Monday, October 31, 2022

A Critical Examination of One Orthodox Christian Article on Halloween

A few weeks ago the Orthodox website published an article titled "Halloween: The Modern Version of Ancient Celtic Paganism". The article is in Greek (translated in English below; all endnotes numbered in this article are found in the original article) and was published in the ecclesiastical tri-monthly periodical Διάλογος (April-June 2017, issue 88). With the rise in popularity of Halloween in Greece, and all over the world for that matter, the author sought to set the record straight on what exactly Halloween is and what its origins are. Unfortunately, the author did a terrible job and presented a lot of misleading information. This is especially unfortunate that it is published in Orthodox Christian periodicals and is now online on an otherwise very good and beneficial website associated with Vatopaidi Monastery on Mount Athos.

Below I will offer a brief critical examination of this article and set the record straight on where it does not present the truth and falls into common misconceptions. Since what is presented here is often misunderstood by Orthodox Christians and they are mislead by the common misrepresentations presented in this article and others like it, I will make some corrections (in red) as I translate the article (in black).

In recent years, there has been a move to introduce into Greek society, holidays that come from Western countries and mainly holidays aimed at the youth. One of them is the Halloween celebration originating from the United States of America. According to the custom of the celebration, young children on the 31st of October dress up in costumes of witches, elves, demons and ghosts, visit houses in order to collect as many sweets as possible, an action known as "trick or treat" ("farsa ḗ kerasma" in Greek). Many associate this particular celebration with the Greek carnival, however this connection is incorrect.

- The author wants to present Halloween as a foreign holiday that has come to Greece from America. In this respect, the author is correct. Halloween as celebrated on October 31st in America is purely an American holiday in its secular form with a past that goes back to the early 20th century, though the elements that have come to form Halloween were also developed in the 19th century. These developments took place within American culture and are often out of place when transferred to other countries out of context.

- As for Halloween costumes, they can be pretty much anything, and certainly not limited to monsters, nor are they limited to something that is meant to invoke fear.

- Trick or treating is an American custom that began in the 1930's during the time of the Great Depression, to prevent gangs of youth from causing vandalism on Halloween, which was rampant at the time, and focus their attention on receiving a treat of good will from neighbors in exchange for them not ruining their property.

- It is true that the Greek carnival and Halloween are very different, but they are also very similar, such as the custom of wearing costumes. The Greek carnival takes place during Meatfare Week before Great Lent, and is more focused on revelry only for the sake of revelry before the solemn fasting period of Great Lent, while Halloween is customarily not so much about revelry but it has more of a festive and contemplative character that is closely connected with the Roman Catholic feast of All Saints (November 1) and the commemoration of the dead on All Souls Day (November 2).

Many researchers believe that this festival comes from the Roman festival in honor of the goddess Pomona, who was considered the goddess of fruit and the harvest,[1] while others believe it comes from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (or Samuin)[2], which marked the end of summer and celebrated on the 1st of November,[3] a version that is also the most likely. The Celts inhabited what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. For the Celts the day of October 31, where they celebrated the Samhain festival, marked the end of the fruit harvest and the beginning of winter. However, this day was believed to have a supernatural character as it was believed that then the borders of the underworld and the world of the living were abolished and that the spirits of the dead and spirits of darkness came from the underworld to the earth.[4]

- The fact that there are researchers who are divided as to its origins proves that there is no clear evidence of any ancient origin for Halloween. The fact of the matter is that there is absolutely no association between Halloween and any pagan celebration, neither of the Romans nor of the Celts. There is no evidence that Halloween goes back even before the 19th century, as far as the folk customs associated with it are concerned, and those customs mainly came from the Scottish, English, French and Irish Catholics. As a Roman Catholic festival, however, we do know that Pope Gregory IV (827-844) officially declared November 1 the feast of All Saints, which was primarily focused on the Christian martyrs, transferring it from May 13. This is when the Papacy was still in communion with the Orthodox Church. In 998, Saint Odilo, the abbot of the Monastery of Cluny in Southern France, added a celebration on November 2, which was a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe. Thus, Halloween as a religious feast begins after the tenth century, though the folk customs we associate with Halloween today primarily have their origins in early 20th century America. We can safely say, therefore, that by celebrating Halloween, you are more unwittingly celebrating the martyrs of early Christianity than the pagan rituals that pre-date Christianity.

