This is the time of year when autumn comes forth upon the earth with its colourful, dew-tipped leaves and its sharp, tingly breezes. Pumpkins are everywhere in home decorations, with the wonderful scent of pumpkin baked goods in the markets. This is also the time of year when some people put up decorations of ghosts, witches, spiders and webs in front of their houses, while others put up no decorations because they don't believe in Halloween or don't care. As the month progresses, there will be another familiar sight on Facebook, Christian websites and other forums: the annual vehement expression of opposition to the holiday of Halloween, trotted out in the form of online articles and pamphlets. Some of the articles that will be posted once again will be those written by Orthodox Christian clergy, bishops and even those who are now revered as saints.
As an Orthodox Christian myself, far be it for me to take issue with others in my faith who aren't comfortable celebrating Halloween for spiritual reasons, especially our clergy and hierarchs. However, with all due respect to our clergy, hierarchs and other Orthodox Christians, I must say that if anyone decides to reject Halloween, he or she should do so with full and proper knowledge of the facts behind this holiday. People who reject Halloween based on claims that the original intent of the holiday is demonic, that it's based on a pagan Celtic holiday called Samhain, or that it's based on worship of a Lord of the Dead named Samhain, are rejecting Halloween based on false historical information and speculation from dubious, if not outright unreliable, historical sources.
As an amateur scholar, historian and linguist, and an aficionado of archaeology, I have good reason to express concern about members of my own faith who spread and propagate false history and myths that have been used as scare tactics by Christian fundamentalists over the past twenty years or so. I also ask fellow members of my faith to take note that there is a great deal of anti-Catholicism in many of the claims made in anti-Halloween Christian tracts. These anti-Halloween tracts are, as we well know, often aimed against the Orthodox as well. So, anti-Catholic bias in Protestant anti-Halloween pamphlets becomes not just a problem for the Catholics, but for us as well. And do we, as Christians, really want to see Christians of other confessions slandering one another, making claims that those who don't agree with their Biblical and theological views "aren't saved?" Should we not speak out against such ungracious, unloving, judgmental behaviour? Or will we join the ranks of the self-righteous and judgmental by supporting false claims and pointing fingers at our fellow human beings?
So, the purpose of this article is to bring to light the real historical facts about Halloween: where it really came from, whether or not it really is connected to the Celtic Samhain holiday, and what the real historical facts are, as opposed to false information. Then, based on the real facts from valid historical sources, my fellow Orthodox Christians and anyone else reading this blog can make an informed decision on whether or not he or she wants to observe Halloween as a fun, fall holiday--or not.
I personally have been on all sides of the Halloween spectrum. I was brought up in the Methodist denomination, and as such, I celebrated Halloween as a fun, goofy holiday rooted in harvest customs and total fantasy. My mother and father brought me up to believe that Jesus Christ protected me day and night from all demons and other influence, and hence I should not go around fearing them. Later, when I had what many Protestants might call a personal conversion experience--that is, when I came to my own decision about whether or not to stay in the Christian faith or leave, I tried out several other denominations, briefly sampled the Anglican Church, and worked in the Roman Catholic Church for a long time in the fields of music ministry and education. While in the Catholic parishes, I got involved in the Catholic charismatic movement of the early 1990's. In that movement, I found that there was so much emotionalism and fear of Satan that I couldn't do anything--read a book, listen to music, turn around--without somebody around me expressing fear that the evil one was trying to deceive me and somehow "get" me.
