Guest Post: The Marginalization of Halloween

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 8, 2011 — 48 Comments

[ Sharon Knight is a musician and artist exploring the fantastical, mythic, epic, and archetypal. She is passionate about the arts as a vehicle to bring us into ever deepening awareness of the mystery and magick all around us. She is fond of preserving folk traditions and bringing new life to them with modern interpretations. She performs as a solo artist/duet with partner Winter, and as a front person for gothic-tribal-folk-metal band Pandemonaeon. She can be found at http://www.sharonknight.net and http://www.pandemonaeon.net.]

The other day I was part of a discussion online regarding the further marginalization of Halloween. The tone of the discussion was one of sadness that we are losing ground on preserving the one mainstream holiday that seems most in keeping with Pagan traditions. We have fought so hard to shed light on the true origins of Halloween and still we are faced with those who would whitewash it even further, stripping it of any meaning and making it no more that another excuse for mindless recreation.

It was this article that initiated the discussion, in the Rockford Spirituality section of the Examiner. (East Coast based).

The article cites examples such as Life Church in Roscoe, IL, which holds an annual Harvest Festival on Halloween Night, complete with Christian music, carnival rides, games, free candy, and guest lecturers inviting you to begin your spiritual journey with the church.

Other examples are date changes for Halloween, both proposed and already in effect, and trick or treating during daylight hours. The writer of the article fears this “blatantly demeans the already unstable recognition that the growing neopagan population struggles for.”

Do I share in the sadness expressed by my Pagan kin over this?

The short answer is no. While I can understand the sentiment that changing the dates of Halloween is demeaning to the recognition of Halloween as a sacred tradition, Halloween and Samhain have never really felt like the same thing to me. Admittedly, I have found it heartening that any remnants at all of a pagan custom have survived in the mainstream culture, but ultimately candy and costumes without any of the accompanying lore misses the mark.

For those seeking mindless entertainment, Halloween as celebrated by the masses will always be there for them, and it doesn’t really matter what day it’s on or what groups are trying to diminish its meaning further. Let them have the candy, crass commercialism, and general spectacle. These were never the folks that Samhain was meant for anyway.

I am not worried about losing our customs because there are still many people in this world seeking more meaning in their lives, not less. There comes a time when we realize the preciousness of life and no longer want to be distracted, but engaged. This is the sort of mindset that raised our Pagan traditions from the rubble of forgotten history and into a living tradition, and from what I see everywhere, this yearning for meaning is growing, not diminishing.

So take heart friends. This is nothing more than business as usual. Christians have been whitewashing our holidays for 2,000 years and still our traditions survive.

Lest I seem to be taking a situation lightly that is dear to some, let me say this – it is nice to feel that mainstream society is contributing to the overall flavor of a holiday that is sacred to us, if only in small things such as décor. It is fun to see our communities decked out with ghosts and goblins and various things that remind us that the veils are thinning. If we are saddened by these things diminishing, perhaps it is time to get involved. Host an “All Hallows Eve Festival” in your community. Why let the Christians have all the redefining fun? Have the proceeds benefit the community at large to gain visibility among non-Pagans. If Halloween is to be scheduled for the first Saturday of the month, celebrate all month, starting with Halloween and commencing with Samhain. If others are taking actions that diminish something dear to us, we must then take actions that emphasizes what is dear to us. We can’t change others’ behavior but we can put our own views out in to the world as well. As Scoop Nitzger used to say, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own”.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://marilwyd.blogspot.com aliguana

    The old end-of-year festival lasted three days anyway. “Celebrate” halloween with the kids and the candy, then celebrate Samhain the day after. Or the day before. Not sure our ancestors had this obsession with down-to-the-minute timekeeping anyway :)

    • Anonymous

      Actually our Ancestors Celebrated Samhain by it’s Astrological time, when the sun reaches 15 degrees in Scorpio. it wasn’t until later that it was actually assigned a “date” which is inaccurate at best.

