In reality, there are probably few holidays and seasonal events that grasp our children's imaginations like Halloween, or "All Hallows Eve." Looking back on my own childhood, I have vivid recollections of the raw excitement of trick-or-treating on those chilly October nights. I remember the rows of houses lit up by glowing jack-o-lanterns, the piles of candy in my plastic jack-o-lantern, the thrill of being out with my friends at night, and the creepy movies I loved to watch in preparation for what was for my friends and me the biggest night of the year, next to Christmas Eve. It was a night of pure excitement, of independence—and I know my experience was not unique.
And in reality, even as adults, few of us probably know much about, or spend much time contemplating, where this immensely popular "kid holiday" comes from (its popularity is attested to by that fact that Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country's second largest commercial holiday). While the holiday today, in its present manifestation, seems harmless enough, and brings such delight to our children, its ancient origins are in some ways disturbing and curious—very much deserving exploration by the Orthodox Christian parent. While we will hardly see anything demonic in our little boy's desire to dress up like Spider-Man and pursue a night of Hershey Bars and candied apples, up and down the streets of Nashua and neighboring areas, it is vital for us to understand from where these traditions have grown and developed over the years.
In the ancient world of the Kelts, a people who ranged over what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France 2,000 years ago, the year was essentially broken up into two parts: the light and the dark—the plentiful summer and the cold, dangerous winter. November 1st marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the winter; on the night of October 31st, they would celebrate "Samhain" (pronounced "sow-en" and most likely meaning "end of summer"). It was believed that on this dread night, the line between the worlds of the living and the dead would become blurry, that the spirits of the dead would walk among the living. Supposedly, the visiting spirits in many cases sought to possess living souls around them, and, in any case, would cause great destruction on the night of Samhain to crops and property. In order to make their homes less attractive to the invading spirits, families would put out the fires in their hearths. To scare away and intimidate the rather unwelcome visitors, people would wear horrible, ghastly costumes and storm around, causing destruction and mayhem. Others, trying to appease the spirits, might leave food outside of their homes as offerings, hoping to be spared the wrath of the dead, and whatever other hobgoblins might be creeping about. The Druid priests, the spiritual and intellectual leaders of the Celts, would make predictions for the future, and build huge bonfires, around which the people would gather and offer sacrifices of animals, crops and, some say, even humans to the many deities they collectively worshipped.
By about AD 43, the Romans had conquered much of the former Keltic territories. Over the course of the 400 years during which they ruled the Kelts, many of their autumn customs became mixed with the traditions of Samhain. For example, celebrations in honor of the Roman goddess Pamona—who was associated with fruit and trees and whose symbol was the apple—became very prevalent among the Kelts. It is likely, in fact, that our modern tradition of "bobbing" for apples originates from rites celebrating Pomona.
Many believe that the origins of trick-or-treating may be traced to the aforementioned practice of leaving food outside of Keltic homes in hopes of appeasing the spirits, but the practice probably stems more directly from Christian practices. By the 7th century, Christianity had spread well into Keltic lands, and the Church hierarchy was extremely concerned with the persistence and tenacity of the ancient Keltic and Roman customs, which still were faithfully practiced by their people. Thus Pope Boniface IV, hoping to offset the influence of the old customs, instituted the well-known "All Saints' Day," placing it directly in the middle of the old Samhain feast, on November 1st. A later such attempt even saw the Church place yet another religious feast on top of Samhain, "All Souls' Day," November 2nd. The Church strongly encouraged celebrations of the relatively new feast days, and set up events similar to those of Samhain, featuring bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costume. However, instead of demonic costumes, the Church directed its people to dress up in honor of saints and angels; to replace the old idea of laying food out for the spirits of the dead, Church officials recommended that young men go door to door collecting food for the poor. Eventually, stemming from this original Church directive, it became the habit of the poor, during the All Saints' and All Souls' celebrations, to go door to door themselves, looking for offerings in return for prayers said for the deceased members of each household. The pastries given the poor became known as "Soul Cakes." This practice eventually became known as "going a-souling" or "souling."
Our practice of trick-or-treating seems to find its most substantial roots in this ancient Christian practice. Despite the Church's attempts at limiting the influence of the old pagan holidays, the practices were simply too far embedded in the collective consciousness of its flock throughout the medieval period and beyond. The old ways had not been eradicated by the new Christian feasts. In the end, the common practice became to celebrate together, and blend together, all three holidays: Samhain, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Samhain simply came to be known as "All Hallows' Eve," or, eventually, "Halloween"—meaning the night before the feast of "All Hallows' Day" (All Saints' Day).
The holiday(s) continued to evolve throughout the European continent throughout the centuries, and Halloween was recognized in very limited ways even in colonial America. However, it wasn't until the second half of the nineteenth century that Halloween took on a substantial presence in the United States. This development came with the millions of Irish immigrants who fled Ireland in the wake of the dreadful potato famine of 1846; their sense of the ancient holiday was strong, and they helped popularize the holiday with their new countrymen throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1920 and 1950, the old practice of trick-or-treating took on a remarkable popularity throughout the U.S.; Halloween parties became a commonplace at schools, recreation centers, town halls and in private homes throughout the nation. As mentioned earlier, the holiday has, today, become a huge business in the U.S. Halloween costumes and decorations dominate seasonal aisles at major retail chains from early August until October 31st, and vast numbers of Halloween stores (many open year-round), haunted houses, theme parks and other related media are commonplace across the country.
Now, the question is not whether our children will be exposed to Halloween in some capacity throughout the season, but how we, as Christian families, should respond (not react) to this inevitable reality. Rather than necessarily mandating a no trick-or-treat policy, or forbidding our children to take part in Halloween parties at school, town hall, the local library or private homes, it might be effective to use Halloween as an opportunity to teach children about the faith in some creative ways. For example, we can tell our children the story of the old Christian way of dressing up for Halloween as saints and angels--and even encourage our children to try this for trick-or-treat this year or next. Or we can talk to our children about the "costume," or vestments, that an Orthodox priest wears every Sunday, in order to glorify God and demonstrate the spiritual richness of Heaven. We can throw harvest or autumnal parties at our churches, encouraging children and parents to come celebrate the season without all of the creepy trappings of a typical Halloween party (with silly face-painting, arts and crafts, non-ghostly costumes, etc.). We can rally young actors and actresses in our parishes to put on the “costume” of an Orthodox saint, visit our Sunday School classes, and teach our children about the holy fathers and mothers of our Church. Great possibilities in the fall season include St. Hermione in September (a great connection to Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter movies) and St. Demetrios in October (the children love the drama and excitement—swords, battles, etc.—of his story).
In the spirit of Christian fellowship, we can use the festive attitude of Halloween as an excuse to visit and meet our neighbors—bringing over a nice bottle of wine or fresh-baked pie when supervising our trick-or-treaters can go a long way in connecting us to neighbors we may not otherwise have met and had occasion to engage.
Finally, and most importantly, we can use this time of year to tell our children that no matter what they dress up as on Halloween, their true identity lies in the person of Jesus. This is the only “costume” they will really ever need. We can tell them that when they were baptized, everyone sang "As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia." We can take this opportunity to teach them that they must always emulate Jesus, try to be like Him and no one else--effectively "put Him on" and use Him as their primary reference point throughout life.
Have a wonderful fall season, enjoy friends and family, and here's the big challenge: use your creative thinking to turn the Halloween "problem" into the Halloween "opportunity": a chance to discover spiritual treats for you and your children!