On October 31 the only thing on the minds of most North American children will be, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “get candy, get candy, get candy, get candy…”
Although in most western cultures Halloween is considered a secular event, its origins can be traced to the pre-Christian pagan traditions of the British Isles.
There’s a reason why we associate Halloween with witchcraft. For practitioners of the polytheistic neo-pagan religion of Wicca, the period of October 31 to November 1 represents the most important holiday of the year. Formally known as Samhain which, translated approximately from Celtic means “the end of the warm season”.
Also known as the “Feast of the Dead” in pre-Christian times, Samhain was celebrated by leaving offerings of food for the “wandering dead” on doorsteps and altars. Candles were placed in windows to guide the spirits of ancestors home. Tables were set with extra places for dead loved ones. Turnips and gourds were hollowed out and carved to resemble protective spirits, and people dressed in costumes to fool the nature spirits. Many of today’s Halloween activities have roots in this tradition.
With the advent of Christianity, November 1 began being celebrated as All Saints Day, and continues to be an important date on the Roman Catholic calendar.
The mixed history of Halloween presents followers of monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism with the question of whether or not they can participate without contravening the tenets of their faith.
For devout Muslims, Halloween is Haram (forbidden by the Qur’an), and is considered to be a form of idolatry because of its association with paganism.
Doctrinally, the Jewish Torah does not explicitly forbid Halloween celebrations, but religiously observant Jews are encouraged to avoid Halloween because it is rooted in pagan, non-Jewish traditions.
Some branches of fundamentalist Christianity have recently made efforts to ‘Christianize’ Halloween. American televangelist Pat Robertson has called on the faithful to “hold a Bible study on what God says about the occult and witchcraft” on October 31 instead of more mainstream Halloween activities. Robertson also suggests taping religious pamphlets to candy and gathering for a “prayer and praise meeting”.
Another fundamentalist Christian addition to the Halloween tradition is the ‘Hell House’. A variation on the Halloween haunted house, the ‘Hell House’ is used as a tool for proselytizing. Instead of featuring ghosts and ghouls as entertainment, these ‘Hell Houses’ feature cautionary tales of sin, with themes of abortion, gay marriage and pre-marital sex figuring prominently.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are strictly forbidden to participate in all types of Halloween celebrations because it is considered a ‘worldly’ or ‘pagan’ holiday. (This aversion to Halloween may seem somewhat ironic considering their fondness for dressing up and knocking on the doors of strangers.)
What all these religious interpretations of Halloween fail to consider is the child’s perspective. Ask any six-year-old in a Spiderman costume why he celebrates Halloween, and the answer is likely to be, “for the candy!” The statistics tend to support this view. According to the U.S. National Retail Federation, consumers are expected to spend an estimated $1.16 billion on the sweet stuff, and a total of about $3.3 billion on Halloween this year. These numbers say a lot about the true meaning of Halloween. Like most other North American holidays, it would seem that Halloween belongs not to religion, but rather to those who make money off it: The retailers.