Social Issues

night of the saints and the fairies

I only went trick-or-treating once.

I was around five years old, and my mother made me a princess costume. It came with a medieval hat with a crocheted veil, and I remember wearing that hat for days after Halloween was over, and I kept it for years as part of my “dress up” toys. At some point it disappeared– probably donated– and even though I had outgrown dress up a long time before, a part of me mourned. Perhaps it’s because I’d only gone trick-or-treating that one night, but there was something magical about those memories.

When we moved to Iceland, our church held a “harvest festival” and I dressed up as Flower from My Little Pony– it would be the last time I’d wear a costume anywhere near October 31st. When we landed in the cultish fundamentalist church, we did everything we could to distance ourselves from Halloween; we still had some sort of harvest celebration every year, but the date always moved because it lined up with the hay and alfalfa harvest in November. There was never any candy or costumes, although we went on hayrides, navigated hay-bale obstacle courses, and there was always gigantic pots of chili and Southern corn bread.

They were some of the best times that I can remember from my church, but they still make me a little sad because it’s one more thing I wish I could have experienced growing up.

I finally got to celebrate Halloween in graduate school. I cobbled together a costume, went to a couple of parties every year. Watched a lot of zombie movies. One year I curled up under a blanket with a friend and watched Dracula for the first time– the Keanu Reeves/Gary Oldman/Winona Ryder version.

And I fell in love with Halloween. I don’t think it’s possible for me to have a favorite holiday, but Halloween is definitely up there.

I fell in love with it for a few reasons.

When I started celebrating the holiday, I started doing it without a whole lot of examination. I’d grown up being told it was evil and celebrating darkness and the occult, but I never really researched all of those claims. I found a few respectable scholars making totally conflicting arguments about the origins of the holiday, so I thought screw it and dressed up like a hippie. At first it was just to kick back and have fun on a weekend, to appreciate everyone’s costumes and eat way way too much chocolate.

But, after a while, it wasn’t just those superficial things anymore. I noticed the magic of this holiday– the magic of a child’s imagination let free to run wild, the magic of embracing the mysteries and life and death that we’ll never fully comprehend this side of the Styx and Jordan. I saw how much power all of these things have. Halloween is special because it asks us to confront things we’d probably wish didn’t exist, and to imagine and for at least one night believe that there is something bigger, something other.

I’ve been reading a lot about Samhain over the last few months, and there’s one thing that’s consistently stood out to me: the idea that Samhain functions as a sort of “thin place” from Celtic spirituality. Scholars call this liminality, or “threshold,” and while the ancient Gaelic peoples believed that Samhain was a time when spirits could touch our world more easily, there’s a similar tradition in Christianity: many Christians have believed that there are places and times where the Divine is more easily felt.

To me, Halloween is one of those times, for reasons I can’t quite articulate. Perhaps it’s because Halloween is linked to All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, the period in the liturgical calender when we remember the dead and the fallen. To me, this is what makes Halloween special: there is a sacredness to remembering the dead, but Halloween allows us to remember our dead with joy. Our children, the embodiment of life and youth, dress up as ghouls and ghosts and skeletons, and every year we’re handed the irony on our front porches. Playfulness, imagination, humor– all wrapped up in a Holiday dedicated to preparing us for the dark winter ahead. Halloween asks us to face the darkness with creativity and imagination and joy.

I don’t really think there’s anything more Christian than that.

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  • OLAS

    Only trick or treating once? That is sad. When I was a kid, couldn’t wait to finish supper and go from house to house as late as people would answer the door. Us wee souls would shout “Halloween apples!” as bloody loud as we could. Come home so, so late- all of 9:30- lugging a pillowcase fit to bursting with toxic levels of tooth-rot. Mom was adamant about only having a few items per day, and some years the haul could last up to several weeks. I still remember the year she told us we were too old to go door to door anymore… and that’s when the pranks began. So many fun memories.

    The sexualized costumes being marketed to an increasingly younger demographic is disappointing. I like what you said about the mystical aspects of the event, and I think it’s possible to enjoy them, in their time and place. The shiver of classic horror and the old stories of hidden places and people never fails to fascinate, whatever the basis in fact.

    I wish you chocolate.

  • Halloween is still my favorite holiday, even if it’s a lot less fun as an adult. I’m always flabbergasted by the Christians on my newsfeed who post about their disdain for Halloween, but also post pictures of their Christmas trees.

  • I used to love Halloween – the thrill and excitement, going out after dark, dressing up however I wanted. Then, in middle school, I thought it was a celebrate of evil and shied away.
    My opinions changed a lot in college, but today is the Halloween I’ve dressed up since I was eleven. Adults and children and even famous professors are donning costumes and it is lovely and funny and yes, magical.

