25 October 2023

Happy Halloween. Bought your candy yet?

For more than a decade I’ve ranted about the ridiculous Evangelical practice of shunning Halloween. I call it ridiculous ’cause it really is: It’s a fear-based, irrational, misinformed, slander-filled rejection of a holiday which is actually a legitimate part of the Christian calendar.

No I’m not kidding. It’s our holiday. Christians invented Halloween.

A perfect opportunity to show Christlike generosity—and give the best candy ever. But too many of us make a serious point of being grouchy, fear-addled spoilsports. Image swiped from a mommy blog.

I know; you’ve likely read an article which claims Halloween got its origin in pagan harvest festivals. That’s utter bunk. Some neo-Pagan, one of the capital-P Pagans who worship nature and its gods (whose religions date from the 1960s, even though they claim they’re revivals of ancient pre-Christian religions), started to claim we Christians swiped it from them, and Christianized it. There’s no historical evidence whatsoever for this claim, but they keep claiming it. And every year, gullible reporters repeat it whenever they write about the history of Halloween.

The story has always been hearsay, but it’s been passed around so long, people actually try to debunk me by quoting 20-year-old articles which claim Halloween was originally Samhain or some other pagan festival. But those old articles were poorly sourced. Incorrect then; incorrect now.

Samhain (pronounced 'saʊ.ən) is a contraction of sam fuin/“summer’s end.” It’s a Celtic harvest festival which dates back to pre-Christian times. It happens at the autumnal equinox, which took place last month, at 22 September. It’s totally unrelated to Halloween. It’s as if you claimed the Fourth of July was originally a celebration of the summer solstice… and the fact you barbecue and drink beer on that day, same as the ancients used to cook meat outdoors in the summer and likewise drink beer, proves it.

Oh, and neither neo-Pagan nor Christian holidays involve a celebration of creepy horror movie themes. That got added in the 20th century.

The harvest festival.

Nearly every culture celebrates the harvest. Agrarian cultures especially. Whenever you harvest your crops, once the job’s finally done, you kick back, enjoy the fruits of your labor and the fat of your land, and celebrate. Even though far fewer first-worlders are in agro-business than they’ve ever been. But hey, whatever excuse we can get to eat a lot and celebrate.

In the United States we do Thanksgiving. In ancient Israel they had Shavuot (or as we Christians call it, Pentecost). Among the ancient Celts, Samhain. And when we look at the way these cultures practice their harvest festivals, next to none of their practices are part of Halloween as Americans celebrate it. Then or now.

The Celts didn’t wear costumes for their harvest festivals. Heck, neither do Americans, other than the school pageants where kids might dress as the Plymouth colonists or the Wampanoags. (Me, I wanted to dress as an Indian so we could make those cool paper-bag vests. Yeah, I grew up in a time when white kids could dress as Indians for an official school function, and nobody but nonwhites were bothered by it.)

There was food. Including sweets, ’cause of course. No door-to-door hunt for candy. No pranks. Yes pumpkins; no, they weren’t carved into wacky faces, but eaten. Bonfires and ghost stories? Sure, but those happen every time people celebrate at night. Halloween resembles Samhain about as much as Cinco de Mayo resembles Memorial Day: They only thing they have in common is beer. And every holiday has beer.

Despite neo-Pagan claims, Samhain wasn’t a religious holiday but a secular one. The harvest was done, and people wanted to party. As you should!—after months of dried and preseved and stale food, now you can eat some fresh stuff. The Celts harvested their crops, lit bonfires, enjoyed their food, and partied like it’s 199. Then they butchered the rest of the animals they’d need to eat over winter, stockpiled the rest of the grain, and got ready for the world to get cold.

During every celebration, if you believe in gods, you thank them. Look at Thanksgiving: The name itself implies we thank somebody, and for most of us that’d be God. Everybody else is just “thankful,” but seldom ask themselves whom they should direct that thanks to. Then eat till they can’t move, then go watch football. The Celts would have sex, which right there makes Samhain way more interesting than Thanksgiving.

