Halloween – Sifting Historical Facts vs “Christian” Myths

Around this time of the year, I find a lot of Christians getting all hot under the collar about whether they should choose to celebrate Halloween, or not.

Often the arguments boil down to the perceived association of the day with all that is evil, and that Christians should not put on the appearance of evil, thus the argument goes that we should not celebrate Halloween.

In my younger days as a Christian I was given this impression that it was not something a Christian could celebrate, and so I unquestioningly obeyed and didn’t celebrate it. Though I must confess to my mum lightly decorating the house in seasonal colours and once hanging cutouts of pumpkins, spiders, witches on broomsticks and suchlike from the ceiling, and we did carve pumpkins.

As I grew up and studied at university, I realised the importance of source material as the basis of any argument and began to think for myself and research things I’d previously taken for granted about issues such as Halloween: Where did it come from? Who is the mysterious figure of “Samhain” some Christians ascribe as being the “Lord of the Dead”? Is it really the “Devil’s Day” as some Christian websites suggested? What about apple bobbing, trick or treating, dressing up with masks and so on?

As I studied (to show myself approved of the Eternal One), I discovered most of the information that Christians were passing around seemed to come from a closed circle of sources which kept on referencing each other, as though that were enough to convince people of the truth of their claims. Each of these main “source” websites would  inevitably have not been updated since the very early days of the World-Wide-Web, containing incorrect information garnished with garish animations and colour schemes that may have looked great when Netscape Navigator was the predominant web browser in 1995, but were still being used as primary reference sources by Christians wanting to warn about the “dangers of Halloween” in the teen years of the twenty-first century.

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Surely all these references must be well researched if they are being referenced so much, especially when books & leaflets published by Christian publishing houses are making the same assertions about the nature of Halloween activities.

And so I began to research. Of course, this would mean reading outside of the pool of sources of online materials and Christian publications. It would mean reading the works of academic historians, who are well versed in finding and reading source materials. Over time, little by little, I realised that the Christian “warning” websites being referenced by so many other Christians about the “dangers of Halloween” contained factually incorrect information. It seems that “Fake News” of this modern social media age has actually been something going around within certain Christian circles for decades sadly – I say sadly because we should not bear false witness against any of our neighbours, even if we don’t particularly approve of what they might be up to.

Here I present the findings of research from outside what I call the “shallow pool of ‘Christian’ misinformation” regarding certain Halloween activities and beliefs.

The Name ‘Halloween’
This derives from the name All Hallow’s Eve, or Hallow’s Eve / Hallowe’en. Hallow being an older English word for “Holy”. It is the evening before All Hallows or All Saints day. This day is when the church in this land celebrated (and still does in some denominations) the lives of the saints (those who had died in the faith). Originally the day came from Pope Boniface IV who in 609AD dedicated the Pantheon in Rome which was a temple to “all gods” as a church to “St Mary and All Martyrs” and was on the 13th of May.

It was in 835 that Pope Gregory III changed the date to the 1st November, where it has remained ever since. But why? Some believe it was because of the celebration and thanksgiving of the lives of those who had died on the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (Gaelic for “Summer’s End”). This would make a lot of sense, especially as the season in the northern hemisphere sees the landscape in a state of death and decay as the leaves fall for the wintertime.

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Church Graveyard on All Hallows – Remembering the Dead

So, Halloween as a name has Christian origins, and the name itself is not associated with evil whatsoever. In fact, it’s quite a perversion to associate that which is holy as being evil, which is why I am puzzled at so many Christians who cannot accept the Christian origins of Halloween due to the modern day consumerfest it has become – especially when they’re very happy to celebrate Christmas and Easter which are the two biggest consumerism driven festivals in the Western calendar these days.

To say that Christians cannot celebrate Halloween because of the modern consumerism and associations with evil is to ascribe a greater power to those of darkness than those of light. Surely Christians could reclaim that which they once owned, or is this too hard for God to accomplish? It certainly seems that way to some who would choose to separate themselves completely from the embodied world they live in and I’m so glad Jesus didn’t choose to remain separate in that same way (as he associated with those who were “other” to himself).

