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 I am fine with the cultural remnants of a superseded paganism, but the glorification of the occult and an aesthetic suggestive of satanism make the condemnations of Halloween by Christians pretty understandable.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.