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Thoughts about Halloween, from Family Christmas OnlineTM

Every year about this time, I find myself dwelling on certain memories and questions regarding this much-maligned and often-abused holiday. Like my opinions on Christmas, I'm hesitant to judge other people for the way they choose to celebrate (or not to celebrate), as long as they exercise good judgment, moral sense, and charity towards those who approach the holiday differently. But some of my friends occasionally ask me how, as a Christian, I can use the word "Halloween" in a sentence without spitting on the ground or crossing myself or something afterwards. And others have trouble believing that I'm not fascinated by the macabre or occult like they are (a phase I outgrew by the time I was thirteen).

Note: The first part of this article does not deal with the ridiculous, but oft-repeated urban legends about Halloween really being an outgrowth of ancient Druid practices. When I wrote this article I was under the mistaken impression that no one capable of discerning sense from nonsense was buying into those. But I was apparently wrong, which is why the "Update for 2015" below does address them, albeit briefly. We now return you to the part of the article that focuses on Halloween as it is actually celebrated and not inflammatory hoaxes about its origin.

This is not an article as much as it is a general discussion of the parts of the season that I have enjoyed and of the reasons I don't get "bent out of shape" this time of year at seeing folks trying to have fun doing things I don't personally enjoy. So if you're looking for someone to take your side in an argument about Halloween, you should probably look elsewhere. If you don't mind other people reminiscing about how Halloween affected their childhood and their children's childhoods, read on.

When I was a little kid, our family had a big box of "dress up clothes" that included ancient cloth masks, silky skirts, feather boas, and shawls, and other items that made it easy for my sisters to throw together a Gypsy costume or some such for "Beggar's Night" every year. Now I realize that those things probably came from my Dad's sisters, at least two of whom he helped raise after his father deserted the family during World War II. My costumes might include an old baby sheet with holes cut for eyes, or a bum costume consisting of patches stitched lightly on a pair of pants and burnt cork spread on my face. Or maybe the cowboy hats and toy guns we played with year-round. Or we'd put on Dad and uncle Ken's old helmet liners, backpacks, and fatigue shirts from their WWII service and go as soldiers. We didn't miss the chintzy, flimsy, and flammable store-bought costumes that some of our "better off" friends wore. In fact, as kids, we enjoyed throwing together our own costumes and felt sorry for kids who didn't have our resources.

The Friday before Halloween, our elementary school would have a parade. All the kids would put on their costumes and walk to the foot of the hill and back, to enjoy cupcakes that our room parents had brought in. And we all walked or rode home in our costumes.

Then on Beggar's Night, Dad would walk us all over our hilly little village. We'd finish up with sore calves and full bags of candy at a house that always served donuts and cider. In short, Donnelsville, Ohio, on Beggar's Night, was a magical place. Twenty-odd years later, when Shelia and I had little kids and had moved back to the area, it still was.

Unfortunately, by then we were attending a church that condemned anything to do with Halloween. I can't blame them entirely. Between my halcyon childhood and the intense '80s had come a number of culture shifts. The "New Age" movement had spawned a renewed interest in dark and occult practices that triggered an alarmist response in Christian circles (including the troubling, but now-discredited book The Satan Seller). (By the way, that book turned out to be mostly, if not entirely fiction, but I actually knew two practicing Satanists and a number of "dabblers," so at the time its claims weren't exactly unbelievable to me.) Moreover, each October now spawned an onslaught of horror and slasher movies. You couldn't watch Saturday morning cartoons without seeing gross movie previews that they wouldn't even have shown in the theaters in my childhood. To say that Halloween movies gave the Halloween holiday a bad name would be an understatement.

But some of the cultural shift was inside the church as well. We like attending churches that believe the whole Bible (making allowances for obviously metaphorical language, of course). But the church we were attending when our kids were little liked to "err on the side of caution." So they tended to condemn things that they really should have trusted their members to use their own judgment about.

To make things even worse, for several years in a row, Beggars' Night fell on Wednesday. We all knew that missing Wednesday Night Service was the first sign of backsliding, even moreso if you missed it so you could expose your children to the enticement of such evil rituals as dressing up as princesses or ballerinas and walking around the neighborhood collecting candy. (We did buy candy for any visitors we might get, but our house sat so far back from the road that we seldom had any.)