      • Robert Mathiesen

        You may be right, but I’d like to see some hard historical evidence for this, myself. Can you point me toward some?

        • Anonymous

          Well, the fact that they didn’t have calendars and most of the ancient monuments were lined up with significant astronomical events leads to the precedent of their “High Holy Days” being based upon the Sun position.
          The actual Sun positions can be found here…
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel_of_the_Year

      • Chris Vermeers

        If the Coligny calendar has been interpreted correctly (and since it can be compared to other calendars used by other Indo-European peoples it would seem that it probably has been), it seems likely that the date was based on lunar phases nearest to that time of year, not on solar positions.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=596583366 Lee ‘Spikey’ Nethersole

        Actually, No! Our ancestors celebrated Samhain at the end of their harvest and the beggining of Winter (that being the time when they were out of the feilds and focussed on stored produce). The astrological or calendar fixed dys are relatively modern and would not have been recogniosed or used by rural communities. The passage of (the wheel of) the year was marked in different ways depending on geography and natural phenomenon such as the appearance of certain flowers for Beltaine and having gotten all the produce sorted for Samhain.

      • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

        This year, that was yesterday, Nov. 7th. Others of my ancestors celebrated on the Full Moon, Nov. 7th.

      • Morningdove3202

        Some Celtic Reconstructionists, according to the CR FAQ celebrate it around the time of the First Frost, whenever that is for your location.

  • Anonymous

    Samhein is my religious holiday. I don’t expect or want secular society to recognize it or get involved in it. Halloween is a secular holiday. I enjoy it. My neighborhood goes all out w decorations, kids in costume, candy for the kids, adult beverages for their parents, etc. I love seeing my neighbors! Worrying about the “secularization” of Halloween is like the Christians bemoaning the “war” on Christmas.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      “Worrying about the “secularization” of Halloween is like the Christians bemoaning the “war” on Christmas.”

      Even less so. No one is substituting “Happy Harvest Tides” for “Happy Halloween.”

      • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

        Admittedly, this is just me, but personally Halloween is really the closest thing to a holiday I celebrate. That may sound bad coming from an Asatruar, but still. And I don’t even mind the commercialization. I actually like it. It helps make it bigger and flashier, and even a little bit scarier. The Christmas analogy is actually really close, because Christmas is about coming together with family, but most people are disappointed at the end because of various reasons, but I’ve rarely seen or heard a family that came together to go trick or treating or throwing a Halloween party leave disappointed.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          By all means, follow your bliss.

        • Lonespark

          I love Halloween, for many similar reasons.

  • Bellatrix S.

    For our pagan family, sept 30 until Nov 15 is our own hallowed month. W call it….ahem…”Official Intergalctic Witch Doctor Apprectiation Month”. W celebrate all month long because there are so many great festivals this time of year. My sister is a catholic witch and I staunch Strega, so we have many reasons to celebrate. We celebrate the whole season through various gift exchanges, but the gift must be spooky in nature. We spend the month gathering and crafting. Not just magically but also making salves, Lip balms, clothing, accessories. We “dress up” all month because the whole season is worth celebrating. Between ShadowFest, Samhain, Halloween, All hallows day, all souls and all saints day, and Dia de Los Muertos (we live in New Mexico). Our whole city celebrates fiercely. The commercial aspect of Halloween do make it easier to decorate and participate with mainstream folk without freaking them out that we are magical beings. It is important to celebrate in any way. I agree, Jason, that it is wonderful to have such a pagan celebration available for the masses. A long as we all keep the Halloween spirit alive, no xian or otherwise ever mistake Halloween for anything other than pagan. It is our chance to jump on board with mainstream for once and declare this our time of the modern calendar. The veil is thinnest now and we should use this energy to blur the boundaries between “us” and “them”. We must see this a stride. I like the comparison that Hecate made about Xmas. If e want to fundamentalist pagans and demand only magikally correct brooms and costumes, let’s soda ShadowFest or Samhain outreach, in addition to the well loved customs of Halloween. If we have contributed to American Secular Society” with Halloween so be it, we have made a pagan mark on an otherwise Xian calendar, and of that I am glad. So have fun celebrating Official Intergalactic Witch Doctor Appreciation Month!

