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Misconceptions about Halloween
A thoughtful response from a pagan reader

by Kirsten Power

This article, titled "The Misconceptions about Halloween" was first prompted by Charles Henderson's article "Halloween: A holiday in need of renovation." In his article Henderson asks: "Given its "pagan" roots some Christians think of it as evil; what do you think?".  Due to the sensitive nature of the material, I first approached the article with trepidation. You see, I, raised Irish Roman Catholic, grew up to be a practicing Pagan. But, we will get to that later. While I was reading the article, I tried to suspend my belief system and view it objectively.  However, the misinformation I read angered me.  Ok, it enraged me.  Americans live in an enlightened age.  The planet is the most technologically advanced it has ever been.   The internet is a great tool used to dispel inaccuracies and misunderstanding spanning different socioeconomic, religious and cultural backgrounds.

But, as I read Mr. Henderson's article, I realized that I was grossly naive in my view of the world.  Persistently people form opinions based upon superstition.  They do not understand the information put before them or they do not choose to explore alternative viewpoints.  I believe that people, if they want to understand something fully, must explore the topic of their choosing.  Mr. Henderson did not explore the "pagan" side of the holiday.  In fact, he did not quote a single accurate source for information on the "pagan" version of Halloween, called Samhain.

I have to thank Mr. Henderson, however.  For, had he not written that article, I would not be driven to respond.  To quote something I once said, "The good articles I have read make me think.  The better ones make me emotional.  The best ones give me the incentive to do something about it."  Thank you Mr. Henderson for writing one of those articles.

  *****************************************************

The holiday Halloween does have origins in Paganism.     The origins of the holiday exist in Celtic and Roman paganism.  The Celtic people celebrated their new year feast and celebration for the dead over the turning of the year.  When the Romans conquered the Celts, they combined their harvest festival into this holiday.

The name Halloween comes from the Catholic holiday, All Hallow's Eve. However, as for the destruction of property, demand of tribute, and attack of "unworthy descendants" by the "neglected dead", as noted by Charles Henderson, this does not have its basis in any known western European religion.  To quote the author of "The Power of the Witch" and "Love Magic", Laurie Cabot,

"Samhain is the day on which the Celtic New Year and Winter begin together, so it is time for both beginnings and endings. On Samhain the ancient tribes celebrated the Celtic Feast of the Dead.  This practice has directly influenced countless other religions and folk customs.  All Souls' Day, on November 2nd, commemorates the Christian dead. On Samhain the veil between the worlds of the spirit and matter is lifted and the living and the dead are more likely to exchange psychic information.  On All Soul's Day the barriers between this world and the next are said to be down and the dead are ominously able to return from their graves. Samhain is a much less frightening celebration.  On Samhain Witches perform rituals to keep anything negative from the past- evil, harm, corruption, greed - out of the future.  We cast spells to psychically contact our deceased forebearers and retrieve ancient knowledge, thus preserving the great web what stretches through many generations of human families." (Celebrate the Earth, p.13)

This view of Samhain is very different from the views presented by many Christian and Catholic sources.  Again, I cite that people are often afraid of what they do not know or understand. 

Samhain is an intensely personal and introspective holiday.  For me, it symbolizes fortuity, an opportunity to give glory to those people close to me who have died in the last year or before.  I speak directly to those people I love. I tell them how much I miss them, how much I will miss them and how much they brought to my life. Then I breathe, focus and let them go. Laurie Cabot says, "Samhain is a time for change and a time to look to the future."(p.13) It should be heartening, not frightening to see that people are using this time of year to let go and go on with life.  I think that the phrase, "let be and let live" would be appropriate here.

Does this mean that Samhain is "evil" or wrong? No.  The connections that the Catholic church made between dressing as witches and goblins and children going house to house asking for sweets has no basis in ancient Celtic paganism.  It is true that in the 1800's, people in England would often dress up and go house to house requesting donations.   However, there is no connection between this practice and the practice of the Celts to dress up in ritual garb to perform their ceremonies.  Could you say that the Native Americans are "evil" because they dress to imitate animals and elements in their ceremonies?  No. The ancient Celts were merely following their religious beliefs and dressing as the god or elemental spirit they felt was most appropriate to the ceremony.  It is the Catholic church that supports alms and donations to their churches.  That is to say, personally I have never entered a pagan gathering, feast or church and found myself standing in front of an offering box.

