I was raised in a very religious household. The celebration of Halloween was forbidden. As a child, although I trusted my parents, I really could not see the harm in dressing up as some kind of fantasy character and traipsing door to door in my neighborhood asking for candy handouts. That seemed the perfect way for a precocious, imaginative child to spend an evening. But, that fun was not for me. Now that I am an adult with my own children, I feel the need to understand the history of the fall season celebrations so that I can set a good example for my own kids.
First of all, why the costumes? It seems about 2000 years ago, the Celts had a traditional celebration on November 1 that recognized the official end of summer. This was done by bringing in the harvest. The night before, October 31, they would build great bonfires and celebrate. They believed the season of the cold, dark winter that was beginning was associated with death because the days were shorter and nights longer. They feared the spirits of the dead tha would be running amok throughout the upcoming season would awaken that night so they dressed in costumes to scare them away.
And the traditional game of bobbing for apples? Why that? The Romans also had a festival held in late October in honor of Pomona who was the goddess of fruit trees. The apples was her traditional symbol. Eventually the Romans would conquer the land of the Celts. These two traditions blended together when they combined holiday customs. This, perhaps, is the how the popular Halloween party-game began.
In the west, Christians are the voices of the strongest opposition to celebrations of Halloween for religious reasons. How did the ancient Christians respond to these festivals? In the 800’s a Catholic Pope attempted to do away with the Celtic/Roman blend festival by creating a church holiday. November 1 was declared All Saints’ Day. Instead of trying to scare away the spirits of the dead, it was a memorial festival in honor of the church’s saints and martyrs. None of the customs really changed, just the name designation and description of the “spirits”. The ancient Christians seemed a bit more tolerant than many today.
In England, All Soul’s Day was often celebrated by the poor. They would beg for food and those who were better off would give sweet breads that were known as “soul cakes”. It is very possible trick-or-treating has its roots in this old custom. The church encouraged the practice of this custom, once again an example of a charitable, tolerant spirit in Christianity’s far past toward the celebration of Halloween that is not seen so much today.
The popular alternative for most Western religious organizations now to have is a “Fall Festival”. The groups claim it is a time to celebrate the autumn harvest of crops and celebrate the blessing of growing food. To me, it just seems more of the same of what the Pope did so very long ago. Because there is discomfort in identifying and celebrating a non-church holiday, yet the practices and customs are so appealing one simply can’t resist, the solution is to rename the event with a more doctrinally acceptable moniker and indulge in the same fun traditions. If that helps to ease the conscience, fine, do it. But, I think it is then a bit dishonest to turn around and be critical and judgmental of others who are doing the same activities, just under a different label. I mean. Really!
Whatever your beliefs are, I think the celebration of Halloween has undergone so many transformations throughout the hundreds and hundreds of years it has been celebrated under the banner of any number of names, any real spiritual significance has long since been lost. As a much more technologically advanced civilization that knows the changing of the seasons does not release the spirits of the dead to roam the Earth, I think it’s safe to simply enjoy the fun of Halloween. It all just seems like a harmless lark to take advantage of one day out of the year to don an alter ego, wear a disguise, play some party games, spend time having fun with loved ones and allow the children to indulge in sweet treats on a scale that is usually forbidden throughout the rest of the year. So, sorry Mom and Dad. In my house, my kids will be celebrating this upcoming October 31st. Be sure to have a bowl of candy by the door because we’re visiting your house first!