  • Bellatrix S.

    Mea Culpa…for the double post, but I reread my post and I meant to say “let’s see ShadowFest or Samhain outreach” not “soda”.

  • Kilmrnock

    We separate the secular and relious aspects of Halloween/Samhain too. In the early evening comes the candy , treaters , then later the Samhain home rituals . Then the following weekend my grove meets for our serious , powerful Samhain ritual , more in line w/ the astrological date for our holiday. Granted we reveled in between but our ritual was wonderful and long , about 6 hrs this past sat. evening . Kilm

    • Crystal Kendrick

      Wow, I would love a 6 hour long ritual. That’s great. I’m envious.

  • Claire-Marie Le Normand

    Great post, Sharon. I really like the idea of separating Halloween from Samhain. Halloween is fun and fancy dress and candy. Samhain is a melancholy holiday for me. I have a “But I am not resigned” approach to death. I don’t make myself jolly with visions of reunion after death. Regardless of what awaits us on The Other Side it’s f’ing sad when a friend dies and grief is real and must be borne. Just as well that mainstream culture has a holiday to enjoy, and we witches offer another holiday that is also healing, but in another way.

  • Kilmrnock

    And to add another point , as long as we keep our sacred holiday , it won’t die .

  • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    I’d noticed this trend while doing the Pagan news feed on Magickal Media, what’s been called the “war on Halloween”, how several agencies and religious groups are trying to marginalize the holiday and its meaning. Yet I’ve also noticed more acceptance in the mainstream, more realism about the origins of Halloween, more historical references. A lot of this latter was thanks to “The History Channel” and its documentary about the History of Halloween. This program was quoted by major newspapers all over the world. There were many positive articles about Witches and Witchcraft, as well as Wicca, Paganism, and polytheism in the mainstream press this past season. Am thinking that the more acceptance we gain, the more fear experienced by the fundamentalists, and more they’re lashing out. But can they really cause us major harm? Currently, I’m doubtful. Most editorials, blogs, and articles were stating a wish to keep Halloween the way it is, and let us Pagans alone.

  • Justin Patrick Moore

    I just bought the excellent book “Haunted Air” compiled by Ossian Brown of Coil & now Cyclobe… with a forward by David Lynch. It is a collection of American Hallow’een photographs from circa 1875-1955. What I love about these older images of people celebrating the holiday is how their imaginations weren’t so influenced by media & movie images. I highly recommend the book. And as Sharon says it is up to us to revive the primal aspects of the Holiday…

    …but if you go to the Southwest of America or into Mexico and South America The Day of the Dead is still going strong.

    On another note I do feel indiscriminate partying around this time could be problematic on magickal/spiritual level. If your drunk or wasted on drugs it might be easier to pick up hitchikers, i.e., spirits of the dead who have the same cravings. This isn’t healthy. I’m no straight edge though, and think hedonism can be healthy… just something I’ve thought about during this season.

    And whatever the astrological timing of Hallow’een (I feel it would be on the Full Moon closest to the end of October or in early November, such as this years Nov. 10 Full Moon) the ancient pagans surely weren’t following either the Gregorian or Julian calendars. …

    • http://twitter.com/lunamoth42 Luna

      You had me at “David Lynch”! :D
      Thanks for the tip on the book. I’m very curious about this collection of images. :)

  • Charles Cosimano

    “In the soul of every Puritan is the haunting fear that someone somewhere might be happy.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/Christopher.Blackwell1945 Christopher Blackwell

      Charles, Remember if it is fun, it must be sinful. Having any kind of fun is considered sinful by some. So sin freely