Samhain – The “Lord of the Dead”?
It was actually the discovery of the truth behind this “Christian myth of Halloween” that led me to begin to question the other “truths” about Halloween I had previously believed. Having discovered the word “Samhain” is really the Gaelic word for “Summer’s End”, I had a moment of cognitive dissonance, for in McDowell & Stuart’s book “The Occult, p201, it says “The celebration [of the ancient Druids] honored [sic] their god Samhain, lord of the dead”, and in Chick tracts (a series of booklets by Jack Chick which still promote incorrect information about Halloween and which would be hilarious as a comedy story if it were not that many Christians are being hoodwinked by information which has been shown to be academically incorrect ). The Chick tract linked to here is a classic case of misinformation, as you can see that it is self refuting, claiming lots of “facts” about Druids and then telling us that they were an oral tradition which didn’t write down their information. The latter is true, and the only contemporary information we have on the ancient Druids is from the Roman historians – and we know history is written by the winners, so there may be a sense of bias in the reporting.

Where did the association of Samhain supposedly being a “lord of the dead” come from? Research suggests that it stems from Col. Charles Vallency who in the 1700s wrote about the Irish in a six volume set, attempting to prove they came from Armenia. He makes the first suggestion of a Celtic deity called “Samhain”, but no further research turns up any such deity. The source is incorrect. This didn’t stop writer Godfrey Higgins publishing a book in 1827, The Celtic Druids which attempted to prove the Irish came from India and made reference to Vallency’s comment about Samhain. Higgins makes reference to someone called Pictet who strained to associate Samhain with Bal-sab a sun deity. Vallency’s work has been denounced as being academically suspect, but this still hasn’t stopped a number of Christians repeating this same incorrect information to their congregations and in books during the 1900s.

A minor character called “Samhain” does appear in celtic mythology, not as a deity or “lord of the dead”, but as a character who leads the sheep from the summer to winter pastures. Hardly an evil character.

Summer’s End, or Samhain, it has been claimed was the ancient celtic celebration of the new year. This may sound odd, but different cultures celebrate new year at different times of the year, it doesn’t just happen on 1st January as per the modern Western calendar (eg Chinese new year is celebrated as a moveable feast according to their own, non-Gregorian, calendar). Whether or not it really was an ancient celtic celebration of the new year is open to speculation, for no evidence exists that it was.

It appears that somehow the pool of information which Christians are drinking from has been once again poisoned by those who have an agenda which includes distorting the truth and promoting that which is false. Christians should be leading examples in truth telling, which is why I find the reluctance to admit there have been lies in the past rather uncomfortable.

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Two frames from a Chick tract, used under “Fair usage” rights.

Bonefires, Black & Orange as Halloween’s Colours

The Anglo-Saxon name for November is “Blodmonath” (blood-month), a time when the weakest of the livestock were killed and cooked / preserved in order to build up body fat for the coming wintertime as well as keep food reserves for the strongest livestock. There would have been a lot of “bone fires”, the origin of the word “bonfire” as bones were rendered to ash – itself a valuable mineral for soapmaking / tanning and fertilising the landscape for the coming springtime. The bonfires would have been nothing more sinister than that. Sacrificing livestock to the tribe’s god/s may have happened, but then this does not make bonfires sinister in and of themselves. In the UK at the height of the “Mad cows disease” which was infecting our livestock back in the 1990s, we had huge bonefires of infected livestock – was this an evil practice? I suggest it was more the result of evil practices forced upon them by human beings (cannibalism – feeding them ground up animals).

I suppose the most strained attempt at making Halloween appear evil is the association of the seasonal colours of black and orange. At least one blogger writes that these are colours chosen because they are the colours of a bonefire in the night. This is purely confirmation bias in operation, based on faulty logic of bonefires being evil. I suggest the colours are because the time is associated with death (symbolically black) and autumn (orange), nothing more sinister than that. They’re colours, given by God to be received with thanksgiving – nothing more.

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The bright blaze of a modern bonfire warms and cheers the heart of a community.

Pumpkins / Jack’o’Lanterns

The saddest incident I have personally experienced with the association of pumpkins with evil was at my children’s first primary school where the headteacher would not allow a pumpkin on the seasonal letter home to parents because of it being associated with Halloween which was thought to be evil.

Let me say this: Pumpkins, turnips and all other seasonal root vegetables are a gift from our Maker and not to be rejected.

What is carved upon them? Well, some choose to put scary faces, because it’s fun. Others put Christian symbols on them to “redeem” them – and fair play, at least they’re engaging with the culture that we’re part of.

Why the Jack’o’Lantern / Pumpkin? The latter root veg comes from American Halloween tradition – itself a modification of the former Irish tradition of the Jack’o’Lantern. The American, Washington Irvine, wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in which a headless horseman uses a pumpkin for a head. And so origins of the pumpkin with a carved face began.

Jack’o’Lanterns come from the 19th century Irish / Scottish practice of carving turnips (or “manglewurzles”). Some suggest that they were put onto windowsills in order to ward off evil spirits because of the frightening face. Others suggest an association with a folklore character called “Stingy Jack”, a moral tale that teaches about the evils of living an immoral life.