I could continue on at length about the misconceptions surrounding the pagan festival that has been turned into this commercialized celebration of candy and superstitions.  J. Kerby Anderson, in his essay, "Ten Reasons Christians Should Not Celebrate Halloween", talks about the pumpkin carving that is so widely associated with Halloween and paganism.  Pumpkins were not used in the ancient rituals.  The Celts used gourds, sometimes small pumpkins, as symbols of the harvest.  I have found no reference to pumpkin carving in any of the books on paganism I have read.  I suspect that this is another ploy of the Catholic to church to make the holiday appear more sinister than it is.

But, what about Christians and Catholics?  They portray paganism as an evil and dangerous religion.  Modern day Christians seem to conveniently forget about the Crusades and how many non-believers were murdered - men, women and children.  I am not saying that paganism is not dangerous or harmful if used incorrectly or immoderately.   For me, Satanism is a good example of this.  Any religion can be taken too far.

However, to decry the holiday that small children love and look forward to all year is unacceptable in my mind.  I separate Halloween from Samhain.  I loved Halloween when I was a child.  I still do.  But this commercialized attempt at mass marketing is not Samhain and never was.  The pagan celebration I attend each year and the offering I make on my altar are completely separate.  I do not ask Christians and Catholics alike to make a mockery of my solemnity.  I do not go into their churches and places of worship handing out fliers that say "The Dark Side of Halloween" and speak of Samhain as if the holiday itself was an evil god of death and mention "Muck Olla" [who happens to be a British deity, not from Ireland at all].  (Brown, David L.)

In short, I did feel, and still do feel, compelled to eradicate some of the myth surrounding Halloween.  I know that I have merely touched on it, it is like dipping my finger into a lake and watching the ripples.  I am always open to comments and criticism.  Please feel free to challenge my viewpoint.  I always enjoy a good debate.

Until next time...

Blessed be,

Kirsten Power

Note from Charles Henderson.  As you can see, Kristen feels that my article, to the extent it referred to the pagan roots of Halloween, was not accurate. She writes: "Mr. Henderson did not explore the "pagan" side of the holiday.  In fact, he did not quote a single accurate source for information on the "pagan" version of Halloween, called Samhain."

My source of information on the roots of Halloween was The Encyclopedia Britannica. It is quite possible, in my view, that Samhain meant different things to different people at different times. Both Kristen and the Encyclopedia editors may be right.  

Bibliography

Anderson, J. Kerby, "Ten Reasons Christians Should Not Celebrate Halloween", http://www.fillthevoid.org/Occult/TenReasonsChristiansShouldNotCelebrateHalloween.htm, D/FW Heritage, 1995.

Aoumiel (Moura. Ann), Green Witchcraft: Folk Magic, Fairy Lore & Herb Craft, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 1997.

Bethancourt, W.J. III, "Halloween: Myths, Monsters and Devils", http://www.featherlessbiped.com/halloween/hallows.htm?,copyright 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 W.J. Bethancourt III.

Brown, David L, "The Dark Side of Halloween", Logos Communication, P.O. Box 173, Oak Creek, WI, 1988.

Bucher, Pastor Richard P., "Can Christians Celebrate Halloween?", http://www.orlutheran.com/html/canhallo.html, Pastor Richard P. Bucher, 1998, 1999.

Cabot, Laurie, Celebrate the Earth: A Year of Holidays in the Pagan Tradition, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York, NY, 1994.

Dunwich, Gerina, Wicca Craft: The Modern Witch's Book of Herbs, Magick and Dreams, A Citadel Press Book, Carol Publishing Group Edition, 120 Enterprise Avenue, Secaucus, NJ, 1998.

Henderson, Charles, "Halloween: A holiday in need of renovation?", 2000, 2006

 

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.