One Wednesday afternoon, when our oldest was about four, I let her dress up as a princess or some such, then took her up and down a nearby street, making certain we got back in time to get her changed for church. We survived. On a subsequent year, we took our then youngest with a friend down the hill to Donnelsville proper, where the houses were much closer together and everyone seemed anxious to show their generosity. There we encountered a Lutheran church that served popcorn and cider every Beggar's Night as a way of showing hospitality and getting to know their neighbors.

When we mentioned to our church that Beggar's Night could be a good way of reaching their neighborhood, they tried a couple different approaches. Nothing "stuck," though, so eventually that church went back to having the lights off on Beggar's Night.

In the meantime, however, Beggar's Night had shifted away from Wednesday nights. We no longer had to skip a service and risk being labeled backsliders if we went down the hill to Donnelsville and walked our children's little legs off going from well-lit house to well-lit house, catching up with friends, and finishing up at the house with the donuts and cider. In fact, it was rather like one huge annual block party.

Sometimes I miss tromping up and down those hilly streets holding sweaty little hands. But by the time the youngest decided she was too old to trick or treat, we were just about too old to take her anyway, or at least I felt that way, over ten years ago. (Would that I had my 50-year-old knees back again.)

That's not to say that the "dark forces" were never around. One of my daughters, while in high school, was invited to a party that went fine until her friends decided to watch The Exorcist. She spent the evening in the kitchen, with a couple other folks who didn't want to see it either. Some of the kids who had watched the movie later congratulated her for showing the "courage of her convictions." A spiritual victory, right? A few months later, she was invited to another party with mostly the same group of kids, and they decided to watch The Exorcist again. Once again, my daughter spent the evening in another room. But this time she was alone. When the movie was over, her friends chastised her for being "too good for them," and who did she think she was, anyway. A different lesson, I'm afraid.

Now the kids are grown, and we don't have to worry about morality of "trick-or-treating" or a thousand other things. We still buy pumpkins and put up a scarecrow, and a few other decorations every fall. Yes, I'm put off by the thoughtless and sometimes dangerous pranks, as well as the gruesome and macabre aspects that dominate many Halloween celebrations, theaters, and airwaves. But I still enjoy candy corn, caramel apples, carving pumpkins, drinking hot cider, and seeing little kids (other people's kids) in costumes. (By the way, we still attend a church that thinks the whole Bible is true [barring obvious metaphorical language, of course], just not the church in the story which - sadly - got worse instead of better over the years.)

As an adult Christian there's one other thing I appreciate about Halloween - the fact that it comes before Thanksgiving and Christmas. By the time November 1 rolls around, Halloween is "so last month." Nobody is interested in scary masks or creepy costumes or the like. This gives Christians four weeks to look forward to celebrating an early American religious community's Thanksgiving feast and seven weeks to look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. To some people, the "dark forces" may seem to own October. But we own November and December.

This had a peculiar application in some of my workplaces where they tried to outlaw Christmas decorations because they promoted a worldview that was not "politically correct." As often as not, the people who thought I was violating their constitutional right to marginalize Christians by setting up a little tree or something were the same folks who went "all out" for Halloween. So when they came down on me for hanging tinsel or some such, all I had to do was remind them that Halloween started out as a religious holiday, too (part of Hallowmas, originally a time of commemorating every good person who had ever lived, including those who might not be in Heaven - yet, according to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory**.) Moreover, the Halloween celebrants had put strobe lights in the halls, put black lights in the ceiling fixtures, hung rubber bats from the acoustic tiles, played "haunted house" sound tracks all week long on a boom box, and - on Halloween itself - come to work in a gorilla suit. Was getting me to take down my little table-top tree really worth the chance that upper management would make them give up their festivities, if they brought my "excesses" to light?

I'm not saying that I necessarily enjoyed rubber bats hanging from the ceiling tiles, etc. Only that it "set the bar" for seasonal displays and celebrations far higher than we Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrants, bounded as we were by charity and (usually) better taste, could ever approach.

In other words, for me, even when Halloween is uncomfortable, it serves as a prelude to Thanksgiving and Christmas, just as Fantasia's "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence is the prelude to the oddly calming "Ave Maria" sequence. Sure, someone may have hung a tasteless display on their front porch, but it will be down in a few days, and my Christmas lights may be up for weeks. In the meantime, my little great-nieces look really great in their pumpkin costumes.

If you're looking for family-friendly Halloween resources, you'll find a few good links below. If you'd rather skip right past Halloween, check out our Thanksgiving pages.

