Christian.”
Moreover, the very practice of wearing scary masks and disguises to ward off evil spirits (something that is common to ancient cultures all across the globe) has itself been perverted. Today, the frightful masks are now themselves celebrated – not as a device to discourage malevolent entities, but rather to attract attention from others in a sort of brief orgy of narcissism (hence, the plethora of Frankenstein, Dracula, werewolf and other elaborate costumes). Thus, perhaps we could say that Halloween comprises an unlikely (and unholy) mixture of paganism, crass commercialism and Hollywood.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.