Popular Celebrations—Harmless Fun?
IN MID-OCTOBER, a strange transformation begins to take place in some cities in France. Shop windows fill up with pumpkins, skeletons, and spiderwebs. In local supermarkets, cashiers don pointed black hats. As a grand finale, little children haunt the streets, knock on doors, and threaten mischief if their demands for a “treat” are not met.
These strange customs are all part of the celebration known as Halloween. Formerly viewed as mainly an American holiday, Halloween has spread around the world, becoming popular among both children and adults. France, it seems, has embraced Halloween with open arms. According to one estimate, nearly a third of French households celebrated the event last year. The Italian daily La Repubblica speaks of the current fad as a “boom” that is sweeping the Italian peninsula. The newspaper Nordkurier states that “more [German] citizens than ever before do not want to miss out on the gruesome fun.”
Europe is not alone in falling under the spell of Halloween. From the Bahamas to Hong Kong, Halloween is being celebrated with gusto. The International Herald Tribune reports that last year a radio station in Sri Lanka held a competition for “the weirdest Halloween recipes and the most bloodcurdling death screams.” Halloween also has a foothold in Japan, where ‘pumpkin parades’ with thousands of participants have been held in Tokyo.
Even in parts of the world where Halloween is not popular, there are often festivals and celebrations that resemble it. During Britain’s Guy Fawkes Night, you can see roving bands of children who plead for money and play Halloweenlike pranks. In Taiwan, there is the colorful Lantern Festival. Small children roam the streets carrying lanterns that depict birds and beasts. Mexico has its Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a celebration that has traveled across the Mexican-U.S. border. According to writer Carlos Miller, some Mexican-Americans still “don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives.”
Most people might view such celebrations as nothing more than harmless fun—an excuse for children and adults to dress up and lose their inhibitions. Such a nonchalant viewpoint, however, ignores the fact that these celebrations are undeniably pagan in origin. Taiwan’s Lantern Festival, for example, was started when people lit lanterns in an attempt to see celestial spirits that they believed were floating in the sky. Mexico’s Day of the Dead has its origin in an Aztec ritual that honored the dead.
Some might argue that the origin of celebrations like these is of little consequence. But ask yourself, ‘Can celebrations that have such dark origins really be viewed as harmless?’ Commercial promoters of these celebrations are certainly not concerned. Regarding Halloween, a representative of the Cultural Institute of Barcelona, Spain, observed: “It is a festival that is being implanted from a commercial point of view.” Why, last year, receipts from Halloween were estimated at $6.8 billion in the United States alone. In France, a company that makes Halloween costumes has seen its business increase more than a hundredfold in just three years.
But should you participate in such celebrations simply because they are popular or profitable? In answer, we will take another look at the celebration of Halloween.
The Truth About Popular Celebrations
WITCHES and ghosts, pumpkins and bonfires, trick or treat. The outward trappings of Halloween are easy to identify. But what lies behind this and similar celebrations? Halloween has also been called All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of All Saints’ Day. This supposedly Christian name, however, hides origins that are far from hallowed. In fact, scholars say that Halloween’s roots go back to a time long before Christianity—the era when the ancient Celts inhabited Britain and Ireland. Using a lunar calendar, the Celts divided the year into two seasons—the dark winter months and the light summer months. On the full moon nearest November 1, the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain, meaning “Summer’s End.”*
This festival, which marked the beginning of the Celtic new year, came at the end of summer, when the harvest had been gathered and the flocks and herds had been brought down from pasture into shelter. The Celts believed that as the days shortened, it was necessary to reinvigorate the sun through various rites and sacrifices. In symbolism of the dying old year, all fires were put out, and the new year was inaugurated with sacred bonfires from which all members of the community rekindled their hearths. These bonfires—an echo of which can be found today in Britain on Guy Fawkes Night and in Brazil in the June festivals—were also thought to frighten away evil spirits.
It was believed that on the festival of Samhain, the veil between the human and the supernatural worlds was parted and spirits, both good and evil, roamed the earth. The souls of the dead were thought to return to their homes, and families would put out food and drink for their ghostly visitors in hopes of appeasing them and warding off misfortune. Thus, today when children dressed as ghosts or witches go from house to house demanding a Halloween treat or threatening a mischievous trick, they unwittingly perpetuate the ancient rituals of Samhain. Jean Markale comments in his book Halloween, histoire et traditions (Halloween—History and Traditions): “In receiving something in their hands, they establish, on a symbolic level that they do not understand, a brotherly exchange between the visible and the invisible worlds. That is why the Halloween masquerades . . . are in fact sacred ceremonies.”