- As far as Celtic Samhain is concerned, there are no ancient writings that describe what this festival was and what took place during it. The earliest recordings we have about it are from folk tales in the 9th century A.D., which cannot be trusted for historical accuracy and is likely influenced by Christian interpretations of ancient pagan celebrations.

- The spiritual aspects of Halloween, primarily dealing with ghosts and occult games, have their origins in the Spiritualist movement of mid-19th century America, which especially increased in popularity after the Civil War in the late 1860's, when the loved ones of the deceased sought to communicate with their dead husbands and sons that died in the war. Spiritualist games and practices, like seances and seeking out mediums and playing with a Ouija board, became popular during Halloween parties with adults in early 20th century America, and were combined with the focus on the spirits of the dead of the Christian feast of All Souls Day. Even noted Orthodox Christians toyed with Spiritualist games and practices in the 19th and early 20th century, such as Dostoevsky.

The ceremonies of the Samhain festival were performed by the priests of the Celts, called Druids. The Druids also presided over the sacrifices held for this celebration.[5] Many scholars argue that the sacrifices that were performed were not only animal sacrifices, but also human sacrifices. Human sacrifices were not unknown in the religious worship of the Celts. Information about them is given by Roman authors, such as Cicero, Julius Caesar, Suetonius and Lucian. Pliny the Younger mentions that human sacrifices were also carried out in Britain. Despite the fact that human sacrifices were formally prohibited under the emperors Tiberius (14-16 to 37 AD) and Claudius (45-54 AD) and by Saint Patrick in Ireland[6] it is not certain that these were actually abolished. The fact that Roman emperors tried to abolish the celebration of Samhain is perhaps connected to the performance of human sacrifices, which the emperors did not accept as a way of worshiping deities. It is known that the Romans were tolerant of the worship of the local deities of the peoples included in their empire, but it seems that human sacrifices exceeded the limits of their tolerance.

- Nothing in this paragraph is verifiable by evidence, and should not be reflective of real ancient Celtic practices. It is true that the Romans reported on the British and Celts performing human sacrifices, but these reports were not the result of something they witnessed, as they had never visited those lands nor do they quote anyone who did, instead they were part of war propaganda issued by Roman authors and leaders in order to rile up support for the campaigns of the Romans against their enemies to the north. Propaganda during times of war against enemies is still done today, and should not be trusted without verification.

- There is no historical or archaeological evidence that Samhain is associated with human sacrifice. This is a fairly modern theory with no real basis. Even the belief that Saint Patrick abolished human sacrifices has no real historical basis and more a part of legend, like abolishing snakes from Ireland or the theology of the three-leafed clover.

After the spread of Christianity, the celebration of Samhain took on a Christian character and was associated with the celebration of All Saints (which was celebrated on May 13, but was moved to November 1 to eliminate its pagan character). From the feast of All Saints, the feast of Samhain received the current name of Halloween, i.e. All Hallows Eve. Today, according to Halloween fans it is a celebration of joy and disguises with merry parades and treats for children and adults.

- There is no evidence the festival of Samhain was transformed to All Saints Day. Pope Boniface IV (550-615) consecrated the Pantheon in Rome, a pagan temple for all Roman gods, into the Church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs in May of 609 or 610. This is how All Saints Day came to be celebrated in the West on May 13. Pope Gregory III (731-741) dedicated an oratory in the original Saint Peter’s Basilica in honor of all the Saints on November 1, and this date then became the official date for the celebration of the feast of All Saints in Rome. Saint Bede (d. 735) recorded the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1 in England, and such a celebration also existed in Salzburg, Austria. Ado of Vienne (d. 875) recounted how Pope Gregory IV asked King Louis the Pious (778-840) to proclaim November 1 as All Saints Day throughout the Frankish Empire (Holy Roman Empire). According to an early Church historian, John Beleth (d. 1165), Pope Gregory IV (827-844) officially declared November 1 the feast of All Saints, transferring it from May 13.  However, Sicard of Cremona (d. 1215) recorded that Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) finally suppressed May 13 and mandated November 1 as the date to celebrate the feast of All Saints. In all, we find the Church establishing a liturgical feast day in honor of the Saints independent of any pagan influence.

