This is Faith in Play #11: Halloween, for October 2018.
One of the unofficial “traditions” of the Faith and Gaming series was that in October we always talked about something related to magic. It happened entirely by coincidence (and we have discussed that recently) the first year, and thereafter I looked for topics for October. That seemed a reasonable tradition to maintain with the new series, so here it is October, and I’m looking for an appropriate subject for the month of Halloween. It seems, though, that that itself might be one.
Many Christians do not celebrate Halloween. There is almost a “fear of Halloween” aspect to it, that somehow although we have in some sense redeemed so many of the Pagan holy days—replacing Yule with Christmas and Beltane with Easter, for example—we have not managed to turn Samhain into a God-honoring Christian holiday despite renaming it “Holy Evening” and following it with “All Saints’ Day”. We just don’t feel like it’s a Christian holiday.
Part of that is undoubtedly because of what Samhain was celebrating, and how it was being celebrated. Of course, all of that is very sketchy—when Christianity came to the British Isles, the head druids reportedly came to hear the message, listened carefully, and announced that they were putting an end to the practice of their religion because the missionaries had brought the truth. As a result much of the oral tradition was lost or at best garbled. However, we have some information suggesting that Samhain was the new year holiday, and that there was this “no time” between sunset and sunrise, the old year ending at sunset and the new beginning at sunrise, or something like that, and during that intervening period of darkness the departed spirits could roam the world.
This was not necessarily entirely bad. After all, if I did not have assurance she was heaven, I would number my grandmother among those departed spirits who might visit. Extra place settings were laid to welcome departed family members to dinner. However, there were other spirits roaming outside, and protections were required to keep them from harrassing the living. There were things to fear.
At some point our celebrations involved dressing up as those departed spirits, roaming from house to house, and frightening homeowners into parting with treats. This is the core of the celebration, and so it seems that here is the primary locus of the objection.
That might not be entirely true, of course. After all, at some point “All Saints Day” got replaced, particularly among Lutherans, with “Reformation Day”. The Halloween celebrations were likewise replaced with Reformation Day celebrations, and we can probably bet that a good part of that had nothing to do with celebrating Samhain or other Pagan holy days and everything to do with celebrating a day commemorating a lot of people the Roman Catholic Church had designated “Capital-S Saints”, a designation of which the Lutherans and other Protestants were at least skeptical. Our Protestant forefathers were probably more concerned about the veneration of Christians of previous generations than they were about celebrations of Pagan holy days, the latter not being a significant factor in a largely Christianized Europe. However, modern Lutherans who celebrate Reformation Day do so with a specific sense that this is an alternative to Halloween, so it is effectively the same position: don’t celebrate Halloween because of its Pagan roots, celebrate this instead.
Further, if you pursue the objection, you wind up with different reasons for it.
Those who are most adamant in their objection base it on the claim that Samhain is a holy day for witches and Wiccans. For what it’s worth, that might be true, but it’s not terribly relevant—modern witchcraft and Wicca is an early twentieth century religion, invented in an effort to recreate what someone imagined was the old religion of the Druids and other Pagans. It has little or no historical roots prior to that, and that means they are co-opting our holiday. Also, much of the evidence for this comes from people who have been seriously discredited—Mike Warnke was never a Satanist High Priest, and neither was William Schnoebelen, but both of them have influenced many Christians to believe that Halloween was dangerous based on their invented sensational pseudobiographies. It would be a bit like asking Hugh Laurie for medical advice because he played Dr. Gregory House.
Some people seem to object to the make-believe involved, that children dress up and pretend to be someone else, and adults sanction this. Children dress up and pretend to be someone else all the time. What we call “role playing games” they call “make believe”, and they play cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, and a wealth of other “let’s pretend” games. They also raid the old clothes in the attic and dress up to pretend that they’re adults. These games are part of their exploration of self-identity, ways in which children figure out who they are and grow to become adults. One special day that sanctions this does not make it more common, and quashing that day would not make it less so.
Yet there is an attitude among some that children should only pretend to be positive pretend persons—princes and princesses, firemen and nurses. We might debate just exactly what persons are positive. Would soldiers be positive, or not? It might depend on whom you ask. The father who is a marine would probably be proud to have his young son dress the part; the mother who lost a son in the war would likely be upset if her daughter did so.
Yet there is a side of this that such people are missing. What happens when a child dresses as a vampire, a mummy, a ghost, some kind of monster? What happens when the child role plays that which he quite reasonably or unreasonably fears?
The answer, according to some psychologists, is that it helps the child come to terms with his own fears. He is afraid of ghosts, but here for a few hours he is the ghost, and in becoming the ghost discovers that perhaps ghosts are not something to fear. By pretending to be the monsters, we remove the fear from them.
Take that with however many grains of salt you wish, but accept that there might just be good reasons to embrace the celebration of Halloween, even if you personally find it distasteful.
Some of this appeared a year ago in mark Joseph “young” web log entry #208: Halloween, in answer to a question on the subject. The publishing world being the sort of confusing mess that it is, this page was written before that one, but that one might be useful for other reasons.