  • My parents alternated between taking us trick-or-treating or staying home and doing a themed party where we dressed up, usually dependent on whatever we were studying in history at the time. One year we did a medieval feast. I liked those years best; the trick-or-treating tended to blur together. My parents’ objection to the holiday was mostly to the candy, since we had indulgent grandparents who gave us each a giant bag of candy anyway, whether we went trick-or-treating or not. My daughter’s too young for trick-or-treating this year, so we’re staying in, having people over, dressing up, and playing board games. If she really wants to in a year or two, we’ll give it a try and see what she thinks.

    I like the idea of the liminal places, but Halloween’s never seemed particularly magical to me. Maybe that will change.

  • Sarah

    Love this! I was in one of those rare super-conservative Christian families that was completely fine with Halloween. We did all of it, just couldn’t tell our friends. Ha

  • To me, the Renaissance Festival is one of those places where Magic and Belief are strongest. I’ve walked through that land and legitimately *felt* something bigger than myself there, the combined power of so many people willing to step through those gates and let themselves *believe* if only for a day. It’s awe-inspiring and it feels so much like *home* that I usually get depressed at the thought of having to leave.

    Beautiful writing. Well done.

  • Reblogged this on On Faith, Fishing and Feminism and commented:
    Halloween has always been my favourite holiday – as a child and teen it let me play at any identity I wanted. It was when I was allowed to dream the biggest.

  • Very well said!

  • I was a (Protestant) missionary in (heavily Catholic) Poland for a year. Nov. 1 is a huge deal there — families gather at cemeteries to put food, flowers, and dozens of candles on relatives’ and soldiers’ graves. I thought it was a beautiful way to honor the past and remember others’ sacrifices. Other church members hated it and stood at cemetery gates to hand out leaflets explaining why it was Satanic.
    I think of this whenever people ask why that particular church isn’t really growing in Poland.

  • Sarah S

    Beautiful Samantha

  • Yes! I’ve heard basically the same thing from several people this year, including myself. I started off not being able to celebrate it as a kid, then thought “hey, excuse for cosplay!” after I was in college, and now I’m really getting into the whole atmosphere. The movies, the decorations, the costumes, the “anything could happen” spooky/magical atmosphere. I’m so sad I missed out on this holiday when I was little. (We put towels over the windows so kids wouldn’t come to our door…)

    • So, I love cosplay though I went into it a little reluctantly. (I’ve fully embraced it these days.) I go to Dragon*Con every year and and at least on other con. I try not to say this out loud, but when I see the pictures of people in Halloween costumes that were purchased from your average costume store, I get a little judge-y inside my head. I tend to think things like “You put no effort into that at all.” Then, I realize, I’m the odd ball here who is willing to sacrifice my valuable free time to costume making.

      • Haha I looked into what our would cost to put together Captain Marvel’s costume. Wow. So much time and money.

        Instead I decided to get an Air Force t-shirt, throw my hair up info a faux-Hawk pony tail , and call it Carol Danvers instead.

        • I love it!!! The secret (for those of us that are moderately serious cosplayers) is the thrift store. Most of the time, you can find things that can be reworked into others with minimal effort. You’ve already got the commitment to going crazy with the hair. Next year, I want to be 1940s Peggy Carter at Dragon*Con. I’m on the hunt for the right combination of clothing for the costume. I’ve nearly perfected the hair. 🙂

      • Carol Danvers is awesome, Samantha!

        I was judgey too… until I started seriously looking into cosplaying characters I liked. So expensive. So much time. So, I figure I’ll do easy costumes for a few years while I’m accumulating stuff for more detailed ones, and do great cosplays every 3-4 years. 😉

  • Great post. Have you read Ray Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree”? I think you’d love it.

  • I love Halloween for the same reasons. And All Saints/All Souls is my absolute favorite day of the year, liturgical or otherwise.

  • I’m not sure if you’ve looked into the history of the anti-Halloween movement, but it’s a pretty depressing representation of how mis-truths are passed around in Christianity as fact. A lot can be traced back to the “ex-Satanist” Mike Warnke, who was actually just a big old liar. I still see the things he said in his fake testimony being passed around my anti-Halloween friends as fact. I wrote some about the Hallelujah Party/Harvest Party movement for Persephone a couple of years ago–

    I’m always surprised when I realize that there are people who think it’s dangerous, sinful, or “giving the devil a foothold” to celebrate Halloween. I have the tendency to think that everyone else outgrew the same things I did, when I did, but then I see someone post an anti-Halloween article on FB, and I have to reevaluate my assumptions!

  • No love for Día de los Muertos? For a while when I was younger, there was a push to ignore Halloween (a foreign holiday) in favor of Día de los Muertos. I always thought, why not both? It is very fun to dress up, and then prepare the altars the following day.

    • Well, I’m white with absolutely no hint of Latin heritage whatsoever, so for me to do that would be appropriation.

      My heritage includes All Soul’s Day, and I’m happy with that.