18 October 2012

Halloween, Samhain, and harvest festivals: Doing them wrong.

“So is your church doing anything for Halloween?” I asked him.

Harvest party,” he quickly corrected me.

I groaned inwardly. And a little bit outwardly.

“By ‘harvest party,’ do you mean having a big Thanksgiving-style feast, featuring foods from the autumn harvest, plus a prayer of thanks for the hard-working farmers and farming communities and agribusinesses who provide us with food? Or do you mean the kids play dress-up, you feed them junk food, and there are games and prizes?”

“We’re telling them to not dress up,” he said. “But there are snacks and games and prizes.”

“Ah,” I said. “So it’s a sucky Halloween alternative.”

I could go on with this conversation, but it deteriorated from there. It took place five years ago, and I stuck it on my blog at the time. His church was hosting a rather large “harvest party,” or “harvest festival,” or “Halloween alternative,” or whatever stupid name Christians invent when we celebrate Halloween, yet we don’t really celebrate Halloween, yet we don’t really not celebrate Halloween.

We don’t call them “Halloween” because supposedly that’s a Pagan holiday. That’s Pagan with a capital P, one who practices the ancient nature religions, like Wiccans, neo-Druids, Theodists, and even present-day practitioners of the ancient Greek, Norse, Celtic, and Egyptian religions. (As opposed to the lowercase-p pagans, which means any non-religious, non-Christian, believes-in-God-but-is-clueless-about-him sort.) Yet if you bothered to ask the Pagans, they don’t celebrate Halloween either. They might slip up and say “Halloween”—much like we Christians will, then quickly correct ourselves and say “harvest festival”—only when Pagans slip up, they say Samhain. (Pronounced soun, like “sound” without the D; spelled weird because it’s Celtic.) That’s the vernal equinox, the end of summer and beginning of winter, the turn of the seasons, the harvest. It’s a contraction of “summer’s end,” just like Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve.”

And, unlike the Christian fake-Halloween, Samhain actually is a harvest festival. But contrary to what Wiccans would have you believe, ancient Samhain was a secular celebration. Darn near every culture celebrates the harvest; who wouldn’t be glad to have fresh produce after months of waiting for it? And if you’re religious in any sense, you’re gonna thank your god. If you’re not, you won’t. It’s just like Thanksgiving in the United States: Some of us pray, and thank God; some of us don’t. Some of us make a big religious deal of it, and invite or feed the needy, and take time out of the meal to talk about God’s blessings for the year. But most of us eat till we can’t move, then go watch football. The ancient Celts would have sex, which right there makes Samhain a lot more interesting than Thanksgiving. My point, though, is that the religious nature of a harvest festival entirely depends on how religious its participants were. If you know your history, you know every culture had (and has) a fairly huge secular strain running underneath all that public piety.

The Pagans claim we Christians stole Samhain, and all the other good holidays, from the Pagans: We Christianized it by turning it into All Saints’ Day (and, for the day before, Eve), and they’re just taking their holiday back. Of course, this goes to show how little they know their history. As every educated Christian knows, we stole all our holidays from the Jews. We added saints’ days and Christmas; we dotted them all over the calendar. We also have an extra day to celebrate all the saints. The Eastern Church has several all-saints’ days, but the Western Church consolidated them into one day in May 610, and moved the date to 1 November by the ninth century. Clearly not to take over the equinox celebrations, ’cause the equinox was a month before, on 22 September.

Any folk customs from ancient religions which were added to Christian holidays, weren’t put there because Christian leaders tacked them on. They were added because the people, who didn’t see anything inherently religious in their fun, and didn’t see anything wrong with adding their usual secular fun to a Christian holiday, kept practicing them.

And if you bother to look, you’ll notice there are next to no harvest-festival or Samhain practices in the American version of Halloween. The Celts didn’t wear costumes. There was food, including sweets, but no door-to-door hunt for candy. There were no pranks. You might find bonfires, and you’ll certainly find ghost stories, but that’s about it. Halloween resembles Samhain about as much as Cinco de Mayo resembles Veterans Day: The only thing they have in common is beer, but every holiday has beer.

But the Pagans are insisting on this false connection, and largely they’ve succeeded in getting people to buy it. You can even find New York Times articles where the reporters casually and unquestioningly state Halloween has pagan origins. But when I was growing up, nobody had made this connection yet. I attended quite a few church-run celebrations of Halloween. I even wore my Batman costume. It wasn’t till the late 1980s when they got renamed “harvest parties”—largely as a result of the Pagans making a strong effort to inform everyone about the “Pagan origins” of the day, and partly because con men like Mike Warnke, who claimed to be an ex-Satanist and was widely believed, were telling outrageous stories about all the evil things which took place that day. Christians, who know jack squat about our own traditions, believed it and responded, “Hey, what are we doing celebrating a Pagan holiday?” and abandoned our own holiday.

For about a decade, a lot of Christians refused to do anything on Halloween. My mom didn’t… although she does now. See, my siblings, understandably, want to celebrate Halloween with their kids. So Mom goes along with it. And the current generation of Christians don’t see what the big deal was either.

So Christians took Halloween back up again, in order to “rehabilitate” it. By then it needed rehabilitating. The lowercase-p pagans, bereft of any Christian influence, left to their own devices, escalated the pranking and violence and inappropriate costumes to their present-day levels.