In a frenzy of emotional highs, flying endorphins and superstitious fears, I got rid of books, tapes and all sorts of other things that my Catholic charismatic friends deemed "un-Godly." I avoided Halloween as a "satanic" holiday. It took my mother's untimely death during my senior year of college to get me down from that emotional high, to "come down from the mountain," so to speak. It took the immense grief of losing a parent to bring me to the realisation that emotional highs are not what Christian faith should be about, that such highs definitely do not last or stand before human suffering, and that faith based on fear is not really faith. I learned that the only consistent thing we can really count on this world, aside from God's love and presence with us in all situations, good or bad, is change. People, situations and material realities change, mutate, shift, and pass away. At the end, the one left standing after all is passed away is myself and God. Six years later, my father passed away as well, and the whole world of my childhood came toppling down. Even my childhood home had to be sold to settle unfinished business which my father had left behind. A world, an era, a whole time--all had passed away! I was left, once more, with myself and God. I had brothers and sisters still in the world, to be sure, but by that time I lived and worked in a different state than them, and both they and I were going about our adult lives and walking our separate ways. It was not, and never would be, the same as when I had been a child, an adolescent, or even a college kid. The security and family unity of my youth was gone, and would never return. When I realised this, I was twenty-eight years old.
So, I set out on a personal spiritual quest. I did this partially because I was mad at God, feeling that He had betrayed me by taking my parents away (which I later discovered was a fallacy on my part). I also started on this quest because I had to re-evaluate my entire view of life, having seen my own world collapse before my eyes. I needed answers, so that when I went through another traumatic collapse of people and places I held dear, I would be able to cope in a better way. To make a very long story short, I spent the next eight years exploring non-Christian religions. In the course of exploration and experimentation, I looked at many of the tribal indigenous religions of the world, Eastern religion systems, and the romanticist, eclectic collection of beliefs known collectively as the New Age Movement. During that time, I returned to the celebration of Halloween, because I bought into the whole idea that Halloween was a Celtic Day of the Dead, and I was searching for spiritual aspects of my Irish heritage. In the end, I rejected all of these ideas for the Orthodox Church. It wasn't really very difficult for me to reject the ideas of the New Age, because I was too much of a historian and scholar to accept the blatant nonsense I had been hearing from so-called Druids, "Celtic shamans" and "wisewomen."
The tenets of the New Age Celtic reconstructivist movement were founded on historical speculation and fantasy that could mostly be traced to romantic Victorians who conflated historical periods, historical figures and folklore to create history in their own image. I enjoyed the stories that people claimed were from the Druids, but even from the first time I heard these stories, I knew that there was no actual written lore from the Druids, and sources on Celtic religion were at best very scant. I also knew that many New Agers had a very inaccurate understanding of ancient pagan Europe and its deities, to say the least. New Age writers amalgamated the numerous, separate deities of the ancient world into polarised archetypes such as the Goddess, the God, the Hunter-God, the Saviour-God who died and rose in the spring, etc. These archetypes were largely derived from the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell, who passed away in 1987.
When I entered into Orthodox Christianity, I didn't just do it because it "felt right" or because I believed what the clergy of the Orthodox Church taught me. There is a quote from a movie I used to watch with my mom in the 1980's, in which a female character says to her male friends who are trying to "educate" her according to their point of view, "I will not receive my education from the words of men!". This is the approach I have always taken to my own education. I have never accepted anything merely from the words of another person. I have always checked everything, doing my own research, even when the things I was exploring turned out to be patently absurd. So, I entered Orthodox Christianity not because I believed what the priests initially told me about the Orthodox Church, but because the things they told me were backed up by my own research. Had I found that they were confabulating or exaggerating the ecclesiastical history and theology they taught me, I would have counted Orthodoxy as yet another failed experiment. But because I found documentation for their teachings in historical documents of the time periods they spoke of, in various parts of Holy Scripture, and in the writings of early Christians, I was willing to accept their message. Also, in accepting Holy Orthodoxy, I found the dispassionate peace I had long sought, a peace that was not based on emotionalism, but rather on a sense of genuine spiritual rest in which emotion and reason were perfectly balanced in the presence of the Lord.
For the first few years I was Orthodox, I rejected Halloween because of unpleasant associations it held with experiences during the past eight years. But I also did so largely due to peer pressure, because lots of other Orthodox Christians around me were rejecting it. When I discovered the grounds for their rejection of Halloween, I was once again encountered with the same shoddy scholarship and false historical information I had encountered in the New Age movement, because the very information that my Orthodox brethren were using came right from those same New Age and Victorian fabrications! Having been taught that the Orthodox Church prided Herself on being able to back up the truth She taught with documentation, I was appalled that my fellow Orthodox Christians were accepting such bad scholarship without even bothering to research the matter and determine if their reasons for rejecting Halloween were valid. My husband, who was pursuing an archaeology degree at one time and has kept up regularly with developments in that field, was equally irritated for the same reason. Both my husband and I are greatly opposed to sloppy, false scholarship, especially regarding history.
