Why should we be interested in Halloween? Well, it’s the second most important
commercial marketing operation in America today – estimated to generate over four
billion dollars this year. Only Christmas generates more sales. And for businesses
that cater to adolescents, such as theme parks, it’s the biggest night of the year. They
redecorate, add new attractions, new shows and park-wide entertainment. For
costume manufacturers and dealers, as well as pumpkin farmers, it’s almost their
Costume businesses racked up one billion dollars worth of sales in 1997, and candy
sales accounted for $958 million. Then there are all the toys, decorations, props,
movies, TV shows, CDs and DVDs.
Why do we do this?
One sociology professor put it this way: “This is the closest thing we have to a national
Mardi Gras. Everybody needs to be able to dress up and be crazy for awhile.”
One reason it is commercially exploited so much is because it’s not a religious
holiday, or even a family event. It’s an event for friends – especially teen-agers.
II Objections to Halloween
Fundamentalists generally regard Halloween with horror, and even some atheists may
have certain misgivings about its glorification of the supernatural.
Religious objections are based mainly on the following verse in the Bible:
Deut. 18:10 “No one may sacrifice a child to Moloch, nor consult with a fortune-teller,
soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and
spirits or seeks oracles from the dead. Anyone who does such things is an
abomination to the Lord.”
Catholic priests in France have denounced Halloween as “Devoted to Satan, ugliness
and absolute evil.” Italy is equally distressed by this degenerate import from America.
Here is what a Christian web-site says:
“The uninformed Christian has no idea that there truly are demonic spirits which are
contacted and activated as people call out to them in jest or in seriousness. Every
act around Halloween is in honor of false gods, which are spirits in the realm of the
Some schools in the US have banned recognition of Halloween for fear of offending
religious parents. They still decorate and have parties, but now they are called a
Recently, the fundies have a new demon to worry about: Harry Potter. As they say on
another website, “The Harry Potter Books are ... recruiting tools for witchcraft and the
occult.” They go on to say that there is one six-page episode, beginning on p. 66 of
the first book, where the evil enemy emblazons Harry’s forehead with a lightning bolt
scar. That, they say, is the sign of the Anti-Christ.
Well, anything that upsets the Christians so much can’t be all bad, right?
How did it all get started? Nobody knows for sure – although there is no shortage of
opinions. Most of the traditions of Halloween seem to have originated with a late
bronze-age tribe called the Celts (or Kelts). The best way of identifying tribes and
tracking their migration patterns is through language, and the Celtic language is one of
about 67 languages which make up the Indo-European family of languages – stretching
from the British Isles to India.
By 1,000 BCE, Celtic-speaking tribes were scattered throughout Europe, but they
frequently skirmished with the Gauls, Goths, Vandals, Bergundians, Cimbri, Teutones,
Danes, Belgae, Flemish, etc., until they were eventually pushed off the mainland and
forced to settle in the British Isles. But then the islands were conquered at one time or
another by the Romans, the Angles, Saxons, Brits, the Vikings, the French – and finally
all these languages and customs blended together to create what we now call the
English language and culture. The only remnants of the original Celtic language and
culture are found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. In
Ireland today it is better known as Gaelic, and the government is making a concerted
effort to keep the language alive.
Very little is known about the Celtic lifestyle, because they had no written language.
Most of what we know comes from their artifacts and from Roman writers – especially
a book by Julius Caesar, called “On the Gaullic Wars,” which he wrote after he had
conquered the indigenous tribes of the British Isles and southwestern Europe. But by
that time the Celtic culture had already evolved into different regional tribes, so even
Caesar had to depend mostly on folklore.
We know that the Celts regularly traded with Greeks and Romans. They had very
strong swords and armor – sometimes decorated with gold, silver and precious stones.
Most Celtic tribes were led by a king, and below him was a group of priests, called
Druids; these were followed by a class of warriors; and at the bottom of the hierarchy
were farmers and ranchers. They raised a variety of crops, along with cattle, horses,
sheep and pigs.
We know that the Celts were animists who thought that everything in nature was
inhabited by spirits, and they had more than 400 gods in their pantheon; they believed
that wicked people were reincarnated as animals. Many of their gods were
represented on pottery or bronze helmets and shields, as trinities – gods with three
heads or three faces – each aspect of the god specializing in slightly different functions.
