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Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Shadow of Samhain: Halloween Isn't Devil Worship; or, Where the Hell's My Halloween Carnival Gone?

Just a couple more days until Halloween is upon us. I've had so many worthy posts submitted for this series that it will be definitely continuing into next month. For now, as we lead into Halloween itself, I give you this intriguing piece from Erin Lashley of In It for the Kills, in which she deplores the gross misunderstanding of the holiday's Samhain roots amidst present-day bible-thumping America...

In many communities in the United States, Halloween has been banned from the schools amid accusations that the holiday originated in and celebrates devil worshiping. Kids in such places are no longer allowed to dress up in costumes for school, and the Halloween carnival has been replaced with a namby pamby "fall festival." This is more than just the usual reactionary tactic of calling whatever you don't like "Satanic." It is a complete misunderstanding of the history and heritage of the many Americans who are descended from Celts.

Samhain, the holiday festival we now call Halloween, was celebrated first by ancient people centuries before the birth of Christ. Not only is it not anti-Christ (or pro-devil), but it has nothing to do with Christ. To suggest otherwise is like comparing pumpkins to palm fronds. You can't worship someone who doesn't yet exist. No Christian God, no devil.

The Celts believed that the line between the spirit world and the physical world blurred during the festival of Samhain and that spirits could come over to visit our world. The good spirits, their family members who had passed, were welcomed home for a visit with good food and a warm fire. The bad spirits, what we might now refer to as demons, were wisely feared and therefore discouraged from dropping by for a snack. That is where we get the tradition of scary costumes, from the people dressing up as evil spirits in an attempt to keep the bad chaps away. Costumes did not seek to glorify demons, but to deter them.

In light of the confusion it's ironic that what we now know as Christianity actually adapted to suit the already existing holiday of Samhain. The Feast of All Saints or Hallowmas, now celebrated on November 1, was moved from February to November around the 9th century in order to tie in with Samhain.

The false connection with Satanism seems to have begun in the 18th century when a myth began that Samhain was a god of the dead and not a holiday. This misinformation came first from a series of books written by Col. Charles Vallency, who was trying to prove that the Irish came from Armenia. It was furthered by Godfrey Higgins, who apparently confused the name of the festival Samhain with the name of a Hindu deity named Samana; Higgins was trying to prove that the Celtic Druids came from India.

If there was a character in Celtic history whose name was similar to Samhain, it would have been a folk hero named Saman. However, some religious folks have taken the idea of a lord of the dead who likely didn't exist, equated his imaginary with that of their Satan, and then dropkicked this falsehood through the goalposts of everyone else's good time.

Samhain was the most important holiday of the year to the Celts. They only thought of the year as being divided into two seasons: summer and winter. Samhain was the end of summer, when they thanked their gods for the harvest so that the gods would provide another one next year. The people also settled their financial debts with one another at Samhain.

The holiday was symbolic of the cycle of life in general: one year dies so another can live. The Celts acknowledged the power of death as being the only part of life they could not control, but it was not something to be feared. They honored their dead at this time, but did not fear them either. They reserved their fear for living people, who could do far more damage.


William Malmborg said...

Great post. I used to live in one of those towns that kept getting upset about Halloween because of it being 'satanic' in their eyes, and it used to drive me crazy. Even some of my family members thought this and I would argue with them to no avail. It drove me crazy.

The worst were the people who would try to teach trick or treaters on why they should go home right away and stop being unchristian by walking around door to door in costumes.

I wonder what some of these people think this year. Oh no, Halloween is on a Sunday! I wonder if one can wear a costume to church?

B-Sol said...

Oh, those silly Bible-thumpers...

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