Pope Gregory tried to squash it, but Halloween stuck around.
It became the strategy under Pope Gregory in the seventh century A.D. to place a Christian holiday over a pagan one in order to slowly weed out the practices of the Druids and the ancient Celts.
But the relationship of the living to the dead, the turn of the earth and the bone chilling experience of the unexplained are too universal to be supplanted by a holiday celebrating the saints. Samhain—a day that recognized the traveling dead—became All Saints day which in turn lead to Halloween.
Dressing up in costumes has a long history. According to The American Folk Life Center in the Library of Congress, Samhain was a night where the spirits were close. There were offerings of fruit and animals and fires to guide the spirits away from the living.
Under Christianity’s influence, those supernatural encounters were associated with the devil. But though the practice was considered evil, the holiday persisted. People continued to go out in the streets dressed like apparitions—demons, fairies, ghosts—sometimes in exchange for the offering left out for the dead.
Watching kids dress up like witches or superheros is a vestige of this long-standing tradition. Holidays like Day of the Dead pin a day on the calendar where we stop to remember those that have passed through to the other side. By remembering, we feel like those we have lost are closer to us.
And then there’s the ax murdering and zombie Halloween. Shops sell fake body parts on styrofoam like at a meat counter. There are screaming, mutilated, battery-powered corpses and horror movies that will scald your psyche if it is any way delicate. It’s taken a ghastly turn in the past 30 years. Is this good or bad?
I helped set up a haunted house a couple of years back. It was complete with a sickening ghoul woman who would drag herself along the floor (her legs are missing. Boating accident?), bats threatening to tangle in your hair, a grave yard, a severed head, people hiding around corners waiting to scare you and a macabre dinner scene– all under black light.
I laughed at it all even though I do not like horror movies and I never have. Maybe it’s like whistling through the graveyard? We laugh to make us stronger.
The Druids that Pope Gregory tried so hard to stomp out are gone. But the tradition of the Popes lives on as does Samhain in its own way. We can celebrate the way we want to now.
This Halloween, I’ll enjoy all the efforts the kids put into their costumes, I’ll eat chocolate and carve pumpkins. On November 2, I’ll take time with my family photos and consider the lives of those who have passed.
That’s not scary at all.
Kirsteen Wolf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org