Halloween is under attack from both sides. Christians deem it ripe with pagan influences, and that celebrating it is in fact, celebrating Satan. But in reality, Halloween is a holiday created specifically by the church, and most of the practices they complain about were rarely considered unholy. Neopagans, modern witches and wiccans turn their noses up at Halloween, complaining of stereotypes and outdated beliefs. And instead, celebrate Samhain, a holiday which we know almost nothing about. Which makes it susceptible to creating a new mythology, devoid of the historic practices which we find today to be unpalatable to our more reasonable, sensitive tastes.
Is there room for trick or treating, jack-o-lanterns and a wee scare in this divided world we live in?
The first Halloween I remember really feeling like Halloween, must have been when I was eight or nine years old. I was old enough to go trick or treating around the neighborhood by myself. But I wasn’t old enough to know not to be afraid of the ghosts, witches and ghouls that were said to walk the earth that night.
It’s a feeling I’ve never forgotten, but seldom am able to replicate. That’s what this site is about. My attempts at feeling that magic once more.
The first time I recall feeling it as an adult was a Halloween about 25 years ago. There were four of us, a double date if you will. The guy driving took us to an abandoned house in the countryside. He told us it used to be the headquarters for Klan in the area, and horrible things had happened here. There was no light, but we’d brought candles. And a Ouija board.
It was spitting snow on the way out there. As we got up the nerve to go up onto the porch, it was beyond spitting. We never did manage to get the candles lit, and only made a half hearted attempt at using the board. By then the wind was howling and the snow was piling up. Unheard of for this area on Halloween.
And the house was getting to us. It was long abandoned, but locked up, iron tight. The windows were covered over with plywood. Securely. The locks were new and intimidating. I’d heard stories about the Klan in southwest Indiana from early in the twentieth century. It’s an ugly history, and this house was full of hate.
So we decamped to my apartment, and got out the board. One of the ladies was a descendent of a woman hung in Salem, and she had a bit of the witch about her. The fellow who was driving had never used a board before, but took to it. The answers were flowing from us. He was covered with sweat, pulled off his shirt and the feeling was primal. We were afraid of what the board would say next.
That felt like Halloween. And of course, all the predictions turned out to be bullshit. But it was fun, and opened the imagination to supernatural possibilities. That’s what Halloween was like as a kid.
In defense of Halloween witches
A friend of mine was saying the other night that he wanted to see a movie that really scared him. None of the usual films worked. I told him the problem was he didn’t believe in anything. So nothing supernatural scared him. If he wanted to watch something that would scare him, he should watch House. At our age a medical story can be more horrifying than anything else.
When you read the book Frankenstein, or even Dracula, you find a lot of Christian mythology. The horror of Mary Shelley’s book was more in the loss of Victor Frankenstein’s soul, and less about the gruesome nature of the monster. One of the essential beliefs about witchcraft at the time, and indeed for half a millennium before, was selling your soul to the devil.
I grew up in the last half of the twentieth century. I lived in a small town, so I had a lot of influences from the older generations. Which meant I heard the old superstitions.
In short, witches had powers. They weren’t just herbalists, didn’t gather in a coven to give praise to the mother goddess. They wrote their name in blood in the devil’s book, and he bestowed on them dark gifts.
It sounds quaint now, but that was train of thought for believers in witches for most of recorded history. It may not be true, but we don’t have much else to base our beliefs on witchcraft during that era, except from witch trials. Which are just as unreliable.
The Halloween witch was something generation after generation believed in. Sure, it grew softer in the last half of the twentieth century. But even Samantha Stevens could wiggle her nose and magic things happened. Also, Samantha was an exception. The other witches had no qualms about using their powers to wreak havoc on mortals.
But prior to that era, one thing witches had in common was the ability to strike fear. Invention, stereotype, whatever they were, people were deathly afraid of them. And perhaps that’s why they finally found a way to laugh about them. As every kid who spent time on a school playground knows, the way to remove the fear of the bully, is to get the crowd to laugh at him.
But that stereotype, what became the Halloween witch, sustained belief and interest in witches and witchcraft for centuries. That’s a powerful pedigree, and not something to put down because it’s not historically accurate.