The Christian “harvest festival” has basically become Halloween’s less attractive cousin with the nice personality. Pagans, on the other hand, have increased a bit in prominence, and celebrate Samhain more openly. And their version of Samhain doesn’t look at all like the ancient Celtic version of Samhain. There might be a bonfire, but that’s about it. You see, a big part of being a Pagan is they hate tradition. That’s why most of ’em left Christianity in the first place. Nearly every Wiccan I have ever known was rebelling against a bad Christian upbringing. Their Christian parents shoved rules and structure down their throats, so they joined Wicca because Wicca is about freedom. It’s a shame, because Jesus is all about freedom; it’s ironic, too, because the first thing I hear Wiccans bitch about is how all the other Wiccans are control freaks. Apparently others’ freedom gets in the way of their freedom.

Case in point. In 2009, Wiccan priestess Lee Ann Kinkade wrote a fascinating article on Slate about how Samhain is often a pain in the arse. She has to deal with all the people who are Halloween-only Pagans (you know, like Easter-only Christians); she has put up with Wiccans who object to any repeated behavior from last year, for fear of starting faux traditions; and of course there are all the Wiccans who—unlike their Celtic forebears—don’t eat meat, don’t drink alcohol, don’t approve of those who do, and veto every single last celebration which threatens to include them. Her solution was to take her partner and go it alone. So much for the communal, festal nature of Wicca.

Nope, none of us are celebrating this day properly. Not the Christians, not the Pagans.

Probably the only people who are doing it right would be the parents who dress up their kids and take them trick-or-treating. If you want to boil Halloween down to its most essential point, it’s a party for the kids. Kids enjoy dress-up; kids enjoy sweets; kids enjoy games. Give them anything that entertains them on or around 31 October, and it will be Halloween for the kids.

Some of the church “harvest festivals” go out of their way to disassociate themselves from Halloween. They do it by holding their festivals on 30 October, 1 November, or the nearest weekend—which somewhat defeats the purpose if you’re trying to keep the kids from celebrating Halloween. Some of them ban junk food, or provide every sort of junk food but candy. Some ban costumes, although often there’s an alternative form of dress-up. There’s “crazy hair,” in which you spraypaint, tease, braid, and otherwise make your hair look awful. There’s “Christian T-shirts only,” in which you dress as a cheesy advertisement for Jesus.

In the case of my “harvest festival”-promoting acquaintance, his church was having bounce houses, slides, sumo suits, and other rough ’n tumble games that would make it impractical to wear a costume. That was part of their strategy to keep the kids from even wearing one. But since it was on 31 October, it meant a few of the kids would have to change from their costumes, which they had been wearing earlier that day, into whatever they were wearing to the festival.

Other churches show videos, or offer live worship music, or even have a full-on evening worship service, and preach the gospel to any pagan kids. But most of them create some sort of party for the kids. And regardless of what the adults call it, the kids, especially the pagan kids, will nonetheless call it a “Halloween party.”

Why are Christians so intent on the disassociation? It’s the specter of evil. But since that’s the case, the Christians really are reaching out to the wrong group. The children and pre-teens aren’t really the problem. The teenagers are.

Teenagers use Halloween to toilet-paper and egg houses. Every Halloween, downtown Santa Cruz becomes a madhouse, as teens and twentysomethings flocked there to show off their costumes, make merry, and occasionally stab one another. When I moved there in 2004, my sister Kerry came to visit, and wanted to check it out—despite having successfully avoided it through four years of college. So we, and some friends of hers, went off to see the freak show.

Not a good idea. Halloween costumes for college-age girls largely works this way: Pick anything. Then distort it into something that would sexually excite a teenage boy. Consequently I’ve never seen so many people dressed as prostitutes in all my life. (That’s assuming they were only dressed as prostitutes.)

I had no costume. Most people weren’t in costumes either. When people told me, “You’re not in costume,” I’d respond, “Yes I am; I’m God.” After all, God, incognito, would look like anyone. So my street clothes counted as a sufficient God costume. Other folks weren’t in recognizable costumes. (The girls totally didn’t recognize the Jay and Silent Bob costumes two guys were in, ’cause they’d never seen the movies.) Instead, the freaks were simply being freaks in public. Halloween was their opportunity to let their freak flags fly, so they did. Also, for some of them, their a--hole flags.

Anyway, I got it out of my system for the next decade.

I wasn’t joking about the stabbings. Santa Cruz has to borrow extra police to supervise the melee. There are evil people out there, and Halloween brings out the psycho in them. But so does Independence Day. So does Labor Day. So does any holiday where they can justify bad behavior. I could tell you about some family Christmases… but nah. Suffice to say we Christians don’t abandon Christmas because the lunatics have taken over; and I still think it’s stupid how we’ve done so for Halloween.

So if you want to do something about the specter of evil—and the egging, TP-ing, stabbing, etc.—the churches need to reach out to the teenagers. But they don’t. All their “harvest festivals” are child-oriented, and teenagers are rarely invited. The reason Halloween is so scary to Americans is because we’ve allowed our youth to run off and raise hell that night, and undirected youth rapidly turns to misdirected youth.

Anyway, I got to talking about other subjects with that couple before I could ask them if their church couldn’t come up with a less pagan-sounding name than “harvest party” for their crypto-Christian function. Seems to me Halloween is still a very good name for it. “Hallow” means holy; “e’en” means evening. Hallow E’en: Holy Evening. Of course. But Christians, like everyone else, can’t always see past the superficial exterior.