Why is our observance of Halloween growing? Everywhere I look I’m seeing ghosts and other symbols of death on people’s lawns, on television, in stores, and in most other places I look in mid to late October. Lots of kids walk the streets trick-or-treating, but hardly anyone goes around the neighborhood singing Christmas carols anymore. Halloween is focused on death while Christmas is about birth. All over the country, Americans display images of gravestones, of ever-more-gruesome human cadavers, and other symbols of death. Driving by our local elementary school I saw images of ghosts, but public schools would never depict the Holy Ghost for fear that the American Civil Liberties Union would file expensive lawsuits against them.
Ironically, Halloween is an adaptation of the phrase “All Hallows Eve” celebrated on the last day of October preceding “All Saints Day” which the Catholic Church celebrates the next day, November 1st. And what is a saint? It’s a human soul enjoying everlasting life in the presence of God. Halloween is about permanently-dead human bodies, the more gruesome, the better. Or, it’s about zombies, the temporarily undead. Our obsession with them goes well beyond Halloween. All year we see more and more movies and television programs about zombies. It’s the same with skeletons and skulls. We see them on sneakers, T-shirts, hoodies, school notebooks, key rings, and many other venues. Clearly our fashion-conscious schoolchildren are choosing them. What’s up with that? Are we getting what we’re encouraging?
It occurs to me now that Halloween preceding All Saints Day is rather like Mardi Gras being celebrated the night before the Catholic Church begins its observance of Lent. Mardi Gras celebrates excess while Lent is about self-deprivation, but which one does media play up? Not Lent. Fasting is boring. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, on which day we recognize Catholics by the smudge of ash on their foreheads to remind them that they were created from dust, and to dust they shall return. Until the last day, that is, when Catholics believe they will be raised up - not as zombies - but to everlasting life.
During pagan times, before the Catholic Church became dominant in Europe, my Celtic ancestors practiced “Samhain,” pronounced “sow-in,” in late fall. Bonfires were lit to ward off roaming spirits, thought to be especially prevalent in the time before fall and winter. Days grew much shorter than they do even here in New England and that reminded people of their own inevitable deaths, which most wanted to stave off for as long as possible. In the 8th Century, Pope Gregory adapted a feast honoring saints and martyrs to follow Samhain and lend to it the concept of an afterlife with the Christian God. “All Saints’ Day” on November 1st is still a Catholic holy day on which Catholics are obligated to attend mass, but attendance has grown very thin while Catholic influence on world events continues to wane here in the early 21st century.
Pagan influence is re-asserting itself as government outlaws historical Christian associations with traditional holidays, while tacitly approving pagan associations like ghosts and zombies at Halloween and winter solstice activities rather than mentions of Christ at Christmas time. It’s not Christmas vacation anymore in our schools. It’s “winter holiday.”
When I was still teaching US History and Thanksgiving approached, I’d ask my students: “To whom were Pilgrims giving thanks on the first Thanksgiving?”
“Indians,” they all said.
When I asked where they got that idea, they said they learned it from their teachers in the lower grades. Pilgrims gave thanks to God on the first Thanksgiving, of course, but our government - and our government schools - endeavor to disassociate God from any public activity whenever possible. Hence, schools are encouraged to teach our children that Pilgrims were thanking Indians on the first Thanksgiving. It isn’t true, but it is politically correct - and that’s vastly more important than truth for our government here in the 21st century.
Conservative Christianity, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, is about as politically incorrect as it gets.