Something Wicked This Way Comes

Are Halloween traditions rooted in evil?

With the fall holiday rapidly approaching, the internet is full of clickbait posts on Halloween stories. Sorry to be a buzzkill, but just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. Alongside the web, Hollywood is another culprit of interweaving fact and fiction in films based around the holiday.

The opening of the horror movie “Halloween III” refers to Samhain, the Celtic God of the Dead, as the demonic originator of modern Halloween. This chimes with tales told with glee by neo-goths and with condemnation by hardcore Christians.

This story of Celtic demons has only tenuous connections to the truth, but Buzzkilling teaches us a great deal about the deep history of Halloween and about why urban legends spread.

About this Samhain thing. Pre-Christian Europeans are both credited and condemned for creating Halloween. Shallow and prejudiced interpretations of Celtic stories from Ireland and Britain generally take the following form: Halloween was a pre-Christian and Pagan celebration of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), the Celtic God of the Dead. Samhain’s followers —also known as devil worshippers— would practice door-to-door terrorism, demanding food for their god and killing people who didn’t oblige. Sometimes Druids were involved, and sometimes pumpkins were used to mark houses that have already been “trick or treated” in this demonic way. Radical fundamentalist Christians like Jack Chick and David Brown have pushed these stories and added the idea that proto-Christians were the ones terrorized and killed.

These tales not only have no real historical basis, they completely leave out the fact that modern Halloween is a blend of pre-Christian and early Christian practices, and that none of them involve devils. Samhain was a Celtic festival around late October and early November that marked the end of summer or the end of the harvest. It was a time when fairies and spirits could come into the human world, and the souls of the dead could come back and visit their homes with food often left out for them. Samhain was not the Celtic God of the Dead.

Several Christian teachings and traditions started to influence Halloween once the new religion took hold in the British Isles in the 400s and 500s. By the early 700s, many churches in Britain and Ireland started observing All Hallows Day on November 1, as a celebration of departed saints or the “hallowed.” Over the next thousand years, All Hallows Eve, which is the day before All Hallows Day, was celebrated in lots of different ways. These included folks dressing up as departed Christian souls, not demons or devils from hell. They went door-to-door asking for food for their journey between purgatory and heaven. So the idea that Halloween started as a demonic holiday is nuts.

Halloween customs modified over the subsequent centuries to include pranks, tricks and other things that went along with wearing masks. Like all holidays, Halloween had its ups and downs in terms of popularity over the centuries. By the 20th century, it took its relatively secular form that we know today and became mostly a holiday for children.

So chill out, trick-or-treaters. Enjoy Halloween secure in the knowledge that you’re not a demonic paganist threatening the foundations of Christianity, and that you can cavort to your heart’s content without being damned to hell.

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