Celtic places of worship were rivers, wells, holy trees and sacred groves. They
generally believed in life after death, and that these departed souls would go to another
world – usually to certain islands of paradise “beyond the western sea.”
The tombs of many chieftains contained complete wagons loaded with gold, silver,
jewels, and all the items necessary for setting up a household in the next world.
The Druids had soothsayers who employed various methods for predicting the future.
Mostly it involved looking for omens in nature, or reading the entrails of sacrificial
animals – or people.
According to Julius Caesar, they sometimes placed these human sacrifices in a
wicker cage and burned them, while observing which way the wind blew this holy
smoke. Some historians dispute this claim by Caesar, arguing that he was confusing
this practice with another festival they held at the Autumnal Equinox, around
September 25th. This was called the “second harvest,” in which they gathered the last
sheaves of barley and shocks of corn, and either stuffed them into a suit of fine clothes,
making a kind of scarecrow, or they wove them into a wicker man, which they called
John Barleycorn. John Barleycorn supposedly contained the spirit of the sun, so they
would set John Barleycorn on fire and joyfully dance around him – presumably after
consuming some of his liquid spirits as well.
They had four main seasonal festivals: Imbolc (Feb 1), Beltine (May 1), Lugnasad (Aug
1 – which was the first harvest), and Samain (Nov1) (or SOW-in, as it is pronounced in
Ireland; SOW-een in Wales; SAV-en in Scotland; and SAM-in everywhere else. The
word means End of Summer.)
Samhain was the most important of these four festivals, because it celebrated the final
harvest and the beginning of a new year. This was the time to say goodbye to the sun
god, and then anxiously wait for him to reappear after the winter solstice. This was
also the time when they brought their livestock down from the mountains, slaughtered
the weakest of them, cured the meat and sheltered their granaries in preparation for
the first snowfall.
Since they had to slaughter some of their livestock anyway, they made it part of the
Samhain festival. While they were at it, this was a good time to sacrifice criminals and
prisoners of war.
Since the new year began on November 1st, that means the old year died on October
31st. So the night of the 31st was regarded as a mysterious “time outside of time.” It
was neither part of one year nor the next; therefore on that night there was a kind of
crack in the natural world – through which the dead could come back to haunt the
living. The Celts thought bonfires would frighten away evil spirits.
During the day of the 31st, everyone in the village would extinguish the fire in their own
hearth and do any necessary repairs on the chimney – thus signifying the death of the
old year. Then after the communal bonfire ceremony in the evening, each householder
would light a torch from the bonfire and take it home to relight their home fire – and thus
start a fresh new year.
During the celebration they would gather around the bonfire to partake of the spirits of
John Barleycorn and tell favorite ghost stories; then afterwards they would put on
masks or animal heads to disguise themselves from evil spirits, pretending to be one
of them, as they danced around the fire, and raucously led the ghosts out of town.
The Romans occupied Gaul and Great Britton for 400 years, and during that time, the
Roman harvest festival gradually blended with the Celtic Samhain. The Romans had
held athletic games and a feast in honor of Pomona, the goddess of orchards – always
depicted with a crown of apples on her head.
Shortly after creation of the Catholic Church in 325, a day to commemorate all
Christian martyrs was designated to be held in May. But the name was later changed
to All Saint’s Day. Then, in order to co-opt the pagan holiday of Samhain, Pope
Gregory III, in the eighth century, changed the date to November 1st.
Thus, the conquered Celts could continue to honor the dead, as they always had – but
now with the blessing of the Church. In medieval England it became known as All
Hallows, and the evening of October 31st was, therefore, All Hallows Eve’ntide -- which
eventually became contracted as “Halloween.”
Now, the Church had always held the doctrine that anyone who had been baptized, but
who had died without certain ceremonies, were therefore sent to Purgatory, instead of
heaven. And the only way to get out of Purgatory was for their descendants to pray
them out. So, in the eleventh century, November 2nd was designated as All Souls
Day. After all the feasting on November 1st, Christians were expected to go to church
the following day to light a candle and say a prayer for their departed relatives. That
decree led to another practice, in which some Christians would walk from one house to
another, begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of raisin bread. For
each household that gave them a soul cake, the beggars would say a prayer and light
a candle for their dead relatives – thus saving the householder from that particular
chore. This was called “going souling,” and it is the precursor of our custom of “Trick
The Church had been fairly successful in stamping out, or co-opting most Celtic
practices – except in Ireland, which the Romans had never invaded. In that country
Samhain was especially popular, and gradually became more complex. The Irish were
very big on fairies, elves, and witches, and they thought these folk were especially
active on Hallows Eve’n. Throughout Ireland and Scotland there were hundreds of
mounds in which ancient tribes had buried their dead, and the Irish thought these
mounds were where the fairies lived – so they were often referred to as “fairy
mounds.” But these were not Walt Disney’s Tinker Bell. The Irish were familiar with
the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, in which the story is spelled out about the heavenly
rebellion of angels, led by Lucifer, the brightest and most powerful of them all.
