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The Controversy of Halloween
Halloween is the most controversial holiday celebrated in America. Some religious leaders and pseudo-historians and academics contend that Halloween is the day of the Devil, a satanic celebration of dark, evil forces disguised as a children's holiday. Parents are led to believe that celebrating Halloween puts their children in immediate danger from the the Devil himself. They are told that celebrating Halloween seduces their children by pretending it is all about candy and dressing like ghosts. Meanwhile, urban legends are created and passed around as the horrified parents succumb to fear. The problem is, almost none of the stories passed around are true.
At the same time, many modern neopagans have elevated Halloween to major festival status, based on similar associations of Halloween with the Celtic autumn festival of Samhain.
The trouble is, there is little evidence that All Hallows was based on any specific Pagan festival, and most of the more recognizable features of Halloween are of recent origin.
The Ancient Celts and Druids
Little is known about the ancient Celts, but we can be reasonably certain that the fire festival known as Samhain was celebrated in the autumn (Samhain, pronounced Sou-when, means literally, "summer's end."), probably around the middle of October. It should also be noted that the Celts followed a lunar calendar and celebrated Samhain as a New Year festival. In most of Europe, feasts for the dead were held, usually in the autumn, but most likely involved offerings of food and other propitiations to ancestral spirits, a near universal practice still alive in many rural areas of Europe.
As to the supposed penchant of Druid priests for human sacrifice, Roman reports of Human sacrifice by the Druids and other spurious accusations have not been supported by archaeological evidence. Sacrificial offerings of innocent victims, the slaughter of red-haired children, and similar tales and claims are not supported by any reliable historical accounts. The claims of human sacrifice by Druids are the product of one man's imagination—Julius Caesar—who wrote of people he had not met and events he had not witnessed. The Romans were fond of making exaggerations about the savage practices of their enemies. They even accused Christians of sacrificing and eating infants in evil rituals. Ironically, this accusation is frequently made against Christianity's enemies today.
There is some evidence that Druids practiced ritual execution of criminals or prisoners of war, bu stories of bloodthirsty human slaughter in the name of dark Druid Gods are the product of overactive imaginations. The Druids were well known and highly regarded by those who knew them, with a system of laws and a moral code that was really quite advanced for its time. The Celts were one of the few Pagan peoples to accept Christianity without a fight, and as a result, many of Ireland's first Churches were founded by converted Druids.
Lord Samhain - Satan - Muck-Olla
The Christian character of the devil, or Satan, who appears frequently in much modern Halloween iconography, has no connection at all to any Celtic deities. Most of the more egregious Halloween bashing essays center on the supposed connection with "Lord" Samhain, the supposed Celtic God of the Dead, who is identified with Satan. According to a typical Christian tract, "Depending on your source material, the Druid lord of death and evil spirits was called Saman, Samana, Shamhain or Samhain. His "holiday" was called "The Vigil Of Saman" or Samhain (pronounced so-wein). You probably have seen a modern day version of SAMAN without even knowing it. This pagan god was shown as a ghostly, skeleton holding a sickle in his hand. He later came to be known as THE GRIM REAPER. " There is nothing at all accurate in this statement.
In fact, the Celts found Christianity quite compatible with their beliefs- they converted easily, with many Druids becoming monks or priests in the Catholic Church, and many of these churches retain vestiges of earlier Celtic belief systems. The Celts had no skeletal gods. The Grim Reaper is the medieval personification of death (memento Mori) seen so frequently in art if the period- a purely Christian invention (based on images of the Roman god Saturn), meant as a sober admonition not to waste one's life on vanities or material things, because life was short, and death and hell were certainities for the unrepentant. The reaper was a solemn reminder that everyone, rich or poor, powerful or subservient, would come to the same end, and must atone for wrongdoing before it was too late. This grinning character with his scythe reached a peak of popularity in the time of the plague.
Another frequently cited bogeyman of Halloween is the sinister Muck-olla, another supposed Celtic deity of mayhem. According to another Christian tract, "Costumed followers of the Druid god Muck Olla went from house to house asking for contributions. [many tract writers make an even bigger leap here, claiming that the yearly 'contribution' was a virgin sacrifice] If one donated one was promised continued the blessings Muck Olla. If one failed to give one would suffer bad crops and big trouble."
Of course, this is fantasy. There was a very minor Celtic god of herders called Samhain or Saman, but the Celtic God of the dead was called Gwynn ap Nudd. A creature named Muck-olla did exist, but was a havoc wreaking mythological bull out of much later Welsh legend. The practice of going door to door begging treats was a much later Halloween tradition, and has no connection at all to Pagan practices.