Since people believed that the barriers between the physical and supernatural realms were down, they thought that humans were able to cross over into the spirit world with ease. Samhain was therefore a particularly auspicious time to unlock the secrets of the future. Apples or hazelnuts, both viewed as products of sacred trees, were used to divine information concerning marriage, sickness, and death. For example, apples with identifying marks were placed in a tub of water. By seizing an apple using only the mouth, a young man or woman was supposed to be able to identify his or her future spouse. This divination practice survives today in the Halloween game of bobbing for apples.
Samhain was also characterized by drunken revelry and a casting aside of inhibitions. “Traditional values, if not flouted, were reversed,” states Markale. “What was forbidden was allowed, and what was allowed was forbidden.” Halloween still reflects this spirit today, which no doubt accounts to a great extent for its increasing popularity. Commenting on this, The Encyclopedia of Religion describes Halloween nowadays as “a time when adults can also cross cultural boundaries and shed their identities by indulging in an uninhibited evening of frivolity. Thus, the basic Celtic quality of the festival as an evening of annual escape from normal realities and expectations has remained into the twentieth century.”
Following the potato famine in the 19th century, Irish immigrants took Halloween and its customs to the United States. From there it has returned to Europe in the past few years. The growing popularity of Halloween, though, is not viewed favorably by all. As notes the newspaper Le Monde, “Halloween, which coincides with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1 and 2) and could even replace them, is making shopkeepers happy and panicking churchmen.”
Church representatives in France have expressed concern over the decline of these traditional Catholic holidays in favor of Halloween, seeing it as a sign of the “paganization of society.” For Stanislas Lalanne, spokesman for France’s Conference of Catholic Bishops, Halloween ‘distorts the meaning of life and death.’ The bishop of Nice, Jean Bonfils, stated that “this festival and its rituals have nothing to do with our Mediterranean and Christian culture,” and he warned Catholics against “the most important festival of Satanists the world over.”
Commenting on the French abandonment of Catholic traditions for such pagan festivals, Hippolyte Simon, bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, notes: “It is as if French society were looking for a kind of civil religion capable of replacing Christian symbolism.” He writes: “At Halloween the dead are imitated and their ‘ghosts’ come back to frighten us and threaten us with death. On All Saints’ Day, in contrast, we affirm that the departed are alive and that we are promised to rejoin them in the City of God.”—Vers une France païenne? (Toward a Pagan France?)
In a similar vein, Carlo Maria Martini, cardinal of Milan, Italy, urged Italians not to abandon Catholic holidays, declaring that Halloween is “alien to our tradition, which has immense value and must be continued. All Souls’ Day is a celebration that belongs to our history. It is the moment in which hope for eternal life unfolds, a moment in which the Lord makes us understand that there is more to life than that on earth.” Many sincere Catholics no doubt feel the same way. Yet, is the distinction between Halloween and All Souls’ Day as clear-cut as these comments would lead us to believe? What does a close examination of the roots of these Catholic holidays reveal?
A Hallowed Masquerade
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines All Saints’ Day as a feast to “honour all the saints, known and unknown.” At the end of the second century, so-called Christians began to honor those who had been martyred for their faith and, believing that they were already with Christ in heaven, prayed to them to intercede on their behalf. A regular commemoration began when on May 13,* 609 or 610 C.E., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon—the Roman temple of all the gods—to Mary and all the martyrs. Markale comments: “The Roman gods left their place to the saints of the triumphant religion.”
The change of date to November came under Pope Gregory III (731-741 C.E.), who dedicated a chapel in Rome to all the saints and ordered that they be honored on November 1. Exactly why he did this is unknown. But it may have been because such a holiday was already being celebrated on this date in England. The Encyclopedia of Religion points out: “Samhain remained a popular festival among the Celtic people throughout the christianization of Great Britain. The British church attempted to divert this interest in pagan customs by adding a Christian celebration to the calendar on the same date as Samhain. . . . The medieval British commemoration of All Saints’ Day may have prompted the universal celebration of this feast throughout the Christian church.”
Markale points out the increasing influence of Irish monks throughout Europe at this time. The New Catholic Encyclopedia also observes: “The Irish often assigned the first of the month to important feasts, and since November 1 was also the beginning of the Celtic winter, it would have been a likely date for a feast of all the saints.” Finally, in 835 C.E., Pope Gregory IV made this festival universal.