Does this mean the practice of pumpkin / turnip carving itself is evil? Not at all, and a good conversation can be had about warding off evil – what is and isn’t effective. In and of itself, it is a great family activity and the pumpkin is incredibly versatile – we usually make muffins, soup and pie from the innards of a pumpkin prepared for my children to carve. Some of the intricate pumpkin carvings these days show great skill and as such are a testimony to a gracious gift of the Great Artist to all humanity.

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“Sleepy Hollow” Carved Pumpkin

Apple Bobbing – Celebrating The Roman Goddess Pomona?
Again the story goes that apple bobbing is a rite which stems from the Romans adding into the ancient druidic festival at this time of the year.

What do we know about Pomona and the festival to her? Well, she was a Roman goddess of the harvest of fruits. Her festival was celebrated on the 13th August, nowhere near Nov 1st, nor the earlier Halloween date of 13th May. Her association with apple bobbing is purely down to her being the Roman goddess of fruits, nothing else.

There is nothing occultic in attempting to use skill and dexterity to take an apple out of water with one’s mouth, no more than attempting to remove a wine gum from a pile of flour at a children’s party game.

It seems that someone, somewhere, in attempting to denigrate an old village game played by children and adults at this time of the year (because we have apples in abundance), has sought to poison the pool of information about Halloween again sadly.

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Fun bobbing for apples

Trick or Treating – Evil Druidic Threats?
Again, another “Christian” myth about Halloween seems to drink from the polluted gene pool of information regarding the practice of trick-or-treat.

 “Like a beggar at Hallowmas.”

Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 26)

The origin of this modern day practice has its roots in the Christian practice of children and beggars going from door to door around the village / town, offering to pray for the souls of the people and their families as they open the door to the children. Some denominations would also offer prayer for those who have passed over too. In return, the pray-ers would receive what is known as “soul cakes”, which are the “treat” from which modern day treats derive.

The knee-jerk reaction from die-hard Protestantism to the above paragraph is that we cannot pray for the dead. As a follower of Jesus who holds to the main Creeds, including the Apostle’s Creed, I believe in the Communion of the Saints and know that God hears my prayers for them, because I don’t believe in one body of dead believers and one body of living believers, we’re all one Body in Christ. I don’t pray to them, but there is no harm in praying for them, that they may enjoy blissful peace in the arms of their Maker. Unfortunately this nuanced distinction is lost upon those who choose to only skim the surface of Biblical theology and Church history.

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A soul, a soul, a soul cake.

But what about the physical dangers to children?

1) Dodgy treats: We are told there are many stories of children who are given razor blades, disease infected needles and suchlike in their treats. However, attempting to research these “many” stories results shows they are not reliable news sources, and often end up referencing the same infected pool of misinformation. The biggest danger to kids from collecting sweets is tooth decay and diabetes. However, common sense suggests that care should be taken to only consume sweets collected in sealed packets.

2) Invitation to abuse at the door: The argument “When else would you give a child permission to knock on a stranger’s door?” is trotted out. Actually there is some merit in this argument, and it is indeed to be taken seriously. Children who are engaging in this activity I would suggest be escorted by their parents/carers and only go to those houses who they personally know / are family friends or are happy to have trick-or-treaters. The latter will have seasonal decorations so as to act as a friendly welcome to those engaging in this activity. If someone does not want to engage in answering the door to trick-or-treaters, then the group should avoid knocking on their door out of pure courtesy – not everyone is able to, wants to, or indeed can afford to engage in this celebration. Remember that you are a guest at someone’s doorstep, and act as a good guest.

Certainly there is a risk of groups using the opportunity to create vandalism in retaliation for no treats, but vandalism occurs year-round and is not particular to one night of the year. Why put the kybosh on one activity for everyone just because of a few miscreants? If we only ever stop activities because of a few who may spoil it, we risk making life for everyone a very bland, bubble wrapped, risk averse life which itself creates issues for the repressed further down the line.

Dressing Up in Scary Costumes?
The main argument here is that costumes nowadays are often a celebration of death and suffering. In part I really do agree here – I hate the chainsaw driven, blood splatter of a lot of the modern stuff, but there are a lot of costumes which have a less gruesome appearance, including vampires, werewolves, zombies, Frankenstein’s Monster, and many more – all of which have themes which can be explored in a deeply Christian context and theological studies are available online regarding the themes¹.

