The Real Meaning of Halloween
Every year, I refuse to carve our pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern until Halloween night. My kids beg me to do it earlier. During the entire month of October we drive past front porches and stoops, all of them seemingly riddled with grinning jack-o’-lanterns. My kids catch a glimpse of Facebook posts featuring jack-o’-lanterns as I scroll past: pumpkins with the carved silhouettes of haunted houses and flying witches. “Please, can we carve the pumpkin now?” my kids plead.It is a dark time, a time for gathering food and firewood, shoring up against what is coming: more darkness. Late fall is when we remember mortality, our own and that of the entire human race.
No, I say, never before Halloween night. Then I remind them: We carve the pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern on Halloween night for a very specific reason. “Why?” they ask, forgetting—or pretending to forget—why we wait until October 31 every year.
“I carve a pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern and put it outside our door for one reason and for one reason only: to scare away evil spirits,” I answer. “And Halloween is when evil spirits come out.”
That shuts them up.
These days, Halloween is generally considered to be innocuous, by religious people and otherwise. The holiday has been de-fanged by a material civilization far too advanced to consider the reality of monsters. Halloween is a chance to collectively spend nearly seven billion dollars on stuff like 15-foot fabric Frankensteins and black cats with arched backs, illuminated and billowing on front lawns across America. Not to mention the old standbys: plastic headstones for front-yard cemeteries, ghosts dangling from bushes, witches plastered against trees. And then there is the monster-of-the-moment: zombies.
Last year the house next to my kid’s elementary school had an elaborate zombie display, with human-sized models of the dead and decayed, bandages sagging and open wounds in fixed desiccation, filling the back of an old truck parked on the lawn. The zombies had been rounded up in what I assume is a homage to The Walking Dead. I would know this if I watched The Walking Dead. “It’s really great!” I’ve been told repeatedly. But I know my limits, and the fact that it is not the show for me was confirmed when I was given the advice, in earnest, that I should watch it with the sound off, in order to make the scenes bearable.
You know what would really make The Walking Dead bearable? Not watching it.
I have almost no capacity for scary movies or horror as a genre in any form. Except on Halloween, where such things belong, a time when I don’t treat horror as a genre, but rather, as something at least approximating the real thing. In my view, if it is going to be recognized at all, Halloween should be served hot, on the day itself, with a heaping helping of remembering what the holiday is all about: paganism.
For Christians deeply embedded in American culture—so embedded, in fact, that it’s sometimes difficult to determine where being American ends and Christianity begins—taking the paganism of Halloween seriously is a non-starter. All the scary imagery associated with the day is no longer very controversial, with mutual assurance that no one is really serious about this stuff.
Evangelicals used to be a lot more worked up about Halloween, and residual elements from this era are still with us. During this period, when evangelicals weren’t quite sure what to do with the holiday, alternative ways of recognizing it began to take shape. Hell Houses are one example of this—a church version of a haunted house where the unevangelized get a glimpse into the reality of life as a non-Christian (if secular life were art-directed by Wes Craven)—other alternatives include trunk-or-treat parties and church basement harvest festivals, where the harvest is candy and the revelers are dressed in costume. Just like Halloween, only with better lighting: all candy and no zombies.
In typical evangelical fashion, these efforts are more about aping secular culture with the bad bits edited out, than about creating an alternative with its own mythos and meaning.
Not that there is anything wrong with harvest festivals. In fact, I like them so much, I’m in charge of running the one in the town where I live. But harvest festivals should celebrate the harvest, and not be a stand-in for Halloween, a merely more palatable version of the crass commercialization of evil. This is the part that is uncomfortable to acknowledge. No matter how valiant the effort is to sanitize Halloween, horror remains an integral part of the holiday. Not the sort of horror as seen in the poorly rendered depictions of vampires and mummies found in the paper decorations at Walgreen’s, but in the very real traditional recognition of Samhain, the forerunner of Halloween. This remains true in spite of the fact that the name of the holiday, Hallowe’en, is a version of All Hallow’s Eve, the night before one of the holiest of days on the church calendar: All Saints Day.