Despite what supporters of the holiday say, Halloween has never ceased to be associated with supernatural activity and magic, and despite its ostensibly Christian character today, it has never really shed its pagan roots.[7] Satanist Anton Lavey in his Satanic book ranks Halloween as one of the two most important holidays in the Satanic calendar,[8] while the holiday is included in the calendar followed by witches (Wicca).[9] The celebration is held today both by Satanists and witches (in honor of Mother Earth),[10] but also by modern pagans.[11]

- The Satanic Bible is a collection of essays, observations, and rituals published by Anton LaVey in 1969. The satanism founded by Anton LaVey does not believe in the supernatural, God or Satan, instead it is an existential philosophy based on atheism, which LaVey called "Satanism" in order to offend fundamentalist Christians, which he was raised as and turned away from when he would continuously see the hypocrisy of Christians displayed before his eyes. As a mockery to Christianity, he established a Black Mass, which is nothing but a mockery of the Catholic Mass (should we then consider the liturgy satanic?). He also established standard American holidays as satanic holidays, among them Halloween, because at the time it was being called by fundamentalist Christians a satanic and pagan holiday, and therefore LaVey adopted it for this reason alone. Satanists therefore hijacked Halloween away from Christians because of a fundamentalist Christian belief that it is pagan and satanic.

- Wicca was developed in England during the first half of the 20th century and was introduced to the public in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant. Wicca draws upon a diverse set of ancient pagan and 20th-century hermetic motifs for its theological structure and ritual practices. There is no association between Wicca and ancient paganism, but it is an interpretation of ancient paganism for today's world, and since Halloween is commonly associated with paganism by fundamentalist Christians, Wiccans adopted this as well. Wiccans therefore hijacked Halloween away from fundamentalist Christians because of a fundamentalist belief that it is pagan with ancient ceremonies.

- If fundamentalist Christians beginning in the 1960's had never falsely given Halloween pagan and satanic origins and associations, it likely would never have been adopted by modern pagans, wiccans and satanists the way it has.

According to many reports, satanic rituals and animal sacrifices take place during the night of October 31st. It is typical that in the USA animal welfare organizations stop giving up black cats on the eve of the holiday and until November 2nd for adoption "fearing cruelty to felines, which usually becomes the focus at this time of year",[12] while others ban the adoption of black cats throughout October.[13] According to columnist Rachel Quigley, the animal welfare organization "Animal Orphanage" reports that many people sacrifice black cats on the day of Halloween.[14] Halloween fans claim that animal sacrifices are a myth, but if that's the case, why do animal welfare organizations ban the adoption of black cats or call on cat owners to take care of their animals during this time?

- There is extremely little evidence of satanic rituals with animal sacrifices taking place on October 31. This is mostly due to teenagers dabbling in what they think are satanic rituals, and by no means organized by any satanic group.

The superstitious mythology of black cats has led to the unfortunate situation where it is thought that cats are sacrificed at this time of year in satanic rituals. This is not true. That animal shelter policy has been influenced by a widespread belief in satanic cat-sacrificing rituals at Halloween is beyond dispute; the issue here is whether such activity is really as prevalent as the belief in it is. The evidence seems to be more anecdotal than anything.

Dr. Leslie Sinclair, a veterinarian who is director of companion animal care for the Humane Society of the United States, has said that tales of widespread animal torture on Halloween might be more legend than real. She said that society officials employed a clipping service to survey news accounts of feline carnage surrounding Halloween 1996 — and found nothing.

Michael F. Ryan — an investigator with the Baltimore state's attorney's office who has advised police departments on the practices of devil worshipers — said no one should fear that black cats are about to be singled out for satanic sacrifice. "It's no more significant than a white dog, a brown dog or a polka-dotted kangaroo," he said. "The more attention people give to this myth, it just helps to ride along on a wave that takes on a life of its own. It's just not there." also investigated this claim, and found the following:

"Although no law enforcement agency or animal protection group we contacted could provide statistics about Halloween-related animal killings or abuse, the consensus is that although incidents of animal abuse may rise slightly around Halloween, it's a year-around problem, and it has far more to do with poorly-behaved kids than with organized 'satanic cults'."