Update, 2015

Just when I thought I had heard it all, a friend I respect very much just mentioned that he rejects Halloween (and I should, too) because it's a Druid holiday celebrating the Celtic god of the dead named Samheim. Also, according to the same man, Trick or Treat traces back to ancient Druids going door to door threatening Celtic peasants with bad consequences if they didn't give them food to sacrifice to their deity.

I know a little about history, so I knew both assertions were wrong, period, but I figured I'd do a little more research and see if I could figure out how an otherwise sane person might be fooled into not only believing them but also using them as an excuse to tell everyone else that Halloween and Trick or Treat are intrinsically evil. By the way, there are real reasons some folks reject Halloween, such as the gruesome ways some people "celebrate" the holiday. If you reject Halloween and Trick-or-Treat based on such concerns, that's fine, I will respect your choice, just as I hope you will respect my choice to reject, say, Miley Cyrus videos. But if your rejection stems mostly from bad information you haven't bothered to verify, I reserve the right to disagree with your conclusions.

What Historians Say

I was not surprised to find that the Celts never had a god of anything named Samhaim or anything like that name. Or even a festival by that name or anything like that name. Samhaim was the Celts' name for the beginning of what they considered the winter season (about what we would call November 1). But all of those stories about festivals of the dead and so on are fictions invented within the last three centuries. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that the Celts believed any such thing or had any such practice.

Neither was I surprised to find that there is no historical link whatsoever between the Druids and Halloween or Trick-or-Treat. In fact there's over a thousand-year gap between the end of the Druid religion and the rise of anything like Trick-or-Treat in any European culture.

Several modern writers have asserted that Gregory made November 1 a holy day (All Saints' Day) to keep people from celebrating a Roman festival of the dead called Lemuria. Unfortunately for that assertion, Lemuria was celebrated in April. As a fan of history, I'm a great believe in dotted lines, but really?

Other writers claim that Gregory set All Saints' Day on November 1 because the Irish (Celts) were used to celebrating a festival of the dead at that time. But there is no historical record of the Celts ever celebrating that kind of festival, on November first or any other time of year. In other words, all of the claims that Halloween and Trick-or-Treat are descendants (or revivals) of ancient pagan feasts are lies. Again, you can still hate Halloween or Trick-or-Treat for other reasons, just not this one.

Lack of Evidence Cited as Evidence

Ironically, one celebrated extremist cites the missing evidence as evidence that the Druids did invent both Halloween and Trick-or-Treat. According to him, the Druids passed on their occult practices and beliefs only by word of mouth. To this man, the fact that we haven't heard anything about their religion for nearly two thousands years is proof that they're still operating today. You can't argue with that kind of logic.

Not surprisingly, the claim that the Druids or their spiritual descendants must still be flourishing today - since we never hear anything about them - is welcomed not only by hyperconservatives who are always looking for something to preach against or some new ancient evil to scare their congregations with. It's also welcomed by certain modern "New Age" groups. But not all. Some of them claim that it is the most ridiculous thing they have ever heard. On that, we're in agreement.

Tracing the Hoax

For the following few paragraphs I am indebted to W.J. Bethancourt III, whose web articles on the subject pointed me to the historical source materials cited here.

Apparently, the notion that Samhaim (or some such spelling) was the Celtic lord of the dead and that festivals were held in his name on November first was invented in the late 18th or early 19th century by a Charles Vallency. Apparently Vallency invented those fictions to support his assertion that the Irish originally came from Armenia. No one has ever taken Vallency's core proposal seriously, not even later writers who borrowed his invented Celtic history to support their own wild theories.

Two sentences in the preceding paragraph start with the world "apparently" because we don't actually have anything written by Vallency. What we do have is a reference to his work in Godfrey Higgins' 1827 book The Celtic Druids. Although Higgins was attempting to prove that the Druids had migrated from India, not Armenia, he was not above borrowing Vallency's invented Celtic history to prove his own thesis.

Historians who have since researched the Celts through legitimate archeological protocols unanimously agree that Higgins was wrong about almost everything, including the bits about Samhaim he claimed to receive from Vallency. But sadly, his book was a hit at the time. Higgins was already a best-selling author when the book came out, and its theme of an impossible ancient migration from India to Ireland reflected an even more popular and equally impossible theme - Anglo-Israelism. That's the nationalistic precept that the so-called "ten lost tribes of Israel" settled down in England, and therefore the English (and their descendants in North America) are really "God's Chosen People." (Recent genetic testing has disproven this ridiculous fiction once and for all, but white people looking for reasons to dispute the rights - or even the humanity - of non-whites still cling to it.)

