Like so many cultural events, Halloween will be different this year. According to the October 22 Chicago Tribune, fears about anthraxon top of fears about razor blades, poison, and sugar highsmay cause more parents to keep their children home this Halloween. In Hobart, Indiana, parents won't have a choice; the city has canceled trick-or-treating. Though I'm sure I'll still see a few ghosts and goblins on my doorstep next week, the country seems to have a reduced appetite for risk.
Whatever changes mark this year's Halloween, though, we shouldn't expect them to stick. As Ellen Feldman notes in the current issue of American Heritage magazine, "Halloween is a plastic holiday. mauled and molded to fit the needs of each generation."
Halloween has its roots in Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival. Despite claims by modern Wiccans and Druids to have recreated lost rites, no one really knows what happened during Samhain. It's likely that Celts repelled the foreboding caused by lengthening nights, falling temperatures, and withering plants, plus serious belief in supernatural evil, with bonfires, human and/or vegetable sacrifices, and scary costumes.
The grisly aspects of Celtic fall festivities were tempered somewhat by the arrival of the Romans, whose harvest-time celebrations of the goddess Pomona emphasized fertility and love. The Catholic church, however, was hardly impressed with this "improvement."
Taking the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" position that had worked reasonably well with formerly pagan Easter and Christmas, eighth-century Pope Gregory III decided to baptize Samhain, retaining some customs but radically redefining their focus. Gregory moved All Saints', or Hallows', Day from May 13 to November 1 (which made October 31 All Hallows' Eve, i.e. Hallowe'en) and instructed revelers to dress as saints instead of evil spirits. Goodies that once had been offered to propitiate wandering devils were instead offered to poor people, who in turn vowed to pray for the souls of departed relatives.
Protestants, wary of both saints and praying for the dead, have never been too sanguine about Halloween. Martin Luther may have chosen to post his 95 Theses on October 31 specifically to protest the holiday. New England Puritans banned the celebration altogether, along with Easter and Christmas. Though the Catholic Maryland and Anglican Virginia colonies retained some Halloween customs, most of the holiday's traditional Celtic elements (including nighttime pranks and asking for food handouts) didn't come to this side of the Atlantic until massive Irish immigration in the nineteenth century.
Mainstream Halloween celebrations in the Victorian era were generally tame and devoid of occult overtones. Instead of pulling pranks or haunting neighborhoods, young people chatted and flirted in festooned parlors. By the beginning of the twentieth century, some towns had gone so far as to make Halloween primarily a civic affair, complete with parades and block parties. When trick-or-treating became widely popular, in the 1950s, most participants knew of neither the Celtic nor the Catholic rationales behind the practice.
Halloween's multiple identities may stem from its role as a screen for projected anxieties. Samhain gave ancient agrarians a way to address fears about death and darkness, while medieval Halloween played on fears about the state of loved ones' souls. Candy handouts in twentieth-century America grew out of genuine concern to avert harmful high-jinks.
Costume choices provide a particularly interesting peek at cultural concerns. Sue Ellen Thompson's 1998 book Holiday Symbols points out that during the Great Depression, "children often disguised themselves as hobos, burglars, pirates, and Indiansin other words, as economic and social outcasts, symbolic of the troubles from which their parents were struggling to escape." Time magazine's pick for the scariest costume of 1973 was a Nixon mask. In the 1980s, kids often emulated characters from TV, movies, and even ads in an attempt to be "cool" by consumer standards. This year's popular costumes cover fresh wounds, as children and adults opt for representations of order (firemen, policemen, and soldiers) and patriotism (Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, Abraham Lincoln).
I'm not going to get into the debate about whether Christians should go with the Halloween flow or propose wholesome alternatives. If the real issue is fear, costumes and candy ultimately have little to do with the problem or the solution.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine, a Christianity Today sister publication.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Christian History Corner: Forget 'Normal' | C.S. Lewis's warning against panic during World War II resonates in our new crisis. (Oct. 19, 2001)
Apocalypse Not | As speculations mount regarding the significance of recent events in God's plan for the end of the world, voices from the past urge restraint. (Oct. 12, 2001)
'He Does Not War' | In the Anabaptist tradition, a Christian must never fight back. (Sept. 28, 2001)
A Time For War? | Augustine's "just war" theory continues to guide the West. (Sept. 21, 2001)
The House That Jack Built | C.S. Lewis and six of his literary friends open their doors to students and researchers at Wheaton College's impressive new Wade Center facility. (Sept. 14, 2001)
Raiders of the Lost R | Documentary on School skips religious history, giving a skewed account of American education. (Sept. 7, 2001)
Explaining the Ineffable | In Heaven Below, a former Pentecostal argues that his ancestors were neither as outlandish as they seemed nor as otherworldly as they wish to seem. (Aug. 31, 2001)
Eyewitness to a Massacre | The bloodbath that started on August 24, 1572, left thousands of corpses and dozens of disturbing questions. (Aug. 24, 2001)
Live Long and Prosper | Though a recent survey raises questions, the health benefits of faith have been documented for centuries. (Aug. 17, 2001)
Divided by Communion | What a church does in remembrance of Christ says a lot about its history and identity. (Aug. 10, 2001)
Thrills, Chills, Architecture? | The most exciting adventure at St. Paul's Cathedral would be a time-traveling jaunt through its history. (August 3, 2001)