As for All Souls’ Day, on which prayers are recited in order to help souls in purgatory attain heavenly bliss, this holiday was fixed on November 2 during the 11th century by the monks of Cluny, France. While All Souls’ Day is ostensibly a Catholic holiday, it is clear that confusion existed in the minds of ordinary folk. The New Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “throughout the Middle Ages it was popular belief that the souls in purgatory could appear on this day as will-o’-the-wisps, witches, toads, etc.”
Unable to uproot pagan beliefs from the hearts of its flock, the church simply hid them behind a “Christian” mask. Highlighting this fact, The Encyclopedia of Religion says: “The Christian festival, the Feast of All Saints, commemorates the known and unknown saints of the Christian religion just as Samhain had acknowledged and paid tribute to the Celtic deities.”
Popular Celebrations and You
Just how concerned should you be about the dark past of Halloween and similar celebrations? After all, in most people’s minds, Halloween is little more than a time to dress up and have fun. But would you not agree that it is important for parents to make sure that whatever recreation their children pursue is wholesome and not harmful?
A school inspector from France with more than 20 years of experience in teaching was asked about the influence of Halloween on young children. He commented: “I am worried that going from house to house threatening adults in order to obtain sweets can have long-term negative consequences on children. It can foster a selfish and egocentric personality. They learn that by exerting pressure, by demanding with threats, by making others afraid, they can obtain what they want.” Parents must therefore ask themselves, ‘What “lessons” will my children learn from celebrating this holiday?’
Not surprisingly, many families find that giving in to childish demands for treats and costumes can be an expensive undertaking. “Halloween . . . is not a holiday,” observes Robert Rochefort, general director of France’s Research Center for the Study and Observation of Living Conditions, “it is event marketing.” Halloween fills a shopping lull prior to Christmas. In other words, it is just one more thing pressuring people to spend money—money that in many cases they cannot afford to spend. Do you really need to follow the crowd in this regard?
Of even greater concern to Christians, however, is the fact that Halloween and celebrations like it are steeped in paganism. The apostle Paul wrote: “I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” (1 Corinthians 10:20-22, New International Version) He also asked: “What common interest can there be between goodness and evil? How can light and darkness share life together? How can there be harmony between Christ and the devil? What can a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16, Phillips) The Bible thus condemns the whole idea of putting a Christian mask on a pagan practice!
Also, the Bible warns against the practice of spiritism. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) While it is true that the vast majority of those who celebrate Halloween would claim to spurn Satanic practices, we should, nevertheless, be aware that historically this holiday has close connections with the occult. Thus, it can serve as a door leading to spiritism, especially for impressionable youths. Pagan rites and traditions tainted by spiritism simply have no place in Christian worship; they are far from harmless.
Finally, there is the fact that Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day are all based on the beliefs that the dead suffer or that they can somehow bring harm to the living. However, the Bible clearly shows that such beliefs are not true, saying: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) For that reason, the Bible counsels: “All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [the common grave of mankind], the place to which you are going.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10) Since the dead are unconscious and thus incapable of harming others or suffering themselves, we have nothing to fear from them. At the same time, prayers to help them are of no use whatsoever. Does this mean that there is no hope for our dead loved ones? No. The Bible assures us that “there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.”—Acts 24:15.*
With knowledge comes the freedom to choose. We cannot be expected to make intelligent decisions if we do not have all the facts. After considering the facts brought up in this series of articles, what will you decide?
Samhain may not be, as is often said, the name of the Celtic god of death but, rather, the name of the festival. According to Jean Markale, French specialist on the Celts, it was probably Lug, the god of light, who was honored during Samhain.
Incidentally, this date coincided with the Roman festival of Lemuria, held on May 9, 11, and 13 to placate the souls of the dead and prevent them from haunting and injuring relatives.
For more information on the Bible’s teaching of the resurrection, see “What Happens to Our Dead Loved Ones?,” chapter 9 in the book Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Halloween perpetuates the lie that the dead are actually living
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Celtic divination rites have survived in Halloween games
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Halloween finds its origin in a Celtic festival, probably the worship of Lug, god of light
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Graveyard with ancient Celtic crosses
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Bobbing for apples is one of the games that has Celtic origins
From the magazine: The Delineator October 1911
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Pope Boniface IV dedicated the pagan Roman Pantheon to Mary and all the church martyrs
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What influence does Halloween have on your children?