I’ve been joking about writing a piece on “the War on Halloween” for a few weeks now, because from a Pagan perspective it’s such an absurd topic. Yet the more I joked the more it seemed a good idea.
You see, the truth is, Halloween is a secular holiday. It doesn’t belong to any religion. What we know as Halloween today began as an excuse for bored Edwardians to party and scare the crap out of each other. It kept going because it was fun, and after two World Wars the West needed an excuse for some guilt-free fun. Going door to door for sweets in costume has no religious purpose but can be a fun community building exercise. Trying to scare each other isn’t anything religious or occult but a purely mischievous and very human instinct, as any kid who’s been camping or had a sleepover can tell you.
So do Pagans celebrate Halloween? Sure, just like everyone else. We carve Jack O’ Lanterns, take our kids trick-or-treating, decorate our homes and hand out Snickers and Starburst to neighborhood kids. Yet that’s not really religious. It’s community building and family-friendly fun. Along with Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, it’s a holiday we can share with our family and neighbors without having to compromise our beliefs. For many of us, such secular holidays are extremely important ways to spend time with our families.
Yet only a very small minority of us actually claims to celebrate Halloween as a religious holiday, and generally if they do it’s either to use a common term that’s easily understood or for promotional reasons. The majority of Pagans don’t claim Halloween as a holy day, though we do celebrate on October 31st. Most of us celebrate Samhain, the Celtic New Year and time for the remembrance of the dead. Some honor the death of Arthur, the Once and Future King. Vodou, Santeria, Catholicism and many other faiths see this as a holy time of the year. Though my tradition celebrates Samhain, I’ve become fond of the term Hallowmas, mainly because I’m currently fascinated by Old English and Anglo-Saxon.
If there is one continuing thread through all the religious traditions who hold this time of year holy, it’s reverence for the beloved dead, for the Mighty Ones who have gone before. For the grandmothers, the grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, bothers, sisters, friends and for the children who left this world far too soon. We honor their memory, we tell their stories and we thank them for the love they gave us in their lives. It feels good to remember the dead, even when it makes us cry. It’s right and it’s holy and there is nothing sinister about it.
The people who feel that there needs to be a war, or the perception of a war, on celebrations both holy and secular are the really scary things haunting the holiday season. I’ve read malicious vitriol claiming some ex-Pagan, now born-again Christian, witnessed dire rites involving all sorts of illegal and immoral activities. I’m completely amazed at how willingly some people swallow such lies without even considering that the person they place their trust in is a criminal who has not been brought to justice, or at least never reported crimes they witnessed to the police. When people try to malign a bit of secular, albeit mischievous and slightly morbid, fun they do so not out of any real concern but out of the sick imaginings of their own minds.
Halloween is secular. Unfortunately this year I have no nieces and nephews to take trick-or-treating, and I live too far off the beaten path to be able to hand out candy. So I won’t be celebrating Halloween this year. However, this weekend I will gather with my religious community, we will create sacred space, we will speak the names of our beloved dead, we will let them know we remember them and then afterwards we will have a potluck and celebrate our living community. In a world where we are quick to forget the past and far more isolated than is good for us, why would anyone be against remembrance and community? It’s just absurd.