Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Halloween is thoroughly embedded into our modern day calendar as an exciting time for kids to dress up, have fun, and enjoy a bit of trick-or-treating! When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t as common for kids to celebrate Halloween here in the UK, but I remember always wishing we could celebrate it and so Thea and I have made it a big celebration every year since we met. We’ve never missed a year of decorating the house, playing games, and handing out sweets to those who knock on our door – we even dressed up when Little Man was just a few weeks old!
But as much as we love the modern day secular celebration of Halloween, we also love to celebrate the spiritual side of its history too. And its history is really rather interesting, to say the least. It amuses me slightly when I hear people saying that they don’t like or agree with Halloween because of its origins, because it has changed and developed so much through the years that it’s neither one thing nor the other now. By all means dislike Halloween because you don’t like kids knocking on your doors or the commercialisation of it, but don’t dismiss its very colourful and complex history as the reason for not liking today’s Halloween celebrations.
Because it is constantly evolving! In recent years I have seen more and more churches offering “Light Parties” as an alternative to dressing up as ghosts and ghouls to go trick-or-treating. Whilst I personally don’t feel the need to do that (I have never seen Halloween as “dark” or “menacing” in any way – death is not something to be feared, but rather a part of the cycle of life) I love the fact that people are allowing the celebration to evolve to better reflect their own personal and/or religious ideas. Surely that is what it has always been about!
So what is the History of Halloween?
Well, most sources of information talk about the origins of Halloween lying in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced Sow-een). This day marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next, and was also considered to be a day in which the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was particularly thin. It was a time of passing between two worlds, the old and the new, not just about connecting the living and the dead. And so it was a time of reflection on the past, the present, and the future in all areas of our lives.
As Samhain fell at the end of the harvest and before the long Winter months, death and scarcity were clearly things to consider. Not only would more people be susceptible to death during those bitterly cold months ahead, but the world itself seemed to die away as the trees lay bare and the fields barren of most crops. The bounty and joy of the summer months had passed, remaining purely as a memory, just as those loved ones who had passed before us did. At this turning point in the Wheel of the Year it’s no wonder there was an emphasis placed on those no longer with us.
And yet, as I mentioned before, death was not something to be feared but rather accepted as a natural part of life. The beauty of The Wheel of The Year is that it reminds us of the cycle of life, that brings us from birth, through life, to death and right back to birth again through renewal as the wheel turns once more. We may well fear the dark mystery of death now that we are so far removed from it in our day-to-day lives, but when we accept it as part of the cycle we can look back and honour our ancestors and those who have gone before us, especially at a time like Halloween as the year draws to its end.
The Christian church later carried on this tradition in its own way, with the introduction of All Saints Day or All Hallows, which also remembered those who had passed into the next world. It focused on those who had given their lives to spreading the love of Jesus to the world, which (as far as I understand it) is the focus of the Light Parties thrown by many churches. Whilst this may not have had quite the same emphasis on a thinning of the veil between the two worlds, there still remains a time for reflection on life and death., particularly on the promises of ever-lasting life offered to those who follow Christ. That light in the dark, and eternal life, are only a stone’s throw away from the reflections made by the ancient Celts at Samhain.
But what about Trick-or-Treating? Where did that come from?
Again we have to look back at the ancient celebration of Samhain and the idea of this thinning of the veil. Traditions related to this included placing food on the doorstep to feed the ghosts that roamed the earth during the night, as well as wearing masks so that the living would be recognised and accepted as fellow ghosts when leaving their homes. It’s easy to see how these traditions have developed into the modern day Trick-or-Treating fun of dressing up and knocking on doors asking for sweets, isn’t it?
I found it really interesting to learn that the family friendly traditions we know and love today may actually only have really begun in the 1950s in America, as this video from The History Channel explains. It seems that there have been many different variations over the years and even those we think of as really entrenched into our society are actually relatively modern additions!
So what does Halloween mean today?
Well, it can mean anything you want it to mean really.
If you want to take from all of this that Halloween has simply become a secular event with no real relation to the ancient traditions from which it came, then feel free to celebrate it (or not) as that.
And if you feel like it is too “dark” with it’s connotations about appeasing and tricking the dead with food and masks, then maybe a Light Party is what you need.
You might even be like us, choosing to celebrate the fun of the secular Halloween excitement whilst also holding a little personal ceremony to honour the loved ones who have passed before us whilst looking forward to the year ahead.
Whatever you decide, know that it is perfectly okay to make it work for you and your family – that’s what raising spiritual kids in the modern world is all about, making spirituality mean something to you personally. There’s no point in following a tradition that means nothing to you, just because you feel you should. Embrace it, relate to it, and celebrate it!
I’d love to know what you think about Halloween and how you celebrate it (or if you don’t). Please do leave me a comment to share your thoughts!