According to that story, all the angels that sided with Lucifer were sent down to assist
him in the administration of hell, while those who remained loyal to Yahweh were
allowed to stay in heaven.
Now, according to Irish legend, fairies were angels who had refused to take sides in
the rebellion. They just sat it out as conscientious objectors – so God condemned
them to walk the earth until Judgment Day. This left them in a somewhat grumpy mood,
and so they loved to amuse themselves by playing tricks on humans. The Celts had
always believed that during All Hallows Eve there was a tear in the fabric of time, and
consequently that was a night in which chaos ruled. People would engage in all sorts
of practical jokes – and claim the elves did it. This provided an emotional outlet
between the exhaustion of the harvest, and fear of the long, deadly winter.
To assure staying in the good graces of the fairies, people would often put food
outside their door, hoping the fairies would appreciate the gesture and do favors for
them, instead of playing dirty tricks. These treats, of course, were taken by adolescent
revelers instead. Sometimes the young people who were out having fun carried a
turnip which had a face carved on it – which would be illuminated by a torch or candle,
in order to frighten people into thinking it was one of the “little people.” Some
households would also put one of the turnip faces outside the door to scare away evil
spirits. The Catholic Church encouraged young people to collect Soul Cakes instead
of causing mischief and dabbling in the occult.
Domestic cats were brought to Western Europe and the British Isles by the Romans –
and latter day Celts developed the idea that cats – especially black ones – were the
incarnation of Evil Spirits. Sometimes these cats were placed in wicker baskets and
tossed in the bonfire – perhaps along with those humans who had been sentenced to
the death penalty.
By the eighth century, the concept of witchcraft had grown to such an extent that the
Emperor Charlemagne issued a decree condemning it. The basic idea of witchcraft is
that it’s possible to sell your soul to the devil in order to gain magical powers. So
anyone who was not a Christian was automatically suspect. That meant that all those
who still followed the old pagan religions had to begin conducting their rituals in secret,
lest they be executed for witchcraft.
In 1486 the Catholic Church published an encyclopedia of demonology, called “The
Malleus Maleficarum” (The Witches’ Hammer), launching the full-scale Inquisition –
which lasted until 1692, with the Salem Witch Trials in the American colonies.
IV. Coming to America
As Europeans immigrated to the American colonies, they brought some of the Harvest
and Halloween traditions with them, which combined into a distinctive American style.
The earliest celebrations were called “play parties,” which were public events held to
celebrate the harvest. There was no longer a communal bonfire; instead, they would
gather in somebody’s barn to tell ghost stories, bob for apples, tell fortunes, dance and
sing. But these harvest parties had no consistent format, and were held only
sporadically. The real turning point came in the 1840s, when the potato famine forced
thousands of Irish to come to America – and they brought all their beliefs and customs
with them. One of the pleasant surprises they discovered here, was that North
America had a marvelous new vegetable they had never seen before – called a
pumpkin. It was very easy to scoop out the seeds, carve a face in the side and put a
candle inside – which was much more satisfactory than a turnip.
According to Irish legend, there was a man named Jack, who was a notorious
drunkard and charlatan. Once upon a time he tricked Satan into climbing a tree, on
which he proceeded to carve the image of a cross in the tree’s trunk – thus trapping
the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with him that, if he would promise not to take
Jack’s soul to hell, then he would help Satan down from the tree. After Jack died, he
was denied entrance to heaven because of his evil ways, but the devil kept his word
and turned him away from hell. Instead, the devil threw a burning ember at him, which
Jack caught and placed inside a hollowed out turnip, to protect it from the wind, as he
wandered eternally over the face of the earth, looking for a place to rest. This candle
inside a turnip, or later a pumpkin, is therefore called a “Jack’s lantern” or “Jack o’ the
After the arrival of the Irish, it became customary for both children and adults to dress
up in scary costumes, organize parties, and go from door to door, asking for food or
money. By the end of the 19th century, religious and community leaders began
denouncing anything frightening or grotesque – with all their attendant superstitious/
religious overtones. But despite the best efforts to make it into a rational celebration of
community activities, adolescents continued to regard the night as cart blanche for
mischief. I remember when I was in high school in the 1940s, we used to have
contests to see who could create the most elaborate stunt. The object of these
shenanigans was to flaunt authority in a way that was amusing but generally harmless.