    • Lonespark

      Yeah, and puritans have been losing the War on Halloween ever since the Puritans were in charge around here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Christopher.Blackwell1945 Christopher Blackwell

    I think Pagans have almost as much trouble separating Halloween from Samhain as the Christians do.I am sorry but despite the misinformation from folklorists, Trick or Treating with candy and costumes was invented by none other than the Boy Scouts of America, because before that vandalization was probably most what people thought of with Halloween, knocked over out houses, buggies and later auto disassembled and put on top of buildings, and during the depression ti was getting pretty bad.So the Boy Scouts hardly a Pagan group invented this idea of kids going from house to house asking for and getting candy. The only part of the Halloween celebration that the Irish brought was home parties and bobbing for apples. And that would most likely have only been done by the middle class as were Christmas parties. Meanwhile the harvest traditions had faded, as had remembering the dead, which were the most important part of the Pagan holy day. Here in America the State or County fair is probably the most common harvest festival in America.

    • http://godsrbored.blogspot.com anne johnson

      “Trick or Treat” is indeed a newer Halloween tradition in America, but in the British Isles, “Mummers” went from door to door at Samhain, dressed in costumes. Now they do it on the Julian New Year. I should know. I mum.

    • Anonymous

      Ah, yes, Mama told me about tipping over outhouses and reassembling a haywagon on top of a barn (Mom was born in 1925). Also wrapping a roadapple in newspaper (Google it if you don’t get one reference or the other), leaving it on a doorstep, setting it on fire, ringing the doorbell, and running away. FamTrad these days can get you in trouble — but, well, it did back in the good old days, too.

  • http://profiles.google.com/sihaya09 Christina Allen Page

    Excellent post. I see Halloween & Samhain as separate as well. I celebrate Samhain religiously and Halloween secularly. The fact that they both occur in the same timeframe and share some imagery makes me happy– it basically means that I can celebrate an entire season instead of just a day.

    As a Pagan, I do not evangelize, and I have no need that the mainstream culture even acknowledge my religious tradition so long as it does not seek to prevent me from practicing as I see fit. The facts will always be there for those who look for them. I would, of course, correct misinformation when see it, but other than that, it makes no difference to me how the world at large celebrates Halloween.

  • Morningdove3202

    Halloween and Samhain don’t feel like the same holiday to me either. That said I celebrate both. A group of Pagans, myself included, at my UU fellowship helped our minister lead a Samhaine service where we honored our Ancestors. We also had the kids Trick or Treat for UNICEF, a charity that helps kids with medical and educational needs all over the world. By making the holiday more about respecting our beloved dead, our cultural heroes, and by helping children, we bring together our past and our future into a less commercialized, more meaningful holiday. I welcome everyone here to find a UU congregation and help preserve both Halloween and Samhaine while creating something more spiritually fulfilling from it. We don’t have to participate in the orgy of candy, and the gore of Hollywood.

  • Morningdove3202

    About the “War on Halloween”….I’m not sure it’s a war as so much of an organized intent to ignore Halloween. In my very conservative area, many people don’t give out candy, and don’t let their kids celebrate it, and the schools don’t let the kids wear costumes to school. And if halloween falls on a sunday, the town has a drama fest, trying to reschedule it for another day. So, if by war, you mean intentional non participation, I do worry trick or treating could die out due to lack of candy passer-outers. I’d rather have “Tract or Treat” than zero participation in Halloween at all. I’ll put all those 10 Commandments pencils to good use writing Pagan rituals….LOL

  • kenneth

    I just don’t see much of a real threat from Christians on this count. Their efforts to marginalize our traditions may be more strident than they have been in centuries, but that’s because they’re clearly having less and less success doing so. Even if they COULD diminish Halloween in some way, it’s not really “our” holiday, nor does our ability to thrive depend on the popular culture recognizing it as such. In reality, I see Halloween holding up quite well. It is arguably the most popular holiday of the year in this country and whether they move it to this day or that, people still think of it as a fall/harvest festival and one with paganish origin.

