Monday, October 16, 2006

Samhain, Hallows, Halloween Hijacked

The most sacred holy day in many Pagan traditions has been hijacked by some fundamentalist Christian groups to promote hatred and intimidate children. How did this happen? First, it helps to know the religious significance of the original holiday and how it changed to a secular observance.

Among Pagans and Goddessians, the holiday is known either by its ancient Celtic name, Samhain (usually pronounced sou-wen) or Hallows. It is the third and final harvest holiday, celebrated on or around (depending on the tradition) October 31 in the Northern hemisphere. Sometimes called "The Witches New Year," it’s held at the time of year when the darkness of night is beginning to noticeably lengthen. Its central focus is honoring ancestors, reaching a spiritual understanding of death, and overcoming fear. Other themes are transformation and continuity. The aspect of the Goddess associated with this holiday is the Crone, representing the old, wise woman associated with transformation. Observances include leaving food on your personal altar for your own ancestors; during group rituals, reading aloud the names of those who have passed over within the last year, followed by reading the names of babies born in the last year. Because of the belief that the veil between this world and the spirit world is thinnest on this holiday, various forms of divination and spirit contact are sometimes attempted.

Some groups dance a Spiral Dance as part of the ritual. This is a circle dance, with one person leading (a formation known as an "open circle" or sometimes, in folk dance groups, a curved line), and is usually danced using a "grapevine step": Moving in the line of direction, one foot steps to the side while the other foot alternates between crossing in front of the first foot and in back of the first foot (for example, right foot moves to r, left foot crosses in front of r moving r; r to r, l crosses behind r moving r). As the line coils inward, each person comes face to face with every other person. The spiral becomes increasingly compact and the leader intuits when it is time to turn the spiral outward again. If there are enough people and the leader is skilled enough, a double spiral can be formed when the first, inward coiling spiral continues as the second, outward coiling spiral, is formed. The dance symbolizes the cycling and continuity of life. (See Events Coil 4 for various Samhain/Hallows events.)

In the early centuries CE, Christians adapted this holiday’s symbolism, especially the ancestor-honoring – in their observance of Hallows Eve and All Saints Day. Similarities can also be seen to some Jewish traditions, such as praying for the dead (especially those who have passed during the last year) at Yom Kippur, and placing a cups of wine for Elijah and Miriam on the table at Passover.

The name of the secular holiday, Halloween (earlier spelled Hallowe’en), is an shortening of "Hallows Evening," the eve of All Saints Day. In North America, Halloween is mainly a secular children’s festival (though in recent years, some of those children persist in celebrating into adulthood). Many of us who are now elders have childhood memories of going door-to-door "trick- or-treating" in our costumes and even going into the houses to have neighbors guess who we were. Some time in the 60s and 70s, with unverified reports of people putting razor blades in apples and the perceived rise of crime in general, the tradition of children entering visited homes, especially when they don’t know the people, has died out in much of the U.S., and even the going door-to-door tradition is waning in favor of parties in one location.

To me, some of the secular traditions of Halloween retain remnants of the original holiday. For instance, in the custom of costumed children going house to house asking for "treats," (candy, they hope) the children can be seen as (unconsciously) embodying the ancestors and receiving the food for them. The symbol of the ugly, scary witch can be seen as a distortion of the Crone aspect of the Goddess. The ghosts are–well, embodied ghosts. And the slight scariness which becomes fun, and going door to door at night, are ways (were ways?) to overcome fear.

For a number of years, fundamentalist Christians have objected to such secular practices as having Halloween parties in school on the grounds that it’s a Pagan holiday. That apparently hasn't worked well enough to suit them, so they came up with their own "trick": "Hell House," a ripoff of the "haunted house" and a misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic distortion of both sacred and secular traditions. The first of these Halloween wicked tricks on children and teens was put on by a Denver pastor in 1992. The event was such a success that he soon was marketing Hell House kits to groups all over the U.S. In a few years a film documentary was made about this fundie fun that scares and intimidates kids. Hell House productions that grew out of the marketing kit material include bloody sadistic depictions of Hasidic Jews ground into meat in Hell; a girl raped and sent to Hell because she commits suicide; a young woman convinced by a demon to have an abortion sacrificed in a Satanic ritual, and a woman deceived by a demon into thinking she’s a lesbian dying of AIDS she contracted during lesbian sex (never mind that this greatly distorts the true incidence and causes of HIV – lesbians have a lower incidence of HIV than either gay men or straight women, in fact, lesbian transmission of HIV is very rare).

Icked out yet? Then you’ll really like this: Guess what just opened Off Broadway in time for Halloween in the Big Apple? A theatrical production of Hell House that follows the fundie script. You think I’m kidding? Here’s one review.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.