Where did dressing-up come from? Well, it seems to be a reasonably modern innovation (circa 16th Century), with origins amongst groups such as mummers and other village festival players. The spirit of carnival is one where all strata of society are made equal – where the lowest are raised up, and the highest are brought down – all are as one in the carnival.

But why scary costumes? Some suggest it is a re-enactment of the French danse macabre which is found in a lot of church paintings: the dead in the churchyard rise up and dance together. This may have been re-enacted in village pageants by villagers due to its carnivalesque nature – death is the great leveller of social strata.

Some suggest that wearing spooky costumes was to ward off ghosts / spirits which would be more apparent at this time of the year. But is there really any particular time when they’re allegedly more active than others? Are we again putting too much power into the hands of powers which have been defeated.

Certainly in the Bible we read of Jesus having gone into the depths of hell and leading those captive in death to freedom and life again – whilst at the same time parading death as a captive itself (Paul uses the Roman context of the conqueror’s victory parades in these examples).

Might it be that in dressing up in scary (not gorey) costumes is actually joining in with the celebration of life over death (all the players are alive!) and making a mockery of the darkness by dressing up and having fun at its expense? Even if you choose not to dress scarily, then dressing up as a superhero etc can be just as fun too!

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Sounds like dinner, dinner, dinner….

Conclusion

I am in no way trying to change anyone’s mind on whether or not they should personally celebrate Halloween. Let each be convinced in their own minds.

I would suggest that those of a more Protestant persuasion, who shun any association with their mother Church, have thrown much of the baby out with the bathwater of the Reformation, and in doing so, have left a huge vacuum of how Christians deal with those who have passed over, relegating them to some form of unconscious “soul sleep” and not really worth remembering, honouring or giving thanks for, yet, they’re very happy to join in with the secular “Remembrance Day” on 11th November. This vacuum has been sadly filled with yet another consumerist approach which peddles plastic junk at the expense of our earth’s resources.

What I do ask though is that we think deeply about what we may have been told by well-meaning Christians who have our best interests at heart, but have fallen foul of reading and believing everything they’ve been told about Halloween. Don’t believe everything you read or hear from your church minister without checking out verifiable facts from a number of reliable sources, because it may well be their good intentions are grounded in the shifting sands of false information.

So, test everything (including the information in this post). Hold on to what is good. Read widely and deeply. Think for yourself. Only deal with truths and do not promote that which is in error. Seek source material, don’t merely take something which appears to be referenced and believe it must be true. I have deliberately not referenced much in here so that those who have ears to hear can take and research for themselves what I write.

Stay safe during Halloween. Let us be the salt and light in our communities – not keeping it in the salt cellar, or under a bowl. Be known as someone who brings life in all its fullness, not dowdy nay-saying and isolationism.

Over the coming month I will be posting some suggested Halloween activities which Christians may engage with that are highly appropriate, spiritually engaging and thought/conversation provoking. Stay tuned!

But for now I leave you with this wonderfully inspiring modern piece of poetry which sums up the spirit of everything I’ve written above.

Be the light in the darkness!

Bright blessings this Halloween!


FURTHER RESEARCH

¹ Just be creative with discussions on these:
Vampires – “Drink my blood, live forever…” What connection may there be with Christianity here?
Zombies – George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” makes some great connections between shopping mall consumerism and the mindless zombies which inhabit them. Where is society acting in mindless, herd mentality ways?
Frankenstein – The history of the creation of this story is fascinating in itself, but issues such as what makes the difference between animate living human body and a dead one, or how we are more than mere lumps of flesh that need electrical stimulation to become alive.
Werewolves – Sabine Baring-Gould had a great interest in these folklore characters, and wrote an entire book on the subject which can be downloaded here. “Who is Sabine Baring-Gould?” you may ask – well, amongst other things, he wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers”. So maybe having an interest in that which is strange, dark and spooky is not a sign of an evil nature, but an enquiring mind which seeks to find out the truth.

Previous postings of mine on Halloween can be found here.

Theofantastique.com is a Christian run website which looks into the horror genre from an academic perspective, seeking to find the fingerprints of the Divine within the various stories, films, characters and suchlike within that genre.

“Taboo or to Do?” is an excellent book on the subject of Christians and Halloween, amongst other things like mindfulness, yoga, martial arts etc. It’s non-sensationalist and seeks to use the spiritual gift of discernment to separte the wheat from the chaff, rather than knee-jerk, undiscerning “It’s all evil” message that certain types of Christianity promote.

Ronald Hutton is a great academic historian at Bristol University who specialises in the pagan history of the British Isles. His work Stations of the Sun wonderfully cuts through the fluff of modern myths that have been created around our seasonal festivals.

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