  • http://twitter.com/Will_Dees Will Dees

    I always laugh when Christian churches hold “harvest festivals” as an alternative to Halloween, because celebrating a “harvest festival” is an incredibly pagan thing to do.

    • BlackCat

      My little sister had Monday and Tuesday off, and the school called it “Harvest Festival Break.” I laughed – because harvest festivals are so much more secular than Halloween right?

    • Anonymous

      And the word “Hallowe’en” is in fact an inherently Christian name for the holiday. They’ve got is bass ackward.

    • Rombald

      What gets harvested as late as Halloween?

      In England, churches and rural schools do celebrate Harvest Festival, but it’s in late September, for the wheat and barley harvest. I always thought it odd, because the farming round where I grew up was mainly sheep and dairy, and the hay harvest, the only one with which I had personal contact, was in June and July.

      • Lonespark

        Souls?
        Apples, some places?

      • Mia

        I live in Chicago, and that’s about when the corn gets harvested, as well as the last of the seasonal vegetables. This year, because of the unusual extension of the season, the major harvest didn’t actually occur until mid-November.

      • Crystal Kendrick

        Root vegetables, squash, and persimmons in my neck of the woods. Oh- and figs are just now ripening though they’re not a particularly popular fruit here.

      • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

        As Crystal says, also field corn here.

        In some locales and traditions, there are four harvest festivals, starting with Summer Solstice — first fruits. The berries are ripe here in MI then, as is hay.

        The biggie in the Celtic lands was Lughnassadh / Lammas / Harvest Home.

    • Jack Heron

      Christians do harvest crops as well, to be fair. It’s not like paganism has a monopoly on agriculture.

  • Lori F – MN

    [SIGH] Just saw my first christmas commercial. Hershey Kisses.
    Back on topic… There are some christians who hand out chick tracks. Maybe we could come up with something similar to educate people about the history behind Halloween. Maybe, Trick Tracks.
    We could start with correcting the errors about Samhain.

  • Ywendragoneye

    Our Circle holds our Samhain ritual on Halloween each year. For us, the energy feels right on that night. Whether Christians like it or not, the origin of the Catholic Hallows Eve is the Pagan Samhain. Our holidays endure rather than being eliminated entirely (however hard they might have tried). We put out a setting at the feast table for the ancestors, and include them in our celebration. I like to think of the trick-or-treaters as the ancestors coming to each home to gather their portion of the harvest. So many of us Pagans resent the Christianization of our holidays – I am grateful that so many of our traditions are still kept and celebrated – even if the Christians don’t know it. The more they try to change it, the more it stays the same. After 2000 years of trying to elilminate us, we’re still here and they celebrate our holidays. The Old Ones will not be denied.

    • Anonymous

      I like your thinking of the ancestors coming home to gather their portion. Thank you.

      We are humans, after all, and we will make the holidays and celebrations we need — and change them as the need changes — no matter what institutions of religion or government or commerce tell us.

      Blessed be the great diversity of One and All!

  • Obsidia

    In our part of the world, hunting is going on at this time of the yearly cycle. We are reminded, in many ways, that Death serves Life in so many ways. This is also the time to cull the herd, and to preserve the meat for the winter months. The Scorpionic energies are strong. The last of the harvesting (especially the nuts and last apples) are finished, and what is left is for the spirits (and animals) to finish. It’s true that the culture is changing, but the more we honor Nature, the more we honor the cycles that Nature chooses…

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      This is the story I was told, that Samhain is the time of culling which livestock will be slaughtered and which allowed to overwinter indoors with the family.

  • Vivienne Moss

    Well said Jason. I feel the same way. halloween and Samahin are not the same to me. Halloween is a fun time spent with my girls Trick or Treating. Samhain is a blessed Holy Day spent with the Spirits of loved ones.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    In traditional Gaeldom, Samhain, itself, doesn’t necessarily end until the mid-winter solstice; Samhain is called Samhain-tide.