In a society prone to embrace such hoaxes, during a vacuum of any real knowledge of ancient Celtic cultures, Higgins' contemporaries republished his borrowed fictions about hitherto unknown Celtic practices as facts. Then later authors republished those assertions and added their own.

In other words, all of the "evidence" that people use to prove connections between Halloween and ancient Celtic/Druid practices was fabricated about the year 1800, and has been repeated ever since 1827 by people who to lazy or too prejudiced by their own opinions to check the facts.

Oh, before it comes up, the same thing is true of carving pumpkins, a North American practice. Apparently the Irish carved faces in turnips, but that tradition doesn't appear any earlier than the seventeenth century, so it was never practiced by the Druids either. And the ghost stories claiming that "Jack O'Lantern" represents a lost soul wandering the face of the earth have about as much relationship to history or the Druids as Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

But What About "Authoritive" Sources?

Good question. Folks who gleefully reject the entire Old Testament because we don't have any manuscripts dating to the time of Moses have an entirely different "academic" standard when it comes to the Druids.

If you try to track down ANY connection between what we know about ancient Celts and Druids and the way Halloween is celebrated today, you'll discover that 99% of the "experts" cite no sources at all. And the few sources that are cited can't trace any verifiable references older than the 19th century.

Here's a personal appeal: If you can track down an actual historical source that pushes the Samhaim-god-of-the-dead festival notion earlier than Vallency, or even earlier than Higgins, please let me know. Unlike Higgins and many others, I would rather publish truth than fiction, even if it disputes my own earlier opinions. On the other hand, if all you have is a modern writer who claims it traces back to the ancient Druids, and you think this proves some kind of point, please go back to your reality television show.

Urban Myths Are Not a New Phenomenon

In other words, even though some aspects of the way Halloween is celebrated in modern times may be traceable to the 18th century or earlier, nothing about Halloween (or Trick-or-Treat or Jack-O'Lanterns) can be connected to the Druids or any ancient pre-Christian culture.

Like the fraudulent nineteenth-century "histories" that purport to trace Easter Eggs and Easter Bunnies to ancient Saxon or Assyrian practices, the claim that Halloween is an outgrowth of ancient Celtic/Druidic practices is the nineteenth-century's version of an urban legend, one of thousands that actual historians have laid to rest long since.

Sadly, the facts that these myths stay popular, and that some folks even seek them out are just more evidence that people would rather believe compelling lies than some dull old truth. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for any individual to boycott Halloween. You just can't use supposed Druid origins to do so. Unless, like Higgins, you have no problem with borrowing other people's fabrications to make a point.

Should Christians Avoid This Stuff Anyway Just in Case?

There are many legitimate reasons for boycotting Halloween, of course. For example:

  • You may object to its overcommercialization - it's actually giving Christmas a run for the money in some metrics, such as dollars spent on new decorations every year.

  • You may feel that participating in any Halloween-themed activities gives tacit approval to all of the gruesome and morose activities and entertainments that crop up every year at this time.

  • You may have been raised to think Halloween or Trick-or-Treat is intrinsically evil, and you can't shake the feeling. If that's the case, just admit it makes you uncomfortable and sit it out.

  • You might not like buying candy for strangers' kids. If that's the case, own up to it, and stop trying to make everyone else feel guilty about it.

  • You may still be upset about some prank that was pulled on you in the name of Halloween, and you have trouble divorcing the hurt from the holiday.

  • It might not be a part of your cultural background at all.

  • You may have experienced a family tragedy or crisis close to Halloween at some point and feel awkward making too much of the holiday.

  • You simply may have no interest in Halloween or its related festivities. Actually, that's the best reason. Nobody, least of all me, wants you to waste time on a largely secular holiday that means nothing to you. Do not put up Halloween decorations or engage in Halloween-related activites for my sake, or anyone else's.

All of those reasons, from the trivial to the tragic, are good reasons for anyone to boycott Halloween (and Trick-or-Treat and Jack-O'Lanterns). However, not one of them is a good reason to blast your friends or fellow disciples for carving pumpkins or letting their kids dress up as cowboys or princesses and go trick or treating. That is a matter of conscience that each family must decide for themselves.

