Happy Samhain!

Is there any holiday more fraught with danger for the Christian than Halloween?

It’s the devil’s holiday, right? If you’re like me, you grew up seldom if ever trick-or-treating but spending plenty of Halloween nights in church, enjoying “fall festival” – or whatever euphemism was in vogue at the time. There were certainly no Halloween decorations or other such festive holiday garb. We carved a pumpkin once or twice, which only tells me my parents just weren’t hard-core enough in their Halloween opposition.

And, sure, there’s a point to which Halloween has been used to glorify the darker side of human nature – horror-movie marathons, witches, black cats, an overall embrace of the macabre – and I can see why that would turn off a lot of Christians. But it’s worth pointing out that any holiday is only as evil as you make it out to be. Is watching horror movies Halloween night worse than spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on trinkets and in obeisance to to the commercialism of Christmas? Maybe. But I’d have to think about it.

I mainly want to point out in this space on this day that Halloween itself is not inherently pagan or evil – at least, not any more than Christmas or Easter.

Like most old holidays, Halloween has its origins in the weather. The Celts marked the day, calling it Samhain.

This medieval celebration marked the end of harvest and the “lighter half” of the year and signaled the beginning of the “darker half”. The practical implications of which were mostly influenced due to the farming nature of the culture. This was a time to take stock of supplies and decide which animals would be slaughtered to enable survival through the winter. Since cattle and livestock were the primary currency, the monumental decision of how to manage (and or eat) one’s money was of huge significance. It was these important rituals that gave birth to many modern holidays.

In its earliest observances, Samhain also marked the end of the season for trade and warfare. This break from fighting made this time of year ideal for tribal assemblies and gatherings where rulers could address their people.

These assemblies often included the telling of stories, the mythology of the tribe or region. Many heroic tales of men passing tests of bravery and slaying horrible demons can be traced to these early gatherings. Themes of the supernatural were common, but were hardly the ‘horror’ stories that have become tradition.

Aside from some obvious symbolism, the holiday was neither scary or about the dead.

Leave that to the Christians.

Ah, yes. You see, it was the medieval Christ followers who set aside Nov. 1 as All Saints’ Day, to honor, well, the saint, obviously, and some of them were dead. The next day, Nov. 2, was All Souls Day, which commemorated those Christians who had died. Where Celts became Christians, Samhain and All Saints and All Souls days mixed together to form one big agrisaints festival. It’s pretty easy to see how, from there, festivals intending to mark the turn from light into darkness and life into death took on a somewhat morbid tone.

Nevertheless, nothing about the origins of Halloween is particularly evil, no matter what some try to make of it today (both celebrants and accusers). Let’s compare that to Christmas.

Christmas is a more ancient tradition, dating to well before the birth of Christ (oops) and finding its roots in midwinter European celebrations centered on the solstice. In Germany, residents honored the god Oden, whom they greatly feared; in Scandinavia, residents would burn a huge Yule log and feast until it ran out; and in Rome, they held a monthlong festival of debauchery known as Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture.

Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.

Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.

The church co-opted these traditions in the early 400s C.E., and within 400 years, Christmas had spread around the known world – and with it the decadence of the Roman holiday on which it was based.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.

That’s why the Puritans banned Christmas altogether, and the later colonists’ antipathy toward England led naturally to an ambivalence toward English traditions. Not until 19th century novelists Washington Irving and Charles Dickens invented the Christmas we all know and love – claiming falsely that they were merely retelling age-old traditions did it become anything resembling the holiday we know and love.

There’s a lot to like in the Christmas traditions of the upper classes repaying their debt to society by helping the poor; whatever its origins, the holiday, at least for a while, incorporated some of the core values of the rabbi whose birth it claims to be celebrating. For that matter, a lot of good is still done for the poor during the Christmas season. But, more and more, our obsession with presents and decorating are leading us to pour billions upon billions of dollars into a consumer machine built on the backs of the poor and oppressed around the world. The holiday we celebrate today bears more resemblance to its decadent Roman origins than perhaps at any time since – right down to the monthlong hedonism.

Halloween is arguably no less commercial, and the glorification of violence and darkness – and, increasingly, sex – is nothing to celebrate. But if we’re picking sides, I’m not going to say Christmas is more worth celebrating than Halloween because, ultimately, neither holiday is inherently good, and neither is inherently evil.

As with most things, it all comes down to what you celebrate and how you do it. Trick or treat!

One thought on “Happy Samhain!”

  1. Thankfully my ultra-conservative Church of Christ parents were not opposed to Halloween, or trick-or-treating. In fact one of my favorite memories as a child was our annual pumpkin carving night, which always culminated in my Dad making the best roasted pumpkins seeds known to man. We did usually go up to church, but only after trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.

    The only caveat my parents had is we couldn’t dress up as the devil. We could be witches, and vampires, and ghosts. As my Mom would tell you: those aren’t real. But the devil is real she always said, and dressing up as him makes light of his power and makes it easier to forgot how evil he is.

    Oh, and the most horrified I’ve ever seen my Mom was at our school’s Halloween festival one year when another mother was dressed as a pregnant nun. Needless to say, I would probably not have been allowed to dress up as that either.

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