In later years, however, some overcrowded urban ghettoes turned Halloween into a
time for rioting, arson, looting, and shootouts. Newspapers began referring to October
31st as “hell night.”
V. Evolution to the Present
Since 1965, UNICEF, an agency of the United Nations, has attempted to promote the
idea of having children go from door to door in cute little costumes to collect money for
the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Today, Halloween has become a more genteel holiday than it was in the past. For
adults, it’s an occasion for a costume party; and for children, it’s a matter of going
house to house – with an adult – collecting candy by saying “Trick or Treat.”
Ever since Halloween became highly commercialized in the early 20th century,
numerous myths and customs have been added, by exposure to other cultures, by wide
reading of history and anthropology, and especially by the creative minds of novelists
One common myth is that Samhain was the High Holy Day for the Church of Satan.
Witches would convene a Black Sabbath in the woods, where they would hold orgiastic
services that culminated in the appearance of Satan himself. After paying obeisance
to him, the witches would then fly away on broomsticks to cast their evil spells on pious
VI. Wicca, etc.
Today there’s a resurgence of the Druidic religion. When I was in England in 1965, I
was told about – and shown pictures of – a Druid ceremony being held at Stonehenge
during the Summer Solstice. Unfortunately, I had missed the ceremony by one day.
But hundreds of people had participated, all dressed in white robes.
In 1973 an English film was released, called “The Wicker Man,” which was about this
underground subculture of Druids on The Isle of Man. It was a suspenseful horror film,
which involved building a large man out of wicker material, then locking a prisoner
inside while the wicker man is set on fire. Every year, in California, the “Burning Man”
art and music festival is held in the desert – paying homage to our Celtic ancestors. A
giant wooden effigy is set ablaze, while the participants dance around the bonfire – but
with nobody inside, in this case. I think the movie was based on a novel called
“Harvest Home,” which is what the English, to this day, call the Autumnal Equinox
Wicca is gradually being accepted as a “legitimate” religion. People who call
themselves witches and warlocks are interviewed on TV, and hold their ceremonies
openly. Some covens are even affiliated with Unitarian Churches. I was once the
cinematographer at a Wicca wedding – which was quite beautiful.
Wiccans want it clearly understood that they are not Satanists. The word, “Wicca” was
pronounced “witcha” in Old English, and it meant “A Wise Woman.” In those days, a
witch was someone who lived in the forest, and who was knowledgeable about the
curative powers of herbs. Since they did seem able to cure certain ailments, it was
assumed that they obtained this power from Satan, and that they could therefore cast
evil spells as well. Today, I think it would be fair to say that Wiccans are generally
people who have made a religion out of ecology – although some of them do actually
believe in animism, just as the old Celts did. Satanism, if it even exists as a serious
belief system, is just another Christian denomination.
Today’s Wicca ceremonies, as well as Halloween parties – and perhaps even
Satanists – borrow rather heavily from the ancient Greek festival called the
Bacchanalia. The Christian Church tried to stamp out the Bacchanalia, but it still lives
on as “Carnival” in Rio, and as “Mardi Gras” in New Orleans. One particular icon
which was borrowed from the Bacchanalia is the figure of Pan, the Greek god of sex –
a man with horns, a goatee, and the hind quarters of a goat. Sex has always been
regarded by the church as the Original Sin, so even from the earliest days, Pan has
been their favorite image of Satan. The pitchfork is the Trident, borrowed from
Neptune, and the pointed, or forked, tail comes from the Egyptian devil god named
Set, or Seth.