Samhain was a secular holiday—and the Pagans have Paganized it. Most Pagans grew up Christian, then grew tired of dead religion and bad Christians, and switched religions. (I don’t blame them; dead religion sucks.) But because they’re burnt out on Christian traditions, Pagans tend to reject any tradition. Samhain observances vary from group to group, and about they only thing they have in common is bonfires. If that; whenever the bonfires get “too traditional” for their comfort, they actually skip the bonfires.

Ironically, the Christians who claim Halloween is too Pagan, tend to call their Halloween alternatives “harvest festivals.” Which they’re not, ’cause not a single child goes to those parties expecting grain.

But let’s put aside all the Pagan stuff, and the dumber Christian stuff, and look at where Halloween actually comes from.

Halloween’s history.

As educated Christians know, we didn’t steal a single holiday from the pagans. We stole ’em from the Jews. Christianity’s an offshoot of the Hebrew religion, remember? Passover became Easter. Shavuot became Pentecost. Sukkot became the yearly church camping trip, which evolved into the yearly retreat, which is now observed at some nature-surrounded conference center, which hopefully have cabins with indoor plumbing, comfortable beds, water heaters, and wifi signals.

Beyoned the swiped Jewish holidays, we added new holidays. Usually saints days. Whenever a Christian got martyred, we made a holiday of it. Not a happy holiday… well, not while the death was still fresh. But now we can celebrate St. Valentine’s Day with romance and sex, and St. Patrick’s Day by getting blackout drunk and vomiting from balconies. It doesn’t sound all that happy to me, but the alcoholics in my family insist no, it’s a blast.

We Christians also added Epiphany, a celebration of the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, which worked its way backward: It started to also include his birth and youth. The 12 days before Epiphany became the 12 days of Christmas. Then Americans shortened it to one day; then American merchants elongated it to the shopping season between Thanksgiving and 25 December, plus the after-Christmas sales which now stretch to Epiphany and beyond.

Sometimes, like Christmas, our days coincide with ancient pagan holidays. Pagan customs got mixed together with Christian customs. Usually without any endorsement from church leaders. But if they’re benign, like pumpkin spice lattes and chocolate bunnies, we don’t much care. And even when they’re not benign, like the drunken rampages of St. Patrick’s Day… I remember one bishop years ago who decided no, he wasn’t suspending the Lenten fast for the day, and the people of his parish reacted as if he just beheaded the Easter Bunny.

I mentioned saints’ days. Traditionally we celebrated the day they went to be with Jesus. More recently, like with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we celebrate their birthdays. But for the lesser-known or unknown saints, who died for Christ but didn’t have enough publicity or support to get their very own holiday, the ancient Christians added “all saints days” to the calendar. Eastern Christians have all-saints-days scattered throughout the year, but in May 610 western Christians consolidated them into a single day. In the ninth century it was moved to 1 November.

Back then people went to church in the evening (or e’en, to use the older English word for it), so All Saints Day was celebrated on All Saints E’en. Or All Hallows E’en” (hallows meaning “holy ones”, which was contracted to Halloween. The candy and costumes came later. Christians began by dressing as saints, and devolved into dressing as Batman.

So how’d it become secular? Christians let the holiday go, and pagans took it over.

Fundie fright night.

I grew up Fundamentalist. And back in the 1970s Christians, including loads of Fundies, still celebrated Halloween. Yep, it may be hard to fathom, but my Fundie churches had Halloween parties. With costumes, although dressing as witches, ghosts, and devils weren’t allowed. Games, like the thoroughly unsanitary and makeup-destroying bobbing for apples. Candy and cookies and popcorn and cupcakes.

Every Halloween party I ever attended in my childhood was church-related. No, it wasn’t always on 31 October, ’cause that night was reserved for trick-or-treating. But it meant I got to wear my Batman costume more than once that year, back when I still fit in it. (See, you thought I was joking about dressing as Batman. Nope! I was a big fan of the 1960s TV show.) Party at church on 30 October, then go round the neighborhood and gather candy on 31 October.

