Some time ago, a friend of mine referred to Halloween as “the devil’s holiday.” It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the phrase. Many devoutly religious folks I’ve known have uttered the words, usually with a spin of contempt, whenever the festivities surrounding October 31 come about. The phrase and people’s use of it has always amused me, because Halloween is meant to be a sacred observance. But my friend and others’ perspective on Halloween is not without reason.
The Celts, who occupied parts of Europe some 2,000 years ago, celebrated a festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). This was their year end and harvest celebration, and a time, as they believed, when spirits of the dead returned to the land of the living. Some spirits were good, and some not so good. To prevent the mischief that the bad spirits caused, a number of rituals were performed to scare them off. They built bonfires, sacrificed animals to Celtic deities, disguised themselves in costumes to fool the spirits, and carved scary faces in turnips, the precursor to the Jack O’Lantern.
Around the 9th century, the Christian church blended Samhain with All Saints’ Day, the celebration of saints and martyrs. This was done as way for Celtic converts to celebrate their traditional festivals in a sacred context. Samhain became known was called All-hallows Eve, later shortened to Hallowe’en. Thus, Hallowe’en became a Christian observance.
Not all of the Celtic converts bought into the holy version of Samhain, however, and continued to celebrate it as before. The invocation of gods, commemoration of the dead, and divinations were some of the customs that continued to be practiced by them and others. When immigrants came to the New World in the late 19th century, they brought a number of these customs with them, although they were observed in a traditional rather than religious sense. Protestants already in the New World weren’t keen on Halloween’s pagan origins and occult-like practices to begin with, and were less enthused when witches began observing their Sabbath on the same day. Such observances were diametrically opposed to Protestant doctrines; thus the objection of some Christians to Halloween, sacred status notwithstanding.
So, in the Christian community, there are two viewpoints on the observance of Halloween. One side celebrates it as the early church intended: Part of a celebration of saints, dead and living. They turn the negative association of death and evil into a positive of eternal life and good. Then there’s the side that sees Halloween for its pagan roots, with its preoccupation with death, evil, occult symbols and witchcraft – things the faithful should have no part of.
As a holiday, Halloween has blended and meshed with many beliefs and customs of different European and Native American ethnic groups until the spiritual – good and otherwise – significance is lost. Commercialization of the holiday has further reduced it to a night to dress up in costumes and solicit candy from neighbors. But many of the faithful recall the origins and/or reason for Halloween, celebrate or denounce it accordingly. Whether one sees it as a celebration of saints, dead and living, or an abomination depends largely on point of view and personal convictions.
In the future, when my friend speaks of “the devil’s holiday,” I’ll be less inclined to laugh up my sleeve.
This essay was written for the information and entertainment of our patrons. It is not intended to offend, promote the belief systems of any religious group, or to express my personal opinion on the issue contained.