Do Your Homework: Halloween History and Modern Misconceptions

note: This is a piece I wrote last year on the history of Halloween and some of the misconceptions surrounding it, especially by Christians. Indeed the article was inspired by a comment I overheard by a Christian calling the holiday Satanic in origin. This article is part rant, part history lesson, and part examination of why one defines something as “evil”. I hope you enjoy and, as always, welcome your thoughts/comments. 

Not long ago, I found myself irked at a conversation I overheard concerning Halloween and it’s supposed Satanic/non-Christian roots. I listened, not chiming in because I knew I didn’t know everything about its origins. I vowed to change that as I put in my headphones, blocking out their convo with The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. Life is better with a bit of irony.

The history regarding Halloween is a long one dating back some 2000 years to the ancient Celts of Northern France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Their new year began on November 1st, marking the end of summer and the autumn harvest and ushering in the cold, dead months. Winter brought death to the land, and the Celts believed that during this transition the spiritual and physical realms were closer than any time during the year, even overlapping.

Their festival of Samhain was one not only celebrating harvest, but also their dearly departed. The spirits were believed to roam on that night and cause mischief, and this is where many of our traditions begin to take shape. To avoid recognition by the spirits, people would dress in masks and costume (often animal skins). They would even leave food offerings outside their homes so as to appease the restless souls.

Me, age 7, dressed as my favorite anti-hero ‘Spawn’

By 43 AD, nearly all of Celtic territory had been conquered by the Roman Empire, and the harvest tradition merged into two festivals: One honored the goddess of fruit and trees—Pomona; the other festival, called Feralia, celebrated the passing of the dead into the afterlife. The symbol of Pomona was the apple, and is the likely inspiration to “bobbing for apples”.

Fast forward to A.D 1000 and the Catholic church, in an effort to replace the Celtic-inspired traditions with a church-approved holiday, create “All Souls’ Day”, a time to honor the dead as well as all patron saints. The festival was known by many names, including ‘All Hallows Eve,’ ‘All-hallowmas,’ and eventually Halloween. Strict Protestant beliefs slowed the spread of Halloween in America, and though the holiday existed in one form or another in areas such as Maryland, it was popularized by the surge of immigrants brought from the infamous potato famine of 1846.

Paganism is not another word for Satanism.

That isn’t necessarily the title of this section but it very well could be. Defined, a pagan is, “a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.” I’m not here to argue in favor of the beliefs of pagans; I’m here to argue against the skewing of definition.

1992; Me (age 2) as a dinosaur with my cousin.

The connotations of Halloween have become connected with Satanic themes only because those making such claims have either: A) a fear of the supernatural (though the Bible is full of plenty of that); B) a deep misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of history; C) an inability to separate the misdeeds of one group from another.

I recognize the fact that there have been instances of Satanists utilization of Halloween themes for their own agendas/uses. This falls in line with option C (as listed above). An example would be the swastika. Prior to its adoption by the Nazi party, it was a symbol of Buddhism and quite literally meant “to be good”. Only by the atrocities committed by the Nazi did it come to denote an evil nature. Turn it a few degrees clockwise and it becomes a symbol of peace, yet that is a fact often forgotten. It’s a sad example of one group ruining (or defining) something for everyone else. So as with anything, context is key.

A symbol takes on meaning by nature of those employing it and through their actions. It is first and foremost a human creation. The swastika could just as easily have switched places with the Apple logo. It’s a funny, albeit discomforting thought.

I’ll be the first to admit Halloween in itself is a horror themed holiday, however mild or extreme one chooses to celebrate, so I can understand it not being to everyones fancy. I have a friend who has nothing against Halloween one way or another; he doesn’t believe it to be evil, it’s just not his thing. Fine. I’m cool with that. I don’t like ranch dressing. We don’t need to argue over taste.

The image of skeletons and anything spooky seem to repel many Christians. Take Dia De Los Muertos, the Hispanic holiday which brings families together to pray for and remember loved ones who have passed away. The sugar skulls, marigolds, and other gifts are motifs of a culture, not of a cult.

Before you say it, yes, Halloween has become commercialized. But I choose to spend my October enjoying the things I love most about the season: the changing of leaves, the atmosphere, carving pumpkins, an old horror movie classic like The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Pumpkin bread! If you’re not into all that, I say to each his own. Just don’t go grouping something, or someone for that matter, into an ‘evil’ category before you’ve done your homework.

-David

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