"Far too often, the animals are tortured and sacrificed during pseudo satanic-based rituals. But not by the real religious satanic groups," Lillian Dubois-Tercero, president and executive director of Arizona Pet Line stressed. "They don't sacrifice cats and dogs. It's the idiot juveniles (who are) responsible who don't know what they're doing."

Kim Hicks, spokesperson for the Arizona Humane Society, agreed that it's not religious groups such as the Wiccans that are stealing and killing animals. "Wiccans are actually an anti-cruelty (to animals) group who hold animals in a higher regard than they do humans," she said. "I think it's more like the people who dabble in the occult who are dangerous, and my guess would be it's troubled teenagers."

Do "satanic rites" really pose a threat to cats at Halloween, or is it largely a self-perpetuating Halloween myth? There is no evidence to justify this claim. Certainly, though, shelters being extra-careful with feline adoptions just before Halloween to prevent the "renting" of cats for decorative purposes is a prudent precaution. Renting a cat for Halloween only to discard the cat after is a cruel practice. If Halloween policies at pet adoption centers help dissuade those who might inflict harm on adopted pets, so much the better, but anecdotal stories should be taken with a grain of salt at best.

Regarding the argument that the Halloween celebration is today only a celebration of merriment, song and disguises and has lost its old pagan character, what about the fact that it is celebrated by Satanists, but also by witches (Wicca), which even on their websites give instructions on how to celebrate (building an altar,[15] decorating the altar with skulls, bones, fruits[16] etc.)?

- Satanists and Wiccans also say that everything associated with Christmas, including the date of Christmas itself, has pagan origins. They say the same about Easter. If Christians will allow satanists and wiccans to control every narrative they wish to control, then the truth will never be established and falsehood will perpetuate. This is a defeatist attitude that is more ruled by fear than anything else. Halloween does not require one to practice satanic or wiccan rituals. Halloween can be whatever one wishes it to be.

The celebration of Halloween, as it is celebrated today in several countries of the Western world, is not as innocent as its devotees try to prove. Halloween highlights pagan views about the world and the relationship of spirits with it and is an attempt to familiarize young children with the magical element.[17] This celebration gives the impression to its followers that it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the underworld,[18] while it can be an opportunity for joining with groups of witches (Wicca)[19] who want to deal particularly with it.

- Again, the author, believing that modern satanists and wiccans have anything to do with ancient pagans, which they don't, also believes they inherited ancient practices for Halloween, which they didn't. Anything these groups do associated with Halloween originated within the lifetime of your parents and grandparents. You don't have to believe what an atheist or satanist or pagan or wiccan believes in order to celebrate Halloween. Most horror stories, for example, have more of a Christian element than a pagan element. Evil is rarely celebrated even on Halloween, and when it is celebrated it is done usually within the confines of how certain individuals choose to do so and is in no way a mandatory element of Halloween. As with all things, a Christian should follow their conscience and common sense on Halloween just as they do every other day of the year without compromising their beliefs.

For the above reasons, it would be good for Christians to be particularly careful with their participation or the participation of their children in this celebration, which in recent years has been attempted to be introduced into primary education, bearing in mind that Halloween is a modern version of ancient Celtic paganism, which of course is incompatible with the Orthodox Christian faith.

- It is agreeable that care should be taken on Halloween by Christians regarding how they participate in it, but it is certainly not a pagan celebration they are participating in unless they choose to do so, nor is it incompatible with the Orthodox Christian faith unless they choose to make it be so.

Halloween and horror in general is not a celebration of evil or darkness, but a mockery of irrational fears that were bred by superstitions and myths. Yet we live in a strange and mysterious world and death is a reality, and this is not something we should run from but embrace it for what it is. It is only in the darkness where light shines brightest. Sin and evil in the tales of Halloween are usually not celebrated but instead they are the objects of judgment and condemnation, and certainly always ugly and undesirable. The scariest part of Halloween I find to be fundamentalist Christians decrying Halloween and those who choose to participate in it as evil based on false misconceptions. Halloween may not be for everyone, just like Christmas shopping and eating an Easter lamb or Thanksgiving turkey may not be for everyone, but personal tastes should not be viewed as objective values that are to be imposed on all. When examining the truth about Halloween, Christians will find there is little in it that is actually inappropriate, and whatever may be inappropriate is not mandatory to its celebration. This goes for most things living in a secular society.
For more on this topic, see my Halloween Resource Page.