Celebrating Superstition: Why Halloween is a Beautiful Thing
As opposed to I am to superstition and the like, you might wonder how I resolve my beliefs with my love for Halloween, a holiday ostensibly about superstition.  For a great read about a rational perspective on Halloween (as opposed to the types who burn Harry Potter books in church parking lots), see the following article which sums up one more reason why this is my favorite holiday and exactly why you should be giving out candy on Halloween night*.

(*If you aren't giving out candy at your own place, feel free to come over and give out some with us.  We'll have our costumes on and you'll get to see the yard decorated before it all gets pulled down the next day.)

The following article
by Aimee Romero appeared at the now-defunct Freethoughforum.org in 2006 and was published in American Atheist in 2007.  

Celebrating Superstition: Why Halloween is a Beautiful Thing
by Aimee Romero
Sunday, October 29, 2006

All Hallows Eve… a chilly autumn night set aside for children to dress up like ghouls and superheroes and take to the streets to gather goodies from generous neighbors.  It's a night for adults to recapture the imagination and silliness of childhood and dress up in tasteless and provocative outfits too thoroughly inappropriate for any other day of the year.  Jack o'lanterns, cobwebs, and candy corn (one of the few candies designated for consumption only once a year, other than those Easter-only marshmallowy chickens called “Peeps”) audio cassettes of screeching sounds and black lights shining down on inviting front porches… it's the exact same scene every 31st of October.  There's one religious holiday on the calendar that I truly enjoy, and that's Halloween.

The ancient, superstitious origins of Halloween date back thousands of years.  The History Channel shares a brief history of the autumn festival:

Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).

The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1.  This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.  Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.  On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.  In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future.  For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

By the 800s, Catholicism had spread throughout Europe, and Pope Boniface IV decided to replace the Celtic festival with a church-sanctioned holiday called “All Saints Day,” a time to honor dead saints and church martyrs.  Two centuries later, another Catholic holiday appeared called “All Souls Day,” a time to honor the dead with a celebration virtually identical to the traditional Samhain.  Nice try Pope, but apparently our ancestors liked their bonfires and costume parties just the way they were, and the custom survived the attempted cultural hijacking.  Not even the church could steal our favorite ghoulish event.

Over the years, Halloween has taken some interesting cultural spins like “Punkie Night” celebrated in Somerset, England, and Dia de Los Muertos celebrated in Mexico, which was originally an Aztec tradition that was co-opted by the Catholic Church (All Souls Day) and has since evolved into a Mexican version of Halloween.

Of course, despite Halloween's longevity and culturally-diverse appeal, not everyone's a fan of the festival of ghosts and goblins.  Some superstitious folks are dodgy about celebrating what they think is real “evil” and don't seem to get that the secular celebration of this ancient festival is just all in good fun.  Wikipedia has a bit about how some conservative religionists shy away from the party.

The majority of Christians ascribe no doctrinal significance to Halloween, treating it as a purely secular entity devoted to celebrating imaginary spooks and handing out candy.  The secular celebration of Halloween may loom larger in contemporary imagination than does All Saints Day.

The mingling of Christian and Pagan traditions in the development of Halloween, and its assumed preoccupation with evil and the supernatural, have left some modern Christians uncertain of how they should react towards the holiday.  Certain fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants, along with some Eastern Orthodox Christians as well as conservative Jews and Muslims, strongly object to the holiday and refuse to allow their children to participate, citing its pagan origins (and, in some cases, its Roman Catholic connections) as well as what they regard as its Satanic imagery.

It's too bad that those kids have to miss out, but it brings me back to my original point: why is Halloween such a wonderful religious holiday? The reason is simple: because we don't believe in it anymore.  We keep the tradition because it's beautiful.  We honor an ancient tribal people whose lives must have been so difficult and that which they didn't know so terrifying that the only answers they had were based on superstition.  Two millennia later, we know that evil spirits do not destroy crops.  We know now that ghosts of the dead do not terrorize us on this night because the moon appears to be the same size as the sun.  We know these myths were just a way for primitive people to better cope with the fact that there was so much about the universe that they didn't understand.  That's all religion has ever been: just made-up answers to the questions of the world.  Halloween really is a celebration of the human spirit; a recognition of our ancestry and our pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world around us.

The secularization of ancient religious holidays has already begun in many parts of the world.  We celebrate secular versions of holidays like Christmas and Easter just as we do Halloween, purely for our own childhood nostalgia, a sense of community and the beauty and imagination the festivities have sparked throughout history.  For freethinkers, the birth of a god from a virgin mother and a magical resurrection are given the same credence as the Celts' mischievous crop-goblins.  As we become a more and more freethinking world, eventually all religious holidays will be celebrated with this same humanist spirit, as a gentle tribute to a people who simply didn't know any better.

From everyone at Freethought Forum, have a safe and happy Halloween.  


Copyright 2006 Aimee Romero.