When it comes to witches of the past, there is no historically accurate. But at least the Halloween witch was what people believed in, and it shaped the lives of our ancestors.
Is Halloween full of pagan practices?
Yes it is. But it’s alright. The pope blessed them and when he did, according to the rules they lost their pagan powers. Just as a Christian cemetery built on top of a native American cemetery in a Christian’s eyes, turns the ground from profane to consecrated.
Halloween is an extension of ancient harvest festivals, Samhain being the best known. Samhain was a time to honor your ancestors, when they came back to earth and sat at your table. Or around your fire in the Neolithic era. Those cultures went as far as to bring out the bones.
But that was something they did during most of their feasts. True, there are many tombs that capture the sun at Samhain. But others do that on the solstices, or equinox. Divination was practiced at this time. But also at Beltane, and other ancient holidays. In the twentieth century, in southern Illinois, some of those same practices were done at Christmas parties by schoolgirls.
In short, by the time that Samhain practices were being written down in the sixteenth century, there was very little authentic pagan or supernatural elements left. One writer went as far as to say that the only supernatural practice left at Samhain was the telling of ghost stories. Which is something that a group of people did almost any time they found themselves around a fire at night.
It was called entertainment. They knew six hundred years ago that telling a spooky story and scaring your audience was fun.
The church recognized this and by the seventeenth century had moved their three day feast of the dead, Hallowtide to replace the three day celebration of Samhain. And nobody batted an eye.
There was little attempt to stamp out the customs of the celebration. Even if there was an element honoring the dead, that fit with the cosmology of Hallowtide. The pope didn’t swing into action when Jack-O-Lanterns started cropping up, carved from turnips. Nor did he frown on children going door to door, in increasingly spooky costumes, asking for treats. Because the church saw these practices for what they were. Fun.
The Puritans were bothered of course, just as evangelicals are now. They were still hanging witches here in the seventeenth century after all. But eventually the people turned their backs on Puritanism, and Halloween got even better.
The commercialization of Halloween
The twentieth century saw Halloween turn into a major holiday. Not because there was a lot of money to be made. There was a lot of money to be made, because it was something people enjoy celebrating. Just as they did three thousand years ago.
The Christians attack Halloween for its commercialism, but also for its paganism. But many aspects of Christianity are pagan, just not so obvious. So they skate by. And we get Jesusween. Or Holyween.
For fuck’s sake. It’s already called Halloween. The first word in the Lord’s Prayer after addressing God is Hallow. How much more sacred can you get?
Modern day witches and neopagans attack it for its commercialism, and for portraying witches and the holiday of Samhain in a stereotypical, historically inaccurate manner.
But I’m older than some of the tenants in Wicca. Modern witches say there were no witches killed in the witch trials, just innocent people. And yet, they claim a knowledge passed down from witches of that era. Were there witches or not?
Most of those claims are seriously doubted. They are pieced together, cherry picking the parts that fit their belief structure, then fill in the rest with intuition and their own acceptable stereotypes.
So Halloween becomes Samhain, a holiday which had died out before Halloween took over, and which we know almost nothing about. How is that progress?
Most people don’t give a shit about any of this. Little kids are happy if they get to dress up and trick or treat. Adults are happy if they get to dress up and get drunk. And business are happy to accommodate both crowds, because there’s profit to be made.
And the number one Halloween movie is a comedy.
I like to think of Halloween as being in an induced coma. It goes on without its soul, without the darkness, the fear that used to stir the blood. But if you choose to take a draught from the dark spring, it comes right back to life.
The true commercialization of Halloween and Samhain comes not from those looking to make a quick buck from the holiday. But from those writing books proclaiming history that is little more than hunches, and negating the past six hundred years of folklore and practice. For that is what shaped us.
The thinning of the veil
One of the reasons Halloween or Samhain in particular is associated with the supernatural today, is because it’s said that’s when the veil between the two worlds, the living and the dead is the thinnest. It’s repeated everywhere you look, including on this website, but it’s not as old as you think.