Trick or Treating
Trick or treating, the practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for goodies, is largely an American adaptation of European masquerades and the late medieval Christian practice of "souling," when poor folk would go door to door, receiving food in return for promises of prayers for the dead.* This was just one of many occasions for going door to door in a time when entertainments were in short supply. Dressing in scary costumes is another holdover from medieval times, when religious processions demonstrated to a largely illiterate population what fate awaited sinners.
There is no evidence whatsover that Druids had any similar practice, and the notion that "the Irish Druids on the eve of Samhain burned their victims in the holy fire" is entirely fantastical. A Druid Samhain was probably most similar to Mexico's "Day of the Dead," and celebrated the descent of the god of light (Lugh) into the underworld. Another popular deity is reputed to have done the very same thing on a weekend in Jerusalem...
In early, Puritan America, Halloween was little more than gatherings of superstitious villagers. The general reluctance of folks to go outdoors gave many opportunities to vandals and pranksters, and another Halloween tradition was born. By the nineteenth century, Halloween was adopted more or less as an excuse for a party. By the end of the Great Depression, 'trick or treating' had evolved into a nightmare for shopkeepers, with vandals wreaking havoc on property, and many towns imposed curfews, which often just made things worse. Things eventually settled down as the economy improved, however, and Halloween became a popular time for adult fancy dress parties. During the war years, these parties were considered extravagant, and Halloween became the holiday we know today, a children's holiday with kids begging for treats door to door inj imitation of old fashioned tricks and treats. The 'trick' in trick or treat is a reference to the old vandals' cry.
*It was widely believed that such prayers lessened the term of punishment for souls in Purgatory, so trading a bit of cake to get Grandma to Heaven was a bit of a no-brainer
Jack O' Lanterns
The ubiquitous Jack-o-lantern is often given a horrific origin by the hysterically minded. One fundamentalist author says about Jack o' Lanterns:
"The candlelit pumpkin or skull... served as a beacon for the sabbat and as a signal to mark those farms and homes that were sympathetic to the Satanists and thus deserving of mercy when the terror of the night (Halloween) began."
This is nonsense. The pumpkin is a uniquely American plant unknown in Europe until the discovery of the New World, by which time the Druids had already faded into history. The pumpkin, like the potato, was an American import, arriving in the British isles long after the Druids had vanished from Europe. An old practice of hollowing out vegetables to make temporary lanterns may have been brought to the new world, but turnips, skulls, or pumpkins were never used as Satanic signaling devices.
The most likely origin of the practice was an imitation of the old moralistic folk story of Jack, the conniving drunk who tricks the devil into rejecting his soul and is forced to wander endlessly, not welcome in heaven or hell. The "jack o lantern" is the hollowed turnip he carries as a lamp, with a lump of hell's coal lighting his path as he wanders eternally.
Neopagan Traditions and Satanism
One point often made in favor of eliminating Halloween celebrations from Christian homes is its adoption as a major holiday by modern Wiccans and other Neopagans, who are accused of continuing the supposed dark traditions of the Druids. Satanists, too, are implicated in misdeeds on Halloween ranging in seriousness from pranks, to poisoning candy, to human sacrifice.
Though Neopagan celebrations are ostensibly based on Celtic Samhain celebrations, these are usually celebrated separately from Halloween and are generally of the nature of a harvest festival. Typical Samhain celebrations include New Year's rituals, bonfires, celebratory suppers, and other activities one would associate with Harvest festivals. Ironically, the "harvest parties" sponsored as Halloween alternatives by many churches and schools resemble modern Pagan celebrations more than more traditional Halloween activities do.
Religious Satanists, on the other hand, do not ascribe any special significance to Halloween and definitely do not practice human or any other sort of sacrifice on that night. Most of the suspicious signs found on occasion in communities are usually the product of the same teenage pranksters who have plagued the holiday from the beginning.
Fears of Satanic Witch Covens poisoning candy are a product of overactive imaginations. Halloween poisonings are extremely rare, and almost without exception, such cases turn out to be the opportunistic family members of victims attempting to take advantage of an urban legend. There is also little basis to the persistent rumor that black cats are sacrificed on halloween, although many animal shelters will still refuse to adopt out black cats near the holiday for fear they will be used as holiday props and later abandoned or mistreated.
Animal sacrifice is not an accepted practice of any organized Satanic religious body. Of course, there are always going to be those disturbed individuals who imagine themselves servants of satan, but it is not from Satanists or Pagans that they get their ideas. Rather, it is from the religious scare-mongers who perpetuate such silliness as "typical Satanic practice." Then, acting on unreliable information, individuals with overactive and disturbed minds imitate and thereby perpetuate the tales and rumors.
As for the poisoning of candy, there have been less than three cases of strangers poisoning halloween candy in all of US history. And never by Satanists or Satanic imitators. And as for human sacrifice, one has never been performed by halloween revelers, Satanic or otherwise.