To accept false representations of history is to perpetuate and condone lies. John Sanidopoulos, author of the Orthodox blog "Mystagogy," has stated that we do Christianity a great disservice when we bear false witness. I agree. When we buy into scare tactics, lies and other misrepresentations of history, we do two things: (1) we risk buying into ideas that are contrary to the teachings and mindset of our faith; (2) we make ourselves look less credible in the eyes of those out in the world at large, who can thereby discount the whole Christian message because they think we look like a bunch of dunces.
All this being said, I return to the purpose of this series of articles. I want to not only share the historical facts and sources I have found on Halloween, but also to give my readers titles of historical sources which they can check for themselves. Allow me to clarify which types of sources can be relied upon, and which cannot, based on my own research and education.
To really know if a historical claim is accurate, we need to find and research primary sources. These are artworks, artifacts and historical writings from the time period itself, created by various and multiple people. Some people think that literature of the time period in question is a primary source for history, but I would caution everyone on that approach. Literature takes people, events and places of a particular time and often fictionalises or exaggerates them in order to tell a good story. For example, it would be silly to assume that we could learn everything there was to know about mid-19th-century France by reading the novels of Alexandre Dumas. Literature has to be put in historical context, but as far as being a primary source, one needs more concrete historical sources such as stone inscriptions, archaeological artifacts, and historical writings by people from that time. If a historical claim about Celtic society can only be traced to the Victorian period and no further, it's questionable, because the Victorians were notorious for inventing their own versions of "Celtic" history out of romanticism or the egotistical desire to show the world how advanced Victorian society was compared to "primitive cultures." Medieval sources from western Europe can be looked at and possibly used, but we must read these with discernment, because the writers were fequently trying to promote the interests of feudal institutions or the religious interests of the medieval Catholic Church. In the Renaissance, we have writers who want to promote the interests of both the Roman Catholic Church and various Protestant confessions, in response to the great religious turmoil between those two groups at the time. Also, when reading any primary source, we have to read it in context according to the way people viewed the world at that time. The Romans, for example, had a completely different view of the world from what we know today, as did all the other ancient cultures.
In any historical source from the Middle Ages forward, we have to ask one fundamental question: from where did the writers get their information? From the 18th and 19th centuries forward, we must ask: where's the bibliography? Did Mr. Merriweather from 1890 list any primary sources in his book on ancient Norse customs? Were there any such sources available to him at the time? If not, where did he get his information?
I'm going to summarise what I have basically found out about Halloween from my search for primary sources and the research I've been conducting of late. Then, in the next few articles, I'll present my readers with the primary sources themselves, or a statement about whether or not I found any on certain subjects.
Basically, I found this about Halloween:
(1) There was a Celtic harvest festival called Samhain (pronounced "Sow-en," not "Sam Hane"!), but there are no primary sources stating that it was definitively a festival of the dead. Nor do we have any primary sources that give many details about how the early Irish celebrated this festival. There are some literary references to Samhain in Irish myths and a set of historical annals (The Annals of the Four Masters), which were chronicled by medieval Irish monks. These literary references mostly talk about sensational supernatural happenings that occurred on Samhain Eve, events I would refer to as mythological rather than historical in nature. There is one reference to fires being lit on Samhain. However, there are no ancient writings that refer to Samhain that I've found. None of the ancient authors, not even Caesar, mention it at all.
(2) There are no primary sources that definitively say that Samhain evolved into All Saints Day, or that All Saints Day replaced Samhain. There are medieval sources that talk about certain Popes moving the celebration of All Saints Day from May 13 to November 1, as well as a source that says that the Irish celebrated All Saints Day on April 20 for a long period of time. But none of these sources ever say point-blank that All Saints Day was moved to November 1 in order to replace the Celtic pagan harvest celebration of Samhain. The idea that Samhain developed into All Saints Day comes from oral tradition alone, and much of that oral tradition can be traced back to romanticists in the late eighteenth and early-to-mid-nineteenth centuries.