If you use lies and rumors to bully people into giving up Halloween or Christmas or anything else that the witch-hunting Puritans used to persecute people for, you're not doing them or yourself any favors. In fact, if your religion is mostly a list of innocuous things to avoid for obscure reasons, you may be a stranger to gace yourself.

That said, is it possible for Christians to engage in the arguably innocuous aspects of Halloween, such as trick-or-treating or carving pumpkins?

In my research, I came across a useful example of some guidelines that a conservative Lutheran wrote for how he believes Christians should celebrate Halloween (if they choose to celebrate it it at all). Click here to read them.

If you want more background on the great Halloween hoax, the first three pages of the same article provide some good information.

The author's conclusion is based partially on his understanding of Philippians 4:8 ("Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things." - NASB). Is there anything good about the gruesome or horrific ways some people "celebrate" the holiday? Not to my way of thinking.

On the other hand, once you remove the totally fictious connection to ancient pagan festivals, is there anything intrinsically evil about carving pumpkins or children playing dressup and collecting candy from willing neighbors? That's for you to decide, not me.

In the meantime, I will sympathize with folks who don't bother Halloween because they're not emotionally invested in the holiday and they're too busy to try to live up to other folks' expectations. I will continue to look charitably on folks who don't see anything wrong with their kids dressing up, say, as Spiderman and collecting candy from neighbors who have bought it for just this purpose. I will also look charitably on folks who avoid Halloween because so much about today's "celebrations" is far too gruesome and tasteless.

I will even attempt to be charitable to folks that criticize how everyone else views or celebrates the holiday because they would rather swallow and repeat inflammatory fictions than make judgments based on facts. But I might be gritting my teeth in the last instance.

In other words, have fun and don't do anything that makes you personally feel uncomfortable, and don't listen to people who get their seasonal "kicks" out of making other people feel uncomfortable.

Family-Friendly Halloween Resources

The next part of this page contains links to things you and your family can do to celebrate the season. Below that is some reader feedback that I found enlightening and in some cases entertaining.

Click to see unique Halloween-themed building and accessory projects.Spook Hill Projects

In the tradition of the Japanese cardboard Christmas ("putz") houses that graced so many American homes between 1929 and 1964, "Putz house" designer Howard Lamey has designed several Halloween-themed structures to help you get an early start on your Holiday Village. Each project provides free, downloadable graphics and plans, as well as detailed instructions.

Spook Hill Chronicles is available again for your holiday reading pleasure. Click here to go to the introduction page.Spook Hill Chronicles

Also, due to popular demand, we've reposted Paul's Spook Hill Chronicles family-friendly online Halloween novel. Imagine you were a widow with two children running from your late husband's gambling "buddies," only to find that the place you had taken refuge showed every sign of being haunted, or at least of being very strange.

Halloween Storefronts.New Halloween Projects for Indoor Trains and Towns

From BigIndoorTrains.com and HalloweenTrains.com - If you like setting up indoor trains and towns for Halloween, you should be pleased to see a new Halloween-Themed building project that combines vintage tinplate style with Halloween-themed colors and signage - a fun craft project that will bring October 30 to any mantel, shelf, or indoor railroad.

Hedgie's Costumes Coloring Page.  Click the link below to see or download the big version.Hedgie's Halloween Coloring Pages (From Jan Brett's Free Coloring Pages

Famed children's book author and artist Jan Brett offers free downloadable coloring pages featuring her character "Hedgie" doing fun Halloween things. If you jump to her Free Coloring Pages index, you'll see lots of other great resources for youngsters. In the meantime, there's no easy way to link just to her Halloween features, so we're adding links you can click on to jump right to the coloring pages. There's also a link to a full color Halloween place mat.

Note about PDF Files - If your computer can read pdf files (most can), click on the pdf version. You'll probably get a message asking if you're sure you want to download. Say yes. The pdf version will keep extra stuff from printing on the page. If for some reason that doesn't work, click on the other line.

Hedgie Carves a Halloween Pumpkin
Click here for PDF Format (recommended)
Hedgie's Costumes
Click here for PDF Format (recommended)
Hedgie as a Pirate
Click here for PDF Format (recommended)
Halloween Placemat
Click here for PDF version (recommended)

Halloween Trains has crafts, building projects, stories, and trains to give you a fun halloween.  Click to go to the site.HalloweenTrains

Finally, this is a reminder that if you like decorating your indoor railroad for Halloween, supplies are getting thin for most of the popular O gauge and On30 Halloween train products from Lionel and Hawthorne Village.

