Happy Halloween to you Western Christians who remember all the saints tomorrow and to you descendants of the pagan Celts who celebrated the autumn feast of Samhain.
There are aspects of the American celebration of Halloween that I really like. The holiday period preceding Halloween until the American feast of Thanksgiving marks our own cultural harvest festivities, and many Halloween customs feature this generic celebration of autumn and the harvest.
As a good Ohioan, I delight in everything pumpkin—actual pumpkins and all the goodies that are made from pumpkins. What Cincinnatian doesn’t relish the taste of Frisch’s pumpkin pie? Servatii’s pumpkin cookies do not even contain pumpkins, but their lemony goodness brings back memories. When I was home a couple of weeks ago, I made sure to buy some of these treats. United Dairy Farmers even had pumpkin ice cream as a seasonal flavor. Long live the commercialization of homey cultural tastes!
I also enjoy some of the traditional pagan practices that have survived. After extinguishing all the fires in their community, the Celts would build a large communal bonfire that burnt harvest offerings to their gods. The Celts carved gourds to transport this fire back to their hearths, which they would maintain for the entire year. The Christian Greeks and Arabs have a similar practice today with the holy fire of Pascha. The symbolism of new life and rebirth is quite powerful. Our tradition of jack o’ lanterns seems to have originated in this ancient pagan practice. I make sure to carve a pumpkin every year, preferably while watching the Peanuts’ It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and munching on candy corn. It’s my own Halloween season ritual.
There are, however, elements of the American celebration of Halloween that make me uneasy. I am fine with the cultural remnants of a superseded paganism, but the glorification of the occult and an aesthetic suggestive of satanism make the condemnations of Halloween by Christians pretty understandable. There might be something cathartic about the gore and horror of Halloween, where children overcome their fear of monsters and ghosts. In this, Halloween might serve some of the same psychological purposes as the day of the dead traditions in Latin America—though the secular power of American Protestantism has largely removed the religious dimension from a fundamentally religious holiday. Still, I find the proliferation of haunted houses and the celebration of witchcraft and demons a bit troubling.
I thus propose a middle way with a purified Halloween, where the focus is on the harvest festival aspects of the feast. Western Christians can focus on the traditional relation of the feast to the feasts of All Saints and of All Souls, as well. Furthermore, as children love to dress up and to receive and to eat goodies, let kids celebrate by dressing up as animals, fantasy characters, or pretend professions—and leave the goblins, witches, and monsters to the heathen. Take what is good from Egypt, and leave what is rotten.
Dr. Reynolds from Biola University wrote a fine post on the occasion of his class trip to Athens’ Areopagus in “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In it, he discusses the philosophical controversy into which Saint Paul entered with his sermon to the Athenians. He points out how close the Platonists were to the gospel. Of all the intellectual currents in the Greco-Roman world, Platonism made the most receptive audience for Christianity. It is customary to hear Platonism contrasted with the earthy goodness of creation Christianity, but even our terrestrial doctrines exist within a celestial framework. The ancient Platonists were some of the few pagans who realized that God transcends the world and that the world is God’s creation. The ancient Platonists understood that God is good, eternal, and the source of all being. The ancient Platonists conceived of all being as an image of the beyond being. Given such, Porphyry rather than Origen becomes the philosophical mystery. What explains a man such as Porphyry, other than ancestral loyalty and cultural conservatism?
As my friend Andrew said, religion—or at least Christianity—only makes sense within a Platonic understanding of reality. I fully agree. I suspect that many of the intellectual ruptures of the modern West only became possible by its rejection of Platonism. When God becomes a being among beings, one must give up either his faith or his science. For God’s presence in the world will always be seen as a nullification of the world’s own order, integrity, and intelligibility. To assert such a God is to deny the possibility of scientific knowledge. To embrace philosophy likewise involves a rejection of the divine as superfluous superstition. Only ignorant regressives cling to religion to fill gaps in their ignorance, as the being God has no place in a scientifically understood cosmos. One must make this choice or cultivate bizarre confusions that attempt to carve a place for the divine and for science in the husk of our ignorance. Reason suffers terribly when forced to accept false choices. So does the human soul.