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Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Shadow of Samhain: Putting the Christ in... Halloween?

Welcome back, Halloween-heads, to The Shadow of Samhain series here in The Vault of Horror. This time, I bring you the first of a series of special guest posts. Joining us for the initial one is one of the most fascinating and well-rounded horror bloggers you're likely to ever encounter, John W. Morehead of Theofantastique.

John is an avid student of both speculative fiction, as well as religion in popular culture, and always manages to combine the two areas in a most captivating fashion. This piece is no exception either, as Mr. Morehead dives headlong into the love-hate relationship between Christianity and Halloween, and how it dates back to the conversion of what was, for centuries, a pagan holiday...

The month of October has finally arrived and soon it will conclude with Halloween. For those of us who are huge fans of the holiday it couldn’t have come sooner. In fact, I’ve been hitting various store locations looking for decorations and memorabilia since late August. It may come as a surprise to many, but Halloween is very popular in my Utah cultural context, and it is not uncommon to find a few Halloween items shortly after the Fourth of July in select stores.

But this time of the year also provides an opportunity to probe this fascinating holiday in a little more depth. It is the second largest retail sales holiday in the country, second only to Christmas, and it is usually either loved or demonized depending upon the understanding of its background, history, and symbolism. With this post I will bring some historical and cultural considerations to bear on the evolution and development of this mutating festival as it has worked its way through various cultures. One of the areas that I am interested in is how the holiday has been influenced by Christianity. It is not uncommon to find many Christians opposed to Halloween due to concerns over its pagan origins, and during this time of year the rhetoric against the holiday ratchets up, particularly among Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists. But as I will touch on below, this has not always been the case as Christianity has embraced and influenced various elements that make up the history of Halloween in its diverse manifestations.

Halloween as we celebrate it in the modern period in the West is a popular derivative of All Hallow Even or the eve of All Saints’ Day celebrated on November 1 on the Christian calendar. It is celebrated together with All Souls’ Day on November 2. Its earliest origins, and those usually cited by Protestants, are found in the Celtic festival from Ireland of Samhain, pronounced “sow-in” and meaning “summer’s end.” It was a seasonal and agricultural festival associated with the transition from summer to fall. Concerned Protestants often claim that the Celtic festival was associated with animal or human sacrifice. Although this cannot be completely discounted since it appears that elements of this were featured in the festival as the Druids practiced it, the festival largely served as a festival of the dead (although not specifically), and as a time of supernatural intensity heralding the onset of winter. It was also a borderline festival that took place between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Celtic lore discusses it as a boundary between summer and winter, light and darkness. Understood in this way it functioned as a “liminal” festival, a moment of ritual transition.

As significant as the pagan origins are to what we celebrate as Halloween, there are also Christian elements that have played a part. These come initially from Catholicism in the British Isles and elsewhere through its festive rites. This included ritual practices that were developed with the medieval holy days of All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day. It was an important part of Christian year, marked by high masses and prayers. These activities honored the saints and martyrs of the church, and affirmed the collective claims that the dead had on the living. Various church rituals included the ringing of bells, using flowers to decorate the houses of the dead, visits by family and friends to the dead, clergy processions to graveyards, and devotional offerings of holy water, milk or food at gravesides. Other developments during this period were also important in contributing to our contemporary Halloween, including the significance of All Saints’ and All Soul’s Day to children and young adults, and that it served as the season of masking and impersonation. Of course, these practices are reflected in Halloween as a time of costuming by children in our time.

As the festival continued its journey through cultures in history it arrived in England and it became connected to the time of Hallowtide. Hallowtide involved various fire rituals, including torchlight ceremonies to honor the dead. In addition to fire rituals, “souling” was an important practice. This involved taking bread or soul cakes that were distributed to relatives and poor neighbors who offered to pray for souls in purgatory.

Souling is important in understanding Halloween in that it involved individuals moving door to door asking for food in return for prayers for the dead (they used hollowed-out turnip lanterns with a candle for light), and it is the practice of souling that enabled this English Hallowmass practice to survive the effects of the Protestant Reformation.

It is at this juncture that Protestants would do well to engage in some self-reflection at this time of year. Although Hallowtide was practiced by the Roman Catholic Church, it came under attack in England with the Protestant Reformation. Protestants had concerns about the inclusion of purgatory in their celebration of dead saints, and they took exception to its ritualism. After the Reformation there was no common set of ritual practices that marked this seasonal event.

But given this slice of history, and the influence and participation of certain branches of Christendom in the development of what we know today as Halloween, it is curious that many Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists find the holiday so objectionable. Here a little historical amnesia seems to be operative. As the historian Ronald Hutton has stated, for Protestants one of the arguments against Halloweeen is
"that it is essentially unchristian ... a Christian feast of the dead is thoroughly embedded in the history of Hallowe'en and that its legacy is usually impossible to distnguish from that of paganism in the practices and associations of the night. It is of course maintained by what is still by far the largest of the world's churches, the Roman Catholic. To describe the feast as fundamentally unchristian is therefore either ill-informed or disingenuous."
I keep hoping that one year Protestants might dig a little deeper on the history of this holiday, and that they might recognize the influence of their own religious tradition in its development. It would also be nice to see an embrace of a feast of the dead within Protestantism, but that might be asking too much. But that won’t stop some of us from enjoying this rich holiday whatever its origins and influences.

1 comment:

jmcozzoli said...

Very interesting post. I see I need to do a lot more reading to find out more. Thanks.

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