To visit the HalloweenTrains.com pages, click on the following link:

Or take a look at some great Christmas-themed trains and related projects:

Reader Responses

I like hearing from readers and will post any rational responses here.

Never Sneak Up on a Woman Holding a Giant Spider

A friend who will remain nameless shared this anecdote with me. She moved to a new, small town just before Halloween, and decided to decorate her big front window with a giant spider and web. Unfortunately, her excitement at getting to decorate a new house for Halloween coincided with two sets of visitors from local religious organizations who probably started out with good intentions but overreacted when they saw what she was doing.

She says, "So there I am on the ladder--about seven feet up - attaching the web when I become cognizant that there are two people in suits behind me. Excuse me, the first man says, are you aware that you are celebrating the 'devil's holiday'?

"Now I'm nervous about heights but I became so enraged, I literally flew off that ladder. Out out out! I shouted, and they left, but not before putting two of their [denominational] magazines in my mailbox up front.

"Realizing that I perhaps over-reacted, I went in to eat some lunch and put myself in a better frame of mind. I get back on the ladder when there are two women coming down the steps to my front door. These were from [another denomination] - who also disapprove of Halloween it seems.

"Well let it suffice to say I went into a slow burn, told them to get out while I went about the business of trying to find a virgin to sacrifice.

"Into the mailbox went more pamphlets...

"I would learn the next day that this was a highly unusual occurrence in the village...

"I can laugh about it all now but at the time....."

Knowing the homeowner in question, I can assure anyone from either denomination that there was no danger of her joining your circle anyway, so you didn't really miss an opportunity to assimilate, er welcome a new member by ticking her off in your first contact.

But I also know enough about churches in small towns to know that - for all their ineptitude - both groups probably approached her with the best of intentions. The newspaper lists home sales, after all. A hundred years ago, many communities even had a "welcome wagon" to welcome new neighbors, bringing them phone books, coupons to area businesses, "who to call" phone lists of community resources, etc. Sadly, such efforts have been abandoned in most places, perhaps because, as Alice says, "People come and go so quickly" in our increasingly mobile society.

A handful of individual churches in some areas do still try to send someone by to ask if they can help the newbies in any way. (And if the newbie thinks "these people are nice, maybe I'll try their church," that's not bad for anybody.)

That's a long way of saying that neither group went over to the new neighbor's home with the intention of making an enemy. And chances are both groups drove away with red faces telling each other "We could have handled that better."

The "takeaway" to my church friends is, "Don't make mountains out of molehills, especially when you're approaching people who may not share your church's assumptions (much less any legalisms or irrational phobias)." You burn bridges before either party has a chance to cross them, often at a time when you could have been establishing a friendship, or at least a dialogue.

Next time, try saying, "Nice spider [or zombie or whatever]. Could you use a hand with that? Here, let me hold the ladder steady for you." You actually won't go to Hell, and anybody who insists that you will is probably in more spiritual danger than the stranger on the ladder.

Better yet, you might make a friend. And isn't that the point?

Okay, flame off. Have a great autumn, however you celebrate the holidays!

Notes from an Elementary-School Music Teacher

I really liked your article, Paul, and must confess I read it with a totally uncritical eye, because I'm so in agreement with you.

As a music teacher, I had lots of "teachable moments" within which to consider and discuss this question. One of my best was an online correspondence which I had with a music teacher's mailing list at Music K-8. One of the many hundreds of members of the list wrote, criticizing Halloween as satanic. I could tell she was echoing what she had heard others say, but not necessarily showing personal reflection. And I wondered how many others there were out there. This is what I wrote at the time - in September, 2002:

    Thoughts on Halloween:

    Our fears of Halloween as having a religious significance are based on some real, but very complicated history. True, the Church co-opted something like Samhein into All Saint's and All Souls Day, because it was a natural fit (like Christmas and Saturnalia.) But the idea of going from door to door "souling" may go back into the Dark Ages when starving beggars were willing to eat the funeral food, thereby taking onto their own souls the sins of the departed. (Just think of how desperately hungry a person would have to be to risk his own soul!) A tamer version of this was the practice of going from door to door begging for food in exchange for a promise to pray for the people of the house. In Colombia it has been a tradition to dress up in masks and costumes and go from house to house begging for candy on Christmas eve!

