Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Halloween controversy

Halloween is a controversial subject these days.

I don't mean the arguments about whether trick or treating is a harmless custom or if kids doing it should be given ASBOs, or suggestions put forward by fundamental Christians that anyone throwing a Halloween party is really a Satanist.

Halloween - or Samhain - is a topic that can really get flame-wars going between pagans on forums.

Once upon a time, probably in the last 100 years, people looked at Halloween and saw a festival that seemed ancient, pre-Christian and down-right pagan with its customs of dressing up, dancing around bonfires, making lanterns out of turnips (or pumpkins in the USA) and generally having a bit of a party with an open invite to any ghost, ghoul or long-legged beastie that happened to be in the area.

They looked a bit further and saw a description in an old Irish tale of the festival of Samhain, meaning "the end of summer", which was celebrated on November 1. They put two and two together and it became accepted history that the origins of Halloween were in the Celtic feast of Samhain. Do an internet search and you will find exactly that stated as fact all over the place.

Then some historians came along and realised that they couldn't find any evidence that the festival of Samhain had been celebrated anywhere outside Ireland, or any evidence that it had been a festival to do with the dead. They said, "Get your facts right before you start allocating pagan origins to everything and anything."

But Halloween (or Samhain) is such a popular festival with pagans and a feast of the dead is such a cool thing to have that the argument wasn't going to end there. Here are a few of the things said:

The Catholic Church, under Pope Gregory III, moved All Saints' Day, a day to honour all the saints, from May 13 to November 1 in the 8th century. Why was that done? One side says it was moved to supplant the Celtic festival of Samhain, the other side says there is no evidence for that.

Some pagans say that the ancient Roman festival of Feralia, which was celebrated in late October and commemorated the dead, and the Feast of Pomona, goddess of the orchards, are more likely candidates for the origins of Halloween than Samhain. At least we still do apple bobbing at Halloween.

At this time of year, when the plants are dying and the nights are getting dark cold, it is easy to believe that the veil between the worlds is thin and to see ghosts in the autumn mists and hear them sighing in the winds.

Most cultures have some sort of festival for the dead and this is often after the end of the harvest or during the late autumn or winter. Were our ancient ancestors oblivious to the ghostly energy around in late October?

It could be that the true origins of Halloween/Samhain are lost in history and will never be known for sure. October 31 is certainly as good a time as any for neopagans to honour those who have died and to try to contact the spirits of our ancestors for wisdom or comfort.

One thing I can predict is that arguments about the origins of Halloween will not be joining the ranks of the dead any time soon.



Catty said...

There is also Dia De Los Muertos, which I think is a wonderful festival. I couldn't find anything about celebrating it in the ex-pat community here, but I did find a shop that sells Catalinas! So I'm going to try celebrating it this year. Despite not being Mexican.

badwitch said...

I agree that is a fantastic festival!

Riverwolf, said...

I've been doing some research for a Samhain ritual and have encountered lots of contradictions, some of which you mention.

In the end, I've always loved this time of year and loved Halloween. I find I keep confronting tradition, which always changes, with some inner need to "get it right." So, I'll err on the side of just having fun and celebrating. The last thing I want or need is to get too literal!

badwitch said...

It is important to have fun! "All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals" (Charge of the Goddess).