We Don’t Own Halloween

Over the weekend I commented on an article about a group of Christians protesting Halloween celebrations in public schools. My comment was short and I didn’t think much about it. I simply wrote “most of Halloween is Catholic anyways” and then went about my afternoon. A short time later someone left me a comment saying “Halloween is 100% pagan.” I tried to be nice and explain that it wasn’t, but I was arguing with a brick wall. To the commenter in question, Halloween is strictly a pagan (her emphasis, not mine) holiday. She was even nice enough to link to an article written by Evangelical Christians to prove her point.

The young lady in question was one of us, and I can certainly understand her confusion. Halloween completely feels like a pagan holiday, and it’s been categorized as one for several decades now. Lazy writers make the claim, it’s a constant presence on social media, and churches parrot that information because Goddess forbid there’s a holiday out there Jesus hasn’t been shoe-horned into. It feels like there’s an entire industry dedicated to simplifying Halloween to one specific origin point, so I sympathize, but claiming that Halloween is “100% pagan” is not a tenable argument.

To start with the word “Halloween” isn’t even an ancient pagan word, it’s a Christian one and only dates to the mid-1700′s. It just means “holy evening,” and while I agree with the sentiment that Halloween is holy, it’s important to remember that Christians were the one using the term. Are there bits and piece of Halloween that most likely date back to an ancient pagan celebration? Sure, I think so, but nothing exists in a vacuum. Most modern holidays have all kinds of layers and are an amalgamation of various cultures, traditions, religions, and market forces (never underestimate the desire to turn something into a money making enterprise).

Now if someone wanted to argue that Samhain is a “100% pagan” holiday I’d find myself in total agreement. Samhain was celebrated by the Celts who practiced an ancient pagan religion. Today Samhain is observed by most Modern Pagans. It’s not a continual chain, there were no Celtic pagans secretly practicing Samhain rituals in 1802, but many Modern Pagans look to the celebrations of Celtic Samhains past for inspiration. Samhain and Halloween share a lot of things, but they aren’t quite the same holiday. Halloween is a big mess of secular fun surrounded by ghosts, goblins, and candy. Samhain is a spiritual observance. We Pagans don’t “own Halloween” because of its origins. Holidays are made by the individuals who celebrate them and are constantly reinterpreted and modernized, Halloween is no exception.

When arguing history the biggest mistake anyone can make is to argue in absolutes. When someone argues in absolutes they’ve immediately placed their back against a wall with no way out. Arguing that “Halloween is mostly a pagan holiday in origin” can be done, arguing that it’s “100% pagan” cannot (at least not successfully, to be 100% pagan it would need a pagan name). I understand the desire to love, own and cherish Halloween, but it has to be done intelligently. If someone’s Halloween is “100% pagan” that’s OK, but it doesn’t give them the right to lay their interpretation down over everyone else’s.

I love that Halloween “feels” Pagan, and I understand wanting to claim all of the holiday, but it can’t be done, at least not honestly. Christmas feels Pagan to me too (and I’ve always found its origins to be far more ancient pagan than those of Halloween) but I’d never try and claim ownership of it. In the days leading up to Halloween and Samhain we are all probably going to read a lot of dumb comments about the holiday. When we respond to those comments let’s make sure we are doing it as intelligently as possible.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • kenofken

    I agree that we don’t “own” Halloween as a modern pagan movement in that we were not the only force, nor even a primary one, in it’s modern inception. If anything, it should be termed an American invention. Yeah, the seed of the concept came over from the old world, but it was fully developed (ie commercialized) here.

    That said, I would argue that Halloween IS 100% pagan in symbolism and in whatever spiritual dimension exists within this basically secular holiday. Whether we look at the old Celtic ways, or really almost any culture in the Northern Hemisphere, the turn of October into November was the time for honoring the dead and final harvests etc. All of it way predates Christianity. More importantly, this part of the calendar has absolutely no organic importance whatsoever in Christian mythology or cosmology. They glommed onto it in the 8th Century when they realized they could overlay the ancient practice of honoring the dead by doing so within the doctrine of purgatory.