All Saints Day came after Samhain, perhaps in an effort to co-opt and redirect the paganism of pre-Christian civilization. Still, in spite of the church’s best efforts, elements remain of the old celebration. Samhain recognized the turning of the seasons, and the lifting of the veil between the living and the dead. For people living in regions dominated by the cycle of the four seasons, it is not hard to understand why people turned to thoughts of mortality—their own and that of their ancestors—during the transition from fall to winter. This time of year, decay is so prevalent, it is possible to literally smell it. Death is immersive: the remnants of the summer garden, the basil plants dotted with mold, the last of the leaves falling in violent wind storms that transform the trees into the skeletal networks of branches, inky black. Leaves and detritus accrue on the side of the road, in driveways and against houses, in piles high enough to hide a body or two.
It is a dark time, a time for gathering food and firewood, shoring up against what is coming: more darkness. Late fall is when we remember mortality, our own and that of the entire human race. And it is the time to prepare the heart for winter and wait for a glimmer of the hope that awaits in the next season, the season of Advent, the celebration of the return of the light, the ultimate triumph over the ultimate horror of death.
On Halloween I take my kids trick-or-treating. Not before Halloween, like parents do in some communities, where trick-or-treating is sandwiched in the hours between 4 and 6 p.m. on a designated Saturday, in an effort to keep everyone safe while helping everyone forget what a terrible holiday this really is.
No, there is only one time to go out and beg for treats and offer tricks: after dark, on October 31. It is usually cold on Halloween, sometimes raining—or worse. Many of the houses in our town are dark, unwelcoming, and the streets remain unlit even as they gradually fill with children, roaming in packs, dressed as princesses and pirates, vampires and zombies. When a house’s porch light is on, my children knock on the door, waiting with their bags open for someone to answer, ready for a stranger to give them candy, ready to say thank you each time—a fragment of civilization in the midst of this ritual of the underworld.
“Why do we dress up in costume on Halloween?” my oldest son asked me at one point. I consider how to answer him.
The boring answer is that we dress up in costume on Halloween because we’re Americans, and we celebrate American holidays, even the creepy ones, like Halloween, and the commercial ones, like Christmas, and because I don’t have the heart to deny my kids candy that their neighbors are giving away—especially when every other kid they know will gorge on their stash for days to come.
But the real answer, the one I forced myself to give my son, and force myself to repeat, to say out loud when it comes up with my children, is the truth that lurks underneath the princess and the pirate costumes.
“People dress up in costume,” I say, “because they are trying to confuse the spirits. If you’re going to go out and about after dark on October 31, you need to disguise yourself. You need to make yourself unrecognizable so the spirits don’t harass you.” My kids blink at me, not sure if I’m serious.
I’m not sure if I’m serious. But we are going to observe Halloween in our household, at the very least I’m wondering if should give my kids of sense of its connection something other, to the reality of the spiritual world that exists below the surface of the spectacle. And I want to give myself a sense of the cost of observing this holiday, the contrast it presents to Christianity, the truth that it’s not comfortable—maybe not even justifiable.
My kids get dressed in their costumes, ready to go trick-or-treating. But before we go, I get out the knife, the newspaper, the candles, and the matches. I carve the pumpkin until it is transformed into a jack-o’-lantern; I make the face as menacing as possible. We light the candle, and place it inside the jack-o’-lantern on the front stoop, where it flickers, both a beacon and a warning. Then we head out into the neighborhood, away from our house, away from the light, into the cold, dark night.
If we’re judging holidays by what they originally meant and not what they now mean, Easter and Christmas both deserve installations in this series, do they not?
As the byline indicates, this piece is misinformed. Contemporary Halloween is now largely secularized, the result of a mixture of various historical influences, including but not only paganism. The author and the readers would do well to read more broadly in history. Here’s a place to start: http://www.theofantastique.com/2007/10/25/jack-santino-halloween-folklore-and-death-festivals/
S.D., you are an amazing writer. I mean it – I want to write like this when I grow up!
In this case, though, I do tend to agree more with Rich and John, above. While I accept and respect that, for you, Halloween is a “creepy holiday” that presents a costly alternative to Christianity, it isn’t that for me or, I suspect, for most Americans. Not that true meaning of anything can necessarily be determined by majorities… but I think there are a lot creepier and costlier ways our culture advocates alternatives to Christianity. Evil is real, but I don’t see much of it at Halloween. Plenty to go around the other 364 days of the year, unfortunately.
But, again, this is an outstanding piece and really caused me to pay attention and stop and think. Thank you for it!
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