(3) There is a reference to what we now think of as the primary Celtic festivals of the year, such as Lughnasa, Samhain, and Imbolc, on a Gaulish calendar called the Calendar of Coligny. But there is argument among historians over the interpretation of the dates in this calendar. Some people think that Samhain was celebrated in November, and others think it was celebrated in May.
(4) There is certainly no mention, anywhere, of a Celtic Lord of the Dead named Samhain. There is a literary character, but no god.
(5) Most of the earliest references to Halloween come from medieval sources which detail various practices associated with Roman Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
(6) Some Halloween customs, such as bobbing for apples and going from door to door in costume, can possibly be traced to Catholic customs of the medieval period or the seventeenth century. However, most Halloween traditions we know in America can definitely be traced through primary sources to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
(7) During the 16th and 17th centuries, many witch-hunters claimed that groups of witches were having "Witches' Sabbaths" on All Hallows Eve and on Walpurgis Night. However, aside from wild accusations made against the poor hapless people accused of witchcraft and arrested by witch-finders and inquisitors, there are no actual written records of arrest for big, secret covens of witches who were found celebrating "sabbaths." Guess what? Some of the stories we know today of witches conducting spells on Halloween Night come from writings of Catholic and Protestant inquisitiors and judges. Since the majority of the accused were completely innocent of such things, I think we can safely discount the validity of these sources. The other witch-related stories were written during the Victorian period, and I've already addressed the lack of historical validiity in those writings.
In the next few articles in this series, I will give my readers details from and names of the sources where I got this information, as I address various false claims about Halloween one at a time.
In the meantime, should Orthodox Christians celebrate Halloween? I think that this must be left to each individual conscience. For myself, I celebrate Halloween as a fun, silly holiday that is mostly about mythology and fantasy. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that when people pass on, they do not return to the earth as ghosts. The experience of the Orthodox Church is that all encounters with those who have died are physical events in which one encounters someone in a Resurrected Body, a body of flesh and blood that is fully alive, not a zombie. So, since I don't believe in ghosts, I could care less if someone wants to dress up like one or hang ghost decorations from their windows. As for vampires and other such things, those are total fantasies based on various Victorian writings, superstitions, and what I see as a human psychological need to face our fears. So, I don't care about those either. I enjoy watching silly movies about them. Besides, even if a vampire were real, the reality of the Orthodox experience is that all he would need to do is touch an icon or try to drink the blood of a baptised Christian, and he would disintegrate!
Witches and magic? Again, it's just fantasy and nonsense. I personally believe that people who believe themselves to have magical powers are psychologically deluded. The vast majority of self-styled "witches" I've run across in the past are people with enormous inferiority complexes who need to invent "magick powers" for themselves in order to feel empowered, or they are people who are running from or rebelling against a condemnational, Calvinistic form of God that is preached in certain Protestant churches. A large number of New Agers I met were former evangelical Christians who didn't find what they needed spiritually, socially or emotionally in the churches where they grew up. A large number of them also came from broken or highly dysfunctional families, often with absent parents and sometimes with problems of alcoholism or abuse in the family.
On Halloween, I also inwardly acknowledge the pre-schism Western Christian celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, taking the time to remember saints of the Church and the departed of my family, especially my own father, who passed away on Western All Souls Day (November 2, 1998). I also take the time to remember my mother, who passed away on September 17, 1992. Last but not least, Halloween is Saint Luke the Evangelist's feast day on the Julian Calendar. While I'm remembering my departed parents and doing fun, harvest-related activities on Halloween, I also can sing the Troparion and Kontakion of St. Luke and read from his Gospel.
There will be more to come in my next article. But for now, I pray for blessings on all of my fellow Christians, whether they celebrate Halloween or not. I wish everyone a lovely harvest season!
In Christ's Love,