    I heard a child psychologist/author say one time that kids like Halloween best because it's the one time in the year they can turn the tables on the adults.

    I also think that kids like Halloween even better than Christmas, because Halloween doesn't have any strings attached. Nobody is going around for weeks in advance asking them if they're being good for Santa. They can just plan on being kids, and know that that is enough.

    And because my kids love Halloween so, I find that October (and December, when we're doing winter holiday music) are their best behavior months. In the classroom, they can barely control themselves, because they want to think about the holidays. In my class, they get to do exactly what they wish they were doing in their other classes - having holiday fun.

    My schools also discourage violent or gory costumes, forbid weapons, etc., and rightly so. I remind my big kids who are tempted to wear the horrible rubber masks that 1) they scare the little kids, who are their reading buddies and their charges on their safety posts. And 2) the rubber masks, wonderfully hideous that they look hanging on a hook, are hot as a sauna when your face and head are inside them, so that the day becomes pretty painful after all.

    Bruno Bettelheim writes about the uses of fantasy, magic and horror in traditional children's literature, and what an important part they play in the child's growth. Sometimes I wonder if we forget that when a kid is playing, he is doing his job - being what he is.

    Or at least that's my story and I'm sticking to it. The worst Halloween I've ever had as a teacher was the one when a member of our church choir came in sick as a dog, coughed all over me for an hour, and I got so sick I missed Halloween altogether. Darn!

    Does that mean I am still a wee bit young at heart?

    Just a thought.


So, that's my two cents. And, incidentally, the teacher to whose remarks I directed my own replied that what I wrote gave her reason to rethink her position, making her feel a little more kindly disposed toward the children and their love of the holiday.

The worst costume I ever had come to school was a mentally limited first grader whose father made him up as one of "Jason's" victims in "Halloween." The poor child could not even hear through one ear because the father had packed so much fake blood in it. The father, a big goofy kid himself, was so proud of his son, saying to me that this was the first year his son was figuring out what Halloween was "all about."

I think Paul's article hits exactly the right note of what Halloween is "all about."

Notes from an Author Friend

I had an upbringing pretty identical with yours. The trick or treating outfits, the neighborhood prowl (except I had a big neighborhood, living in Chicago, the gorging for days afterward, best candy to worst: it was all such fun.

And, I was raised Catholic like you and told the same Purgatory-rescue stuff, like you. But my nuns were more specific: 7 Our Fathers and 7 Hail Marys on All Hallow's Eve, and out a soul would pop from Purgatory to Heaven. I cleared out my relatives pretty quickly and then prayed for the souls who had no one to pray for them. Hopefully I succeeded. :-)


**Purgatory is a medieval Roman Catholic teaching that even souls that are good enough to get into Heaven need to be purged of venial (lightweight) sins first. So they suffer for a time before they are allowed to go to Heaven. Protestants like to remind us that, scripturally, this doctrine seems to be supported only by an oblique reference in an ancient book that is not counted, technically, as scripture by Jews or Protestants (2 Maccabees 12:39-46). The notion of a metaphysical "holding cell" also flies in the face of Paul's claim that for Christians, absence from the body is presence with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). Note that Purgatory, like Limbo and the Age of Accountability, isn't mentioned anywhere in any ancient book - they're all doctrines that were invented to answer questions about other doctrines that had little or no scriptural support.

Raised Roman Catholic, I was often coached to say rosaries for one dead relation or another, with the notion that my prayers would get them out of Purgatory sooner. In fact, there was a rating system for how many years a given prayer would take off of a person's "sentence." I was no fool - I headed right for the "big guns" and prayed them as hard as I could.

So as far as I knew, I should have gotten a certain uncle out of Purgatory ten or more times before I was twelve, but I was still being asked to pray for him. Perhaps Mom liked to err on the side of caution, or the formulas were wrong, or that uncle had had issues that we weren't privy to. Personally I suspect that he got into Heaven quite without my help and when I see him, we'll have a laugh about the whole thing.

When I abandoned many of my Roman-Catholic-specific beliefs about the age of seventeen, I gave up the notion of Purgatory and never looked back, even after I was exposed to Bible-based Christianity and gave my heart to Christ at the age of twenty. But years later, when we had children who were constantly being invited to birthday parties at Chuckie Cheese, I couldn't help wondering if there might be something to the notion of Purgatory after all!

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