    Like so many pagan traditions, it was carried forward through the centuries by Christians into present times. It is, for me, one of the key reasons pagan religion rings true for me. Even with 15 centuries or so of very active suppression and cultural genocide by Christian authorities, the old ways and old gods kept rising to the surface of the human spirit and imagination. The exact praxis and priesthoods were lost, but the core continued on in folkways, and art and architecture and in Christianity itself. Who assimilated who? It’s fair to say that modern Halloween traces part of its lineage to Christianized cultures, but not from Christian theology to any significant degree. The foundational spiritual concept of Halloween is pagan, although it is really only observed by most in a tongue in cheek sort of fashion. The pretext for the party, if you will. Much of the imagery and ritual of Halloween itself really owes more to the Gothic Horror literary tradition (and the candy industry) than to any religion.

  • terryinindy

    Perfect. I have to agree 100% Jason.

    No kenofken, Halloween is not even 100% pagan in symbolism either. The ugly distorted witch, which is the most common symbol of Halloween, is straight out of anti-pagan propaganda, and the spiritual associations that are found in Halloween are again, Catholic, all Hallows Eve would have been a time of remembrance of ancestors/dead as is done in Dia de los Muertos.

    • kenofken

      Yes, but the Catholic elements of Halloween are still about paganism or borrowings from it rather than anything originally to do with their own traditions. There is nothing in the Gospels about any duty or ritual to be performed at this time of year, and it was not until the 7th Century that All Saint’s Day was even conceived. It took another two centuries to move it to Nov. 1 and three more after that to make it a day of obligation.

      For all that, the themes and rituals and conceptual framework were still largely pagan. It was still all about spirit propitiation and guiding the ancestors home. The main difference was that they were trying to guide them out of purgatory. The guising and bonfires and magickal work intended to deflect malign spirits was completely alien to traditional Christian doctrine and was the sort of thing that early Roman Christianity worked very hard to try to stomp out.

      The same goes for Dia de los Muertos, which has deep roots pre-Columbian and pre-Christian. It’s a festival that is 110% pagan which was adapted to Catholicism. Catholicism stands pretty much alone in the idea that pagan practices can or should be re-programmed to run on Christian operating systems. The Orthodox to this day consider Halloween to be “diabolical” and idolotry and in no way organic to or compatible with Christian belief or practice. The more fervent wings of protestantism generally agree with that assessment.

      It does seem likely that the modern format of trick or treating had its origins in the Hallow’s Eve traditions of Christian Europe in the late middle ages, though it’s possible similar things were done in more ancient times.

      The point I make, and stand by, is that modern Halloween does indeed have Christian roots, but they are cultural, not religious, roots and almost entirely direct appropriations of pagan traditions. There is nothing to indicate that Christians would have embraced or developed anything that would look like Halloween had they not found themselves amidst cultures with deep pagan traditions surrounding this time of year.

      • terryinindy

        Couldn’t disagree more. Halloween is Purely Christian, it’s origins were an attempt to subsume the Pagan Holiday of Samhain, the fact that it generally failed to do so is beside the point, the greatest majority of the imagery of Halloween is propaganda style slaps at Pagan Beliefs, changing Witches from wise-women to Hags, ancestor spirits to ghosts and ghouls, and spirit offerings to “tricks or treats.
        Arguing the point isn’t changing the facts at all.

        • kenofken

          Is a bad-faith appropriation of someone’s culture all that is needed to establish a full ownership claim of the tradition in question? For centuries, really into present times, most of what mainstream American culture “knew” about, say, Native American rituals and daily life of African Americans came through the ridiculous stereotypes of Hollywood and tourist trap “Indians” and blackface theater.

          Those images still color our understanding of these cultures, but when modern Native Americans re-create or create authentic ritual, and when black comedians take the stage, and engage some material about stereotypes, is it fair to say what they’re doing is “100% white”? If not, why not?

          • terryinindy

            They haven’t claimed any tradition, they’ve created a mock-tradition of their own. They’ve tried and failed at creating a “tradition” based on the perverted view of the beliefs of other faiths much akin to one watching a child making mud pies and then attempting to serve one for dessert. Halloween is the mud pie served for dessert.

  • Cat

    In most respects, I agree absolutely. Holidays are allowed to be a lot of things to a lot of people. But I recently had a bit of a struggle with the issue of racist costumes, and a response to them that said that Hallowe’en was ABOUT racism. And the question for me became, My belief in pluralism notwithstanding, do I get to say that Hallowe’en is not about this? I think I am willing to claim ownership of it just that much, and I hope even the staunchest Christians wouldn’t object.

    • JasonMankey

      Halloween has never been about racism, that’s something we can all own.