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Halloween goes beyond its pagan rituals

Today's Halloween customs have blunted their pagan past.

Today's Halloween customs have blunted their pagan past. Photo Credit: Newsday / Xavier Mascarenas

Should religious folks celebrate Halloween? In answering this question I have a duty to my readers and a duty to my grandchildren, Zeke and Daisy. Spoiler alert: Zeke and Daisy are going to win.

First, some historical context. One of the great roles organized religion has traditionally played over the years has been the co-optation of idolatrous pagan rituals and their transformation into theologically approved rituals for theologically approved holidays. This was done by taking popular pagan customs and continuing them, but without their original meanings. Ancient Canaanite sacrifices to Ba’al on sacred hilltops were transformed into identical sacrifices, but now they were offered to God at Israelite temples located on exactly the same hilltops. The ancient tree-worshipping European pagans (as opposed to modern European pagans) lit candles on fir trees on the winter solstice. This pagan custom was wonderfully transformed by Christians into the twinkly Christmas tree with an angel at the very top. These transformations kept popular customs alive but blunted their pagan past. Everybody won.

Rising above all other examples of religious co-optation of pagan customs is Halloween. Halloween was originally a Celtic pagan end-of-summer rite celebrating Samhain, the Lord of the Dead. He called forth the spirits of the dead in the form of ghosts and ghouls and malevolent spirits to roam their home villages and try to bring some new victims into hell with them. People would defend themselves against this Celtic zombie apocalypse by wearing masks and costumes to disguise their identities. Irish Christianity (where Halloween is still a weeklong national holiday) recast Halloween as All Hallows Eve the night before All Saints Day, which celebrates the power of Christian saints over, obviously, zombies. Halloween had a deep grip on Irish Catholics. After the Irish potato famine brought many Irish Catholics to America, Halloween took root here.

Today Halloween may well be the most popular holiday in America because it is not only for Christians, it is for all God-fearing, zombie-fearing Americans of every race, religion and costume. Indeed the best argument for embracing Halloween is that nothing whatsoever of its original intent has survived the sugar high of trick-or-treating children, the skimpy nurse costumes of partying millennials, and the general national Mardi Gras feeling that Halloween brings to Americans who find no reason not to get dressed in a costume and go out and have a good time. In a work-obsessed culture, a holiday whose main ritual is having fun was bound to succeed.

And let’s not forget to add a good word about trick-or-treating. In many neighborhoods people hardly ever encounter their neighbors. Trick-or-treating is a way to get out and meet the people who will soon be retreating into their caves for the winter. And then there is the impact of trick-or-treating on the kids. I can’t recall more than a handful of adults who do not count their childhood trick-or-treating memories as among their most precious memories of childhood. I would argue in fact that the functional definition of adulthood in America is the year you think you are too old to go trick-or-treating.

Finally as a strong believer in life after death, I am quite happy that Halloween is a testimony to the fact that death is not the end of us. I would, of course, prefer to have people encounter the afterlife through saints and the power of love to survive the grave, but if belief in the afterlife begins with zombies — well praise the Lord and pass the candy bars.

Yes, Halloween is suffused with pagan rituals that still hold their shape. Yes, many Halloween party costumes for adults objectify women. Yes, many Halloween costumes for children are just a big commercial rip-off, and yes the very last thing our kids need to eat more of is sugar. I concede all this, and yet I remember how as a kid I loved flying through the crunchy leaves of Shorewood, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, wearing my only, ever, costume of a white sheet with eye holes and then trying to keep my candy stash away from my siblings and parents. Now I am blessed to relive this joy by watching Zeke and Daisy run like the wind and say to me, at the close of All Hallows Eve, “Papa we had a great time. Thank you.”

Samhain be damned. I love Halloween.

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