Halloween is part of the Christian calendar.
No, I’m not kidding. It’s our holiday. The only reason it doesn’t look like it, is ’cause we let pagans take it over. We even let them claim it has pagan origins—despite a total lack of evidence.
Secular pagans focus largely on the costumes, candy, parties, and having fun with scary or gory things, like ghosts and spiders and death. The capital-P Pagans, those who practice nature religions (which they claim are ancient, but nearly all of their religions date from the 1960s) actually don’t celebrate Halloween: They celebrate the vernal equinox, the end of summer and beginning of winter, the turn of the seasons, the harvest. Some call it by its Celtic name, Samhain (pronounced soun, like “sound” without the D) a contraction of sam fuin, “summer’s end.” They claim their holiday came first, and we Christians stole it and turned it into Halloween.
The harvest festival.
Nearly every culture celebrates the harvest. In the United States, we do Thanksgiving. In ancient Israel, 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, then or now.
The Celts didn’t wear costumes. (American schoolchildren sometimes dress as Pilgrims or Indians, but only for school functions.) There was food, including sweets, but no door-to-door hunt for candy. No pranks. There were pumpkins, but they weren’t carved into wacky faces; they were eaten. You might find a bonfire today, and you’ll certainly find ghost stories. That’s about it. 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.
Nor was Samhain a religious holiday. It was a secular one. Nearly every culture, especially agrarian cultures, celebrates the harvest. As you should—now that you had fresh produce after months of the preserved, dried, or stale stuff. The Celts harvested their crops, lit bonfires, enjoyed their fresh food, and partied like it’s 199. Then they’d butcher the rest of the animals they’d need to eat over winter, stockpile the rest of the grain, and get ready for it to get cold.
During every celebration, if you believe in gods, you thank them. Look at Thanksgiving: Some of us pray and thank God, and make a big religious deal of the holiday—we invite or feed the needy, and take time out of the meal to talk about God’s blessings. The rest are just “thankful,” but thank no one—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. But in any event, Samhain was a secular holiday, and the Pagans have Paganized it.
Frequently Pagans originally grew up Christian, and left Christianity to become Pagan because they got tired of dead religion. I don’t blame them; dead religion sucks. But as a result, Pagans avoid traditions like the plague. Samhain observances vary from group to group, and about they only thing they have in common is, once again, bonfires. If that; if it’s “too traditional” for comfort, they skip the bonfires.
Ironically, Christians who believe Halloween is Pagan call many of their Christian alternatives to Halloween “harvest festivals.” But let’s put all the Pagan stuff aside and get where Halloween actually came from.
As every educated Christian knows, we Christians stole all our holidays from the Jews, not the pagans.
We added a few Christian holidays: Saints’ days and Christmas and the associated holidays of Christmastime and Eastertime. Sometimes, like Christmas, they coincide with pagan holidays. Sometimes pagan customs get mixed together with our holidays, usually without the endorsement of church leaders, but if they’re harmless enough (like chocolate bunnies) we don’t much care.
As I said, Christians celebrate saints’ days. These would be the anniversary of a great saint’s martyrdom, or death—although more recently, like Martin Luther King Day, we celebrate their birthdays. For the lesser-known saints, who probably deserve a holiday but God alone recognizes their importance, the ancient Christians added “all-saints days” to the calendar. Eastern Christians have saints’ days scattered throughout the year, but in May 610 western Christians consolidated all of them into one day. And by the ninth century, our All Saints Day was moved to 1 November.
Back then, people went to church in the evening, so they’d celebrate All Saints Eve the night before. The English called it “All Hallows E’en” (hallows meaning “holy ones,” e’en meaning “evening”) which was contracted to Hallowe’en, or Halloween. The candy and costumes came later: They began by dressing as saints, and devolved into dressing as Batman.
Losing the holiday.
So how did Halloween become secular? Two reasons: Christians let it go, and pagans took it over.
I grew up Fundamentalist. Back then, Christians still celebrated Halloween. I went to many a church-run Halloween party. But in the 1970s and ’80s, conservative Christians quit celebrating Halloween. Certain con artists, like Mike Warnke, were going through Fundie churches pretending to be ex-Satanists. They’d tell these outrageous stories about what devil-worshipers do on Halloween. None of it was true, but some people will believe anything, and Warnke made good money scaring the willies out of gullible Christians by telling us of the evils of Halloween.
By the 1990s, many churches either dropped their Halloween functions altogether, or turned into “harvest parties.” (Or worse, they created Hell Houses—a twisted version of the haunted house where we’d scare people with images of suffering or hell, and scare ’em into turning to Jesus.) Both festively and morally, we abandoned our own holiday.
As the Christians put it down, the pagans picked it up. Bereft of Christian influence, left to their own devices, adults began throwing costume parties on Halloween night. Teens and adults escalated the pranking, violence, and inappropriate costumes to their present-day levels. Religious Pagans began spreading the story we stole their holiday. And here we are.
Fighting evil on Halloween.
Can we do anything about the way people celebrate Halloween nowadays? Of course we can—if we get involved, and use Halloween as the ministry and outreach opportunity it is.
True, lots of Christians don’t care to. They still consider Halloween “evil,” and go out of their way to make sure their “harvest parties” look nothing like Halloween. Some discourage costumes. Some discourage candy. Some replace the parties with a worship service. Others will be Halloween parties in all but name.
However, if you want to do something to fight evil, these parties tend to reach out to the wrong group. Most of the “harvest festivals” are for children, but the children aren’t the ones pranking, drinking, dressing inappropriately, or getting into trouble. That’d be the youth—the teenagers and young adults. Churches need to reach out to them if we want to provide an alternative to evil. As it is, the youth aren’t invited to any functions, and have nothing to do but run off and raise hell. So they do.
As for remembering the saints… well, the Roman Catholics and some mainline churches still do.
Yeah, it’s depressing. Christians are supposed to take territory, not cede it. Halloween is a defeat, and deep down we Christians know it, which is why the holiday bothers us so much. As it should. We need to take it back.