Another similar religion which is now common in America is called Santaria. This is a
religion that comes from the Caribbean, which is a blend of West African and Catholic
beliefs and customs. They have many gods, called “orishas” to which they offer
sacrifices of various kinds, including live animals. They pray to the gods for favors,
then the witchdoctor interprets certain omens to tell them if the god is pleased with their
The Santoreans have supply shops, called “botanicas” where they can buy all sorts of
voodoo paraphernalia – including all the things normally associated with witchcraft.
There are dozens of these shops in Los Angeles. There are frequent newspaper
stories about the discovery of scenes in rural areas where sacrificial ceremonies have
taken place. In fact, one of the major forest fires a few weeks ago was thought to have
been started by candles or a bonfire of such a ritual.
VII. Related Festivals
All countries with Catholic majorities celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In
most cases these are legal holidays. Throughout Europe, All Saints Day is similar to
our Thanksgiving festival. Families reunite for a feast during the day, and then in the
afternoon, they go to the cemetery to spruce up tombstones, put flowers on the graves
of their ancestors, sprinkle them with holy water, and then light a candle to put on it.
Civic clubs put wreaths and candles on the monuments of war-dead and heroes. By
evening, every grave in every cemetery is glowing with candles. Sometimes a priest
will arrive at the cemetery to deliver a short homily to all of the gathered families. Then
the following day, they all go to church together to pray for, and light candles for, their
In Southern Italy, the families go to the cemetery early in the day, then in the evening
they go to some restaurant where they can end the holiday with feasting, drinking, and
Because of American influence throughout Europe, the custom of children dressing in
costume and going “Trick or Treating” is growing in popularity -- but mostly without the
In Mexico, they celebrate these holidays as “The Days of the Dead.” They cope with
death by making fun of it. Not only do they decorate graves with flowers, candles and
food, but they also have parades which are parodies of funeral processions; people
dressed in skeleton costumes dance around a coffin with a live person inside waving
at the crowd. Vendors sell a wide variety of skeleton toys, and it’s customary to give
friends and relatives candy skulls with the person’s name written on it. The climax of
the day is sometimes a comic play, called “The End of The World” – in which they
satirize all the major problems of society.
Brazil has a Thanksgiving festival on the same day that we do.
The ancient Greeks celebrated the autumn harvest with a festival called the
Thesmosphoria, in honor of Demeter, the goddess of grain.
The Jews have always had their Sukkoth festival in the autumn.
The Chinese have a Harvest Moon festival.
Koreans have a feast called Chusok, which blends the harvest festival with a day for
honoring their ancestors. They leave fresh fruit, dried fish and rice at tombs to thank
the ancestors for good crops.
The Japanese have a celebration honoring their ancestors, called the O-bon festival,
which lasts throughout July and August. During this time, they set out candles and food
to welcome their ancestors, then sit outside in the warm summer night, telling ghost
stories – which most of them actually believe. But the most colorful part of O-bon is the
practice of setting paper lanterns afloat on rivers and lakes. This is bidding farewell to
their ancestors until next year.
VIII. What’s Good About It.
So what should we make of all this? Should rationalists try to ban Halloween? Here is
what one sociologist said about it:
History of Halloween
In October of 2002 I delivered this speech to a meeting of Atheists United.
“Maybe at one time Halloween helped exorcise fears of death, ghosts and goblins
by making fun of them. Maybe too, in a time of rigidly prescribed social behavior,
Halloween was the occasion for socially condoned mischief – a time for misrule
and letting loose. But now the day is a part of mainstream culture, filled with
rituals, and much of even greater importance:
Nowadays people often don’t even know their near neighbors, much less those a
few blocks away. For little children these strange houses and strange people are
a source of fear and anxiety. Children have been taught not to trust, or talk to,
strangers. But on Halloween that prohibition is lifted; and, with fear, but impelled
by curiosity and social pressure, little ones ring doorbells at houses of strangers,
to find, more often than not, that these strangers are really friendly people. In
the course of an evening they can gain confidence in themselves and in their
As for adults, especially the elderly and those who never had children, or who
have not been around children for a long time, children in the neighborhood are
normally a source of anxiety and distrust. But on Halloween night their fears are
also exorcised, as wildly and imaginatively costumed kids parade to the door –
reminding them of their own childhood.
In short, the true importance of Halloween today comes, not from parading in
costumes in front of friends and family, but from this interchange with strangers,
exorcising our xenophobia, and reaffirming our bond with people in the
neighborhood who we rarely, if ever, see any other time.”
Thank you for your attention.