The phrase itself starts cropping up in the 17th and 18th century, and the full application to Samhain finally occurred in the mid to late 20th century. In other words, Halloween Greeting Cards have a longer history.
It could be based on earlier beliefs, but there isn’t a lot of historical evidence for this, except in a few specific places. There was no codified belief system about Samhain throughout the ancient, or relatively modern world. It was a bunch of jumbled beliefs, some only specific to specific regions, and the ones that proved popular survived.
Something like the thinning of the veil would require precise dating. And when it comes to Samhain, or Halloween, the dating is pretty screwy. Between the problems inherent in the calendar, changing from one calendar system to another only made matters worse. Then you have to deal with the fact that the stars, and the climate are constantly evolving, so it would be impossible to say with any certainty a single moment when the veil is at its thinnest.
The ancients seemed to recognize this. Most pagans celebrate Samhain on October 31, or whatever day is most convenient for them, not the dead. The original festival was three days. Go back 2000 years, and the entire month of November was based on the word Samhain, with festivals all through that period.
Today, you find Halloween and Samhain celebrations taking place in the weeks leading up to October 31. That’s fine for Samhain, as at its core, it was a harvest celebration. Or rather one dealing with livestock at least. If the work wasn’t done by October 31, they didn’t abandon their flocks to party. Likewise, if they were done before then, they likely didn’t wait to get the celebration started.
But if you’re looking for that essential ingredient, when the veil is the thinnest, or when the dead walk the earth, you’re better off waiting till November. It’s nicer then, as the commercial elements have faded away. You get the holiday to yourself.
There are many Halloweens, so why be content with one?
I have two requirements for Halloween. The first is watching It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. The second is more ethereal. At some point, during the night, I have to find myself alone, someplace where ghosts would frequent. I have to be quiet and listen. When I do, at least for a moment, that old feeling descends. It’s still there when you call to it.
No matter how you slice it, no matter what early influences predate it, Halloween is a Christian holiday. It was an offering to the people, to join the old traditions with the new, which they gladly accepted. You might not like all its grown into, but you’re free to pick and choose what parts you want to celebrate. Just like any holiday.
That’s how it should be, everyone free to mark this time however they choose. I choose to believe that there is more to this world than we can ever know. Perhaps witches never flew on broomsticks. Perhaps they had no special powers. Perhaps ghosts don’t visit their loved ones on this night. And perhaps the veil not only isn’t thinner, but perhaps it doesn’t exist at all.
I choose to believe all the above. And I choose to carve a pumpkin, and turn my porch lights on so trick or treaters can come and try to scare me. Because I still remember that moment of fear after knocking on the door, unsure of who or what will open it, and what lay waiting in the dark as I moved from house to house, in the moonlit night.
I have completely devoured this piece, savoring every word! Thank you for getting some truth out there.
Your description of Halloween past touched my heart! I remember being about seven or eight years old toward the end of the 70’s. Halloween was magical. There was the Fall Festival at school with games, friends, costumes and laughter. Then there was trick or treating on Halloween night, going house to house through the dark, cool night. The rustle of leaves, children’s voices all over the neighborhoods, and candy too, were all thrilling to a child! What memories. You have done a fine job recreating that happiness with your words.
As for the veil thinning, I have my own experiences. Halloween and into the new year tends to be the most opportune time for ghostly encounters, although they can occur any time. I accidentally got the date just right Halloween of 2003. Returning from a party, I was ten minutes late reaching the cemetery for a walk. Ten minutes after midnight, which technically made it November first, but to me was still Halloween night. After I stepped inside, the cemetery lit up with a greenish glow until it was almost like daylight. Plot by plot it went, almost like the laying out of welcome mats. These mats were composed of tiny glowing green balls. I tried to pick some up, but they slipped through my fingers like mercury. I could touch them, move them around, but could not capture any to take with me. They were not connected by or to anything, just loose. Some spooky friends later told me it sounded like ectoplasm. It was a lovely welcome. I stayed until I realized there was nothing left to happen but for the departed to come forth, and made my departure. I have never experienced anything like that again. Guess I haven’t got the timing right.