Dan Rattiner's Stories

Why the Costumes? Halloween Traditions Explained

A lot of people have no clue what kind of holiday Halloween is. They send their kids out in costume on October 31 with empty bags, hoping neighbors with candy and other treats will fill them. They pick up pumpkins and carve them into jack-o-lanterns with evil smiles. They decorate the outside of their houses with cobwebs and witches on broomsticks and give prizes to one another for who does it best. They light bonfires, watch horror movies, tell kids scary stories and go to costume parties dressed up as skeletons and ghosts while drinking cider and eating potato pancakes with applesauce.

Also, on that night, the police are out. Teenagers are up to mischief, spraying foam on cars and otherwise getting into trouble. The kids don’t know why they do that, but the adults think it comes from a time long ago when, if you didn’t give a kid with a bag some treats, he turned mean and did bad things like that.

Thanksgiving we understand. Christmas is pretty clear. And of course New Year’s is understandable. What is it with Halloween?

There was a time, when, for a thousand years, the pagan beliefs of the Druids were the order of the day in Europe. The Druids, beginning about 200 B.C., prophesized a belief in many gods, including sun gods, water gods, harvest gods and gods of summer and winter.

This religion was largely supplanted in the first millennium by Christianity, a conversion enforced by the legions from the Roman Empire. There was one God. He was all-powerful and if you didn’t worship him and ask him to forgive you your sins, you would be damned to the fire and brimstone of hell forever.

The Romans were unable to enforce Christianity in Ireland, however. The Irish were fierce warriors. Though the Irish did not keep records, the Romans did, and there is a famous report by the head of a Roman legion to his superior that the Irishmen were impossible to defeat—and even if you did defeat them, they would be supplanted by their women, who fought even more fiercely. The recommendation was withdrawal.

Besides the Irish being unbeatable, there was also the fact that in a few places where the Christians did take hold, the local folk simply would not give up their Gaelic religions. They’d celebrate both. The Gaelic celebrations often worked creating good crops and good harvests. They were not all serious and full of threats about hell.

In 601, Pope Gregory issued a famous edict in which he urged all his clerics in Ireland to allow the ancient holidays to be observed, but with the Christians taking credit for it. If the savages worshipped a tree, consecrate the tree. Make it a holy tree.

One holiday the pagans celebrated was Samhain, observed from sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 1. The holiday, overseen by the Druid priests, together with their poets (the keepers of all learning) and the Gaelic kings, was a celebration of the first of the dark days of winter, a time when the sheep and cattle had to be brought to pastures nearer to their homes, a time for gathering and storing things for the winter, and, according to their Druid leaders, a time when the dead, who were always not far away anyway in this Gaelic religion, would be especially present. Also present would be martyrs, the many gods, the faeries (degraded gods) and other sprites and spirits.

One aspect of Samhain was a gathering at a sacred site, usually on a hill, where the dead were buried. People would come from all over to build bonfires and pray and celebrate and party. You could interface with the afterlife there. But if you had wronged one of the departed before he had died, you came to this party in disguise so this wronged individual would not recognize you. Your neighbors wouldn’t recognize you either.

The Christian leaders in Ireland responded by declaring a new holiday, which they called “All Saints’ Day.” It would take place on November 1, would be a carryover from Samhain because all these saints were now departed, and from this, maybe the local citizenry would come around.

They didn’t. Two hundred years later, Samhain was still being celebrated as it always was, and so in around 850, the Christians declared there would be yet a second holiday, called All Soul’s Day, to be celebrated on November 2. The Christians were now ahead, two to one. The locals now worshipped and celebrated all three.

It took hundreds of years, but finally Christianity prevailed (many believe because after a series of plagues, the Christian leaders blamed the Celtic gods for being unable to stop it). But the pagan holiday still continued, now given the new Christian name of “All Hallows Eve” and later “Halloween.”

It is fair to say that those teenagers who get into mischief on Halloween are portraying the angry ancestors who are not placated with candy, and can’t find the individual who wronged them.

Meanwhile, there have been two recent developments I think worth mentioning as part of this story, both involving Catholicism.

The first is a sudden dramatic upsurge by young people in America attending mass. According to The New York Times, youths in many cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and Detroit have begun something called “Mass Mobs.” Through social networks, in a variation on “flash mobs”—a practice that began a few years ago with “cash mobs,” designed to organize large groups to shop locally—they have gotten their friends to start going to church on Sundays to revive Catholicism, honor their parents and grandparents, and enjoy the great beauty of these old churches while mingling with one another. Mostly the “Mass Mobs” are being held in churches whose membership is small and, in some cases, might shortly have to close.

“I was afraid it was going to be sold and converted into a bar,” Marguerite Tetkowski, 56, of Cleveland, told The New York Times about her church, where a Mass Mob recently showed up. Now in many cities and towns across the country, particularly in the Rust Belt, the number of new worshippers is in the hundreds. And many make contributions to the church when they come.

Meanwhile, there have been a flurry of new groups, books and conferences that challenge the concept that those damned to hell spend forever there.

In September, Kathryn Gin Lum of Stanford published the book Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. In July, a conference in Houston was held called “Rethinking Hell,” to honor Edward Fudge, a Christian minister whose works include Putting Hell in Its Place and The Fire That Consumes. There is also renewed interest in a book called The Goodness of God by Englishman John Wenham, first published in 1974.

The basic argument is that those who have refused to repent are not damned to hellfire for eternity, but, after a time, have their souls consumed, thus forever losing their identity. Their arguments refer to the Bible. In Romans 6:23 it says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In the Book of Revelation, there is a reference to “a second death,” which the proponents of this new theory say refers to the extinguishing of bad souls.

Would God, the all-loving, put up with the pain and suffering of torture in hell for eternity? Those espousing “conditional immortality” think not. Spare them the suffering.

Is Christianity softening? Maybe there is more to be learned from Samhain and the Druids.


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