Halloween, Monotheism, and the Pagan Vacuum

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 21, 2011 — 57 Comments

Amity Shlaes is worried. She’s worried about what the ever-growing popularity of Halloween might mean.

“…as much as we’d like it to be, Halloween isn’t secular. It is pagan. There’s nothing else to call a set of ceremonies in which people utter magical phrases, flirt with the night and evoke the dead. One of my family’s favorite Halloween props was a hand that moved, as though from the netherworld, when you reached to collect a few pieces of candy corn. Necromancy is a regular part of Halloween games. Zombie masks are one of this year’s top- sellers. As grouchy theologians used to point out, the origin of Halloween was most likely Samhain, an ancient Celtic holiday on which the dead, in some accounts, supposedly returned to visit.”

In her mind, this spooky “pagan” boom is caused by the retreat of monotheism.

“There’s a reason for the pull of the pagan. In the U.S., we’ve been vigorously scrubbing our schools and other public spaces of traces of monotheistic religion for many decades now. Such scrubbing leaves a vacuum. The great self-deception of modern life is that nothing will be pulled into that vacuum. Half a century ago, the psychologist Carl Jung noted the heightened interest in UFOs, and concluded that the paranormal was “modern myth,” a replacement for religion.

Children or adults who today relish every detail of zombie culture or know every bit of wizarding minutiae are seeking something to believe in. That church, mosque and synagogue are so controversial that everyone prefers the paranormal as neutral ground is disconcerting. There’s something unsettling about the education of a child who comfortably enumerates the rules for surviving zombie apocalypse but finds it uncomfortable to enumerate the rules of his grandparents’ faith, if he knows them.”

This exercise in pearls-clutching isn’t anything new to Shlaes, who seems to have a somewhat rosy view of Christianity’s cultural dominance, and a dismal one of its grudging retreat in the face of religious minorities, atheists, and the religiously unaffiliated daring to demand that our secular nation live up to its promise. As noted in my interview with historian Kevin M. Schultz, American pluralism has been a long, hard, struggle, and the largely nativist, protestant majority didn’t change quickly or without struggle. The rhetoric that pluralism and embracing a secular public square will do irreparable harm to our culture, and to Christian values, has been around since at least the early 20th century, perhaps earlier.

What I think it striking is that this isn’t even a “war on Christmas” piece, or a “the reason we celebrate Easter” editorial, avenues where a Christian might have some rhetorically firm ground to stand on. Instead, Shlaes attacks Halloween simply because it’s a symptom in her mind for the bigger problem of rampant secularism. It’s a piece of “bah humbug” that insults pre-Christian religion in a sideways fashion.

Here’s the thing, I do think Halloween is a secular holiday. I also think it happens to coincide with several religious holidays and festivals that have to do with death, ancestors, sacrifice, and confronting our mortality (along with a big party). Fete Gede for Vodou practitioners, Día de los Muertos for followers of Santeria and several indigenous religions in Mexico and Latin America, Samhain for many modern Pagans and Celtic Reconstructionists, and Velu Laiks (“the time of spirits”) for Baltic Pagans, among many, many others. In Catholicism, this time is celebrated with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, keeping with many of the same themes as the “Pagan” holidays (though some may say “appropriating”). In short the preoccupation on Halloween to “flirt with the night and evoke the dead” isn’t so much as “pagan” thing as a “human” thing. There’s a deep cultural default, far deeper than the veneer of Christianity, that draws us towards celebrating Halloween the way we do (no cultural vacuum required).

I don’t think that the current popularity of Halloween makes it more, or less, “pagan”. I think it’s an excuse to participate in a communal festival, to don masks, indulge in sweets, and forget about fiscal troubles for one night. I think its people doing what they’ve always done when the nights got longer and the days got shorter, make merry to help us through the darker days. Yes, I also think we’re heading into a post-Christian society, and that will change the way we look at different holiday observances, but editorials like these do nothing but create controversy where there is little to be found. For all the hand-wringing over Christianity not being drilled into every young head, the faith is still politically, numerically, and yes, culturally, dominates the United States (and much of the West). I find it insulting that because Halloween isn’t overtly Christian that somehow makes it something to worry over.

Also, and this is a personal opinion, but I think people who don’t love Halloween might have something wrong with them.

Jason Pitzl-Waters