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Halloween, Christmas and Ritual

November 3, 2009

Don’t you hate it when a good story passes you by? This happened to me the other day when Kimberly Daniels wrote an article on The Danger of Celebrating Halloween. Unfortunately, the article can only be found in a Google cache at this point, after having generated over a thousand comments of scorn on such sites as the Huffington Post.

While I could let the (un)dead bury the dead, I really feel that this article should be addressed. However, it’s not the highly tendentious particulars of Daniels’ argument that deserves attention as much as her general thrust.

For example, she states:

Decorating buildings with Halloween scenes, dressing up for parties, going door-to-door for candy, standing around bonfires and highlighting pumpkin patches are all acts rooted in entertaining familiar spirits.

While one could argue the validity of these claims, the bigger issue is that the supposed etymologies of these activities are given pride of place over how they are actually used in the holiday. What matters is not what people intend by their observance as much as the historical roots of their activity.

However, if we turn this around, wouldn’t the same hold for that most cherished of Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter? If someone is celebrating these holidays, won’t their inherent crypto-Christian behavior rub off on the participants the same way that Daniels holds for Halloween?

Obviously, some folks will hold that this augment fails because Easter might be related to a poorly attested pagan spring festival and Christmas is mistakenly aligned to Saturnalia. The links for both of these are quite tenuous. The former is attested only in Bede’s discussion of Ēostur-monath in De Temporum Ratione. The latter runs into numerous problems when one actually compares the 3-5 day festival (from Dec 17-23) with Christmas. In short, the argument is mostly bogus.

Likewise, Daniels’ contention that the origins of a rite dictate is also bogus. An ardent Christian celebrating Halloween is in no more danger of crypto-Paganism than a secular atheist celebrating Christmas is of crypto-Christianity.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. coffeezombie permalink
    November 3, 2009 11:00 pm

    Wow, okay, I could only read a couple paragraphs or so of that article.

    So, I’m curious if you have any idea what the deal with Halloween *is*. It seems like I’ve come across various “origin stories” of Halloween, many of which indicate that it was a Pagan holiday (Samhain or whatever) in which the dead were believed to return to Earth and so on which was later Christianized by moving All Saint’s Day to that date. Other things I’ve come across say that it was the Christianization of the Pagan holiday, but said “dead returning to Earth” elements were not actually part of the Pagan holiday. Finally, I’ve seen one or two things that say the Pagan holiday links are bogus, that it *began* with the Roman Church setting All Saint’s Day on Nov 1 and things went from there.

    So…while I know it’s probably not exactly your area, I thought I might as well ask if you had any ideas here.

    • November 4, 2009 9:41 am

      I’ve seen much of the same contradictory evidence that you have. Going way back, to my own area of study, the Mesopotamian fall month of Abu was seen as a time when the barrier between our world and that of the dead thinned. Babylonian priests (often mistakenly translated as “magicians”) would use this time of year to trap spirits of dead witches who might be hurting the living. So there you have harvest, witches, magic and the dead.

      However, from a ritual standpoint, I’m not sure that any of it really matters. The etymology or origins of the rituals matter less than how they are being used.

      Think of it this way: the phrase “good bye” originated as a parting blessing “God be with you.” When some one says “good bye” at the end of a conversation today, we don’t think that this is in someway an active blessing upon folks (if so, old AOL users should have be mightily blessed).

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