For the past few years I have been writing posts on Halloween, using the holiday to reflect on issues like the link of Eros and Thanatos, the emergence of the holiday as a substitute for fallen religious traditions, and Halloween’s subversive qualities. I have to this point used this space to celebrate the holiday but this year I feel compelled to defend Halloween and offer words of warning to those who would co-opt it.
In the past few weeks I have come across a number of articles in which Christian apologists and similar writers attempt to annex Halloween as a part of their own traditions. At USA Today, Presbyterian minister Henry Brinton writes that the most important part of Halloween is that “the day points us to All Saints' Day.” Fr. Robert Barron writes that the origin of Halloween is “not ethnic or nationalistic. It is Catholic. Certainly there were regional appropriations of the festivals of the Church and Halloween was no exception, but bottom line these festal days belonged to the Church.” Writing at Christianity Today, Anderson M. Rearick III advises his readers to “Give up nothing,” claiming that Halloween is in fact part of a Christian tradition and that it is being taken over by Satanists and neo-pagans.
These writers are correct about the contemporary holiday known as Halloween sharing Christian roots. The American celebration of Halloween grows out of Christian, and particularly Catholic, All Saints Day celebrations. However, it should also be remembered that All Saints Day grew out of pre-Christian festivals linked to harvests and other agrarian events. The same is true of other holidays, namely Christmas. The December 25th date is not really the date of Jesus Christ’s birth; in truth we don’t know when he was born (assuming he ever was) but December 25th is also the birthdate ascribed to several pre-Christian deities. Christmas trees were also an adaptation of pre-Christian traditions. That does not make Christmas any less of a Christian holiday but it does indicate that there is a greater complexity to the history and origins of the tradition, as is the case with most holidays. It also demonstrates that a holiday’s origins do not necessarily determine its future meaning.
The emphasis on the Christian elements of Halloween’s history reverses trends of past decades. Starting in the 1980s, Evangelical leaders and others—namely Jack Chick—made an effort to scare the public away from Halloween with stories about razor blades in apples and satanic ritual abuse. These stories were nonsense but they had a powerful effect, putting a damper on community traditions like trick or treat. These rumors were also important to the development and transition of Halloween into what it is has become. As kids were shut out of Halloween “for their own safety” it gradually became a more adult holiday. What was a matter of costumes and candy corn has become a carnival of the flesh.
Whatever its origins, the idea that the contemporary Halloween is somehow a Christian holiday is ludicrous. The values that the holiday has come to embody are not Christian nor are they values of any mainstream religion. Where most conventional religious faiths, including many neo-pagans, imagine spiritual enlightenment by emphasizing salvation through self-denial, the contemporary Halloween is a refutation of the spiritual and the embrace of the carnal. When Halloween celebrants adopt costumes they are casting their lot with the dark side, if only for a night. Costumes of evil signify the rejection of social norms of goodness while erotic costumes embrace the wearer’s sexual nature. An attempt to assimilate Halloween into Christianity is like participating in an orgy to affirm your belief in abstinence.
Why this sudden attempt to annex Halloween after such a concerted effort was made to suppress it? As with most things, the answer is found at the end of a trail of money. Halloween is now the second most profitable holiday in the United States behind Christmas, with $6 billion in retail sales. While Halloween is booming and celebrations get wider and more raucous each year, religious affiliation and church attendance continue to decline. Seeing everyone leaving their house for the better party, the religious have no choice but to claim Halloween for their own. But they can’t, not without either radically changing their own beliefs or altering the nature of the holiday.
As I have written in the past, Halloween is the last good holiday because it embraces evil and evil is above all resilient. Religious types tried to slander Halloween but the holiday only grew bigger and more subversive. Attempts at assimilation are unlikely to change its nature; if anything Halloween will more likely transform its assimilators.
But don’t take this as a pretext to run away from Halloween. It’s just the opposite, in fact. There is little time left in this year’s Halloween season, but before boxing up your decorations and discarding your jack-o-lanterns, take a moment to consider which holidays actually bring you joy and which are merely a drain on your time, energy, and pocketbook. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has the ability to choose our own gods.