But in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, there was a big push for conservative Christians to abandon Halloween. Some paranoid parent would talk our youth pastors into showing a really disturbing video about how Satanists run amok that night. Certain con artists, Mike Warnke in particular, pretended to be ex-Satanists and told these outrageous stories about what their fellow devil-worshipers do every Halloween. None of it was true. But it scared the willies out of gullible Fundamentalists. Warnke made really good money on the church lecture circuit, and suddenly we Christian kids were forbidden from celebrating “the devil’s birthday.” Fortunately for me, I figured I was “too old for that kid stuff” by the time the hammer came down.

By the 1990s, many churches had either dropped their Halloween functions altogether. Or, because they really didn’t wanna miss the fun, they turned them into “harvest parties.” Kids still wore costumes, still got candy… that is, till some irate parent complained, “Waitaminnit… this is a Halloween party! All you did was rename it!” (Well duh.) Sometimes compromises were made with the angry parents—costumes had to go, then candy, then fun altogether. For some churches it’s just another youth service. For some, it’s even become a mournful prayer vigil, calling upon God to be with people despite all the devilry going on that night.

Or worse: Some Christians created Hell Houses. I’ve seen a few of them, and they’re some of the least Christian things we’ve ever invented. Take a haunted house, then remove anything fun. Show realistic images of people going through the worst-case, violent, bloodiest consequences of their poor life choices. Then show ’em what hell literally looks like (as if anyone knows what it literally looks like; most of the images are just Hieronymus Bosch paintings, or duplicated scenes from the Gustave Doré edition of The Divine Comedy). Frighten the kids into turning to Jesus.

Both festively and morally, we Christians abandoned our own holiday.

As the Christians put it down, the pagans picked it up—same as they did with St. Valentines Day, and just as they’re longing to do with Christmas. Bereft of Christian influence, left to their own devices, adults began throwing wilder and wilder costume parties. Teens and adults escalated the pranking, violence, and inappropriate costumes. And here we are.

Fighting evil on Halloween.

So can we do anything about the way people celebrate Halloween nowadays?

Absolutely we can. If we get involved, and use Halloween as the ministry and outreach opportunity it is.

But lots of Christians don’t care to. They still consider Halloween “evil,” too tainted to redeem, and they’d rather just say to hell with it. They won’t even acknowledge the day exists—no harvest parties, maybe a prayer vigil, but nothing else. They’re the ones whose porch lights go dark that night, and pretend no one’s home when the cute little four-year-olds ring the doorbell. Or worse: They go to the door anyway, self-righteously say, “We don’t celebrate Halloween,” and even lecture the poor little kids… whose only crime was wanting to show off their neat costumes, and wishing and longing for the rare full-size candy bar.

If you wanna legitimately fight evil, may I suggest not being evil?

What’re you showing trick-or-treaters? The grace of God, or the wrath of God? Which one does he want us to show people? Pick that one.

Does your church throw a harvest party? Good. Now, start rethinking how you do ’em. (And not just to avoid spreading the cold, flu, RSV, or Covid, through apple-bobbing.) I believe most of them target the entirely wrong group: Little kids. Not that little kids shouldn’t have a fun time, but they’re not the ones who are running wild pranking, drinking, dressing inappropriately, or otherwise getting into trouble. That’d be the older children, the teenagers and young adults. Churches need to reach out to them if we want to provide a better alternative. As things currently are, churches provide little for teens, have nothing fun to invite ’em to, and they’re left with nothing better to do than run off and raise hell. Which they do.

Since it’s All Saints Eve, what about the saints? The Roman Catholics and some mainline churches have this down, but every church oughta get in on that. Remind your fellow Christians what the day is supposed to be about: The great Christians of the past. Celebrate the heroes of faith—both those who’ve gone to be with Jesus, and those who are still around us, whom we know personally.

That’s plenty. ’Cause too many Christians do nothing.

Yeah, it’s depressing. We’re supposed to take territory, not cede it. Halloween is a defeat, and deep down we Christians know it, which is most of the reason the holiday bothers us so much. As it should. We need to take it back.