The hallowed history of Halloween
Students discuss relationship between the holiday and religion
When most people think about Halloween, candy, spooky costumes, haunted houses and trick-or-treating come to mind. But few think about the connections between Halloween and religious traditions.
Modern-day Halloween originates from various harvest festivals, including Samhain, the beginning of the spiritual new year and the Feast of the Dead for Pagans. Contemporary Halloween festivities vary greatly from the holiday’s Pagan origins, however. Some people of the Jewish faith believe it is wrong to celebrate Halloween due to its Pagan roots and connections to idolatry, according to Jordan Einhorn, president of the Jewish Student Union. Halloween celebrations are prohibited in Islam because they support idolatry and Paganism, according to Hamza Aamir, vice president of the Muslim Student Association. Jessica Addesa, outreach coordinator for Brothers and Sisters in Christ believes that Halloween lends itself to worshipping demons and “deceitful,” “fallen divine beings” due to the holiday’s Pagan connections.
While both Halloween and Samhain occur on Oct. 31, they are not the same holiday, according to Katrina Digennaro, president of UB’s Pagan Student Association.
“Samhain originated as a festival that took place to celebrate the end of the harvest season and to welcome in the cold of winter,” said Digennaro, a junior psychology major. “Many people recognize Samhain as the beginning of the spiritual new year. Long ago, Pagans also saw it as a festival of the dead or fire since the old crops were dying and what was left was burned to return back to the earth.”
Modern-day Pagans observe Samhain with ceremonial bonfires, feasts, gatherings, rituals and time dedicated to self-reflection, according to Digennaro.
“Personally, I celebrate by holding a Dumb Supper, which is also known as a Feast for the Dead,” Digennaro said.
A Dumb Supper is a celebratory meal that features several courses of autumnal-inspired cuisine.
“For the dinner, guests sit around the table with an empty seat with a place setting for ancestral spirits to come and sit with us as we eat,” Digennaro said. “This seat is dedicated to our ancestors and usually decorated with memorabilia and pictures of deceased loved ones.”
Guests eat in silence while wearing masks over their eyes. Pagans believe the masks will keep spirits from entering their bodies. This stems from ancient Pagan practices and is one of the reasons people wear masks on Halloween in contemporary society, Digennaro explained.
Pagans observe Samhain on Oct. 31 because they believe the veil that separates the living world and the spirit world is the thinnest on this day of the year. This allows both the living and the dead to visit one another easily, Digennaro said.
Digennaro emphasized that Pagans do not worship the devil. This idea stems from the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, according to Digennaro.
“Negative stereotypes aside, it is absolutely wonderful to be a practicing Pagan in 2017,” Digennaro said. “There are so many more resources and forums, and it is now easier to build a community of people to share, discuss and practice our rituals and beliefs.”
Digennaro believes celebrating Halloween as Pagan in 2017 is no different than how “every normal American” celebrates Halloween.
“Not all Pagans will recognize Halloween and only partake in Samhain activities,” Digennaro said. “But since I didn’t grow up Pagan and still have strong cultural ties to Halloween, I do take part in Halloween practices.”
This year, Digennaro is throwing a Halloween party for her friends the weekend before the 31st and on Samhain she is holding a Dumb Feast for her Pagan friends.
Addesa, a graduate student in the biomedical engineering program believes Halloween conflicts with Christian beliefs due to its Pagan background.
“Halloween has more than just a few Pagan roots,” Addesa explained. “When ancient people—and many people today—worship gods other than Yahweh, they are actually worshipping demons and these fallen divine beings that deceive them.”
Activities such as séances and gatherings of Wiccans aren’t just club meetings, according to Addesa. She recognizes that much of the modern Halloween celebrations have evolved beyond its Pagan origins, which allow some Christians to partake in the festivities.
“Many people use Halloween as a day to talk to and summon evil beings,” Addesa said. “Although many Christians do celebrate Halloween, but not in this sense. In the U.S., Halloween has become more of a commercialized and cultural celebration than a time to worship demons.”
In this sense, Christians may allow their kids to dress up and receive candy, but merely as a “cultural expression,” Addesa explained. She chooses not celebrate Halloween because she does not want to “draw near to demons” and believes she is more familiar with the holiday’s Pagan roots than the average Christian.
Celebrating Halloween is frowned upon in Islam, according to Aamir, a junior psychology major.
“There is no way to celebrate Halloween in an Islamic point of view,” he said. “The only things we celebrate as holidays are in the Quran. Halloween…is just not something we do.”
Sadman Talha, a freshman biological sciences major, said there are only two celebrations permitted by the Quran: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
“The key ruling of Islam is that it is not permissible to follow the Pagan rituals or any celebration associated with it,” Talha said. “During the time of Prophet Mohammed, there were many celebrations but he only permitted Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.”
Einhorn said it’s difficult to provide a singular Jewish perspective on Halloween because he feels Judaism is such a large and varied religion.
“Judaism as a whole is a giant ocean of thought with hundreds of conflicting streams that exist, and with anything that’s being going on for thousands of years, you will create different views on things,” Einhorn said.
He believes that trick-or-treaters going out and demanding candy creates an imbalanced power dynamic, which creates an ethical conundrum for Jewish people.
“So the question is, how do you engage with that as a family and a community and still instill the Jewish values of generosity and charity,” Einhorn said.
Because Halloween did originate from Pagan rituals and festivals and has roots in Christianity as well, there’s “absolutely no” Jewish origin to the holiday, he explained.
“And the fact that it has these Pagan roots means that there's some implications of support of idolatry,” Einhorn said, “But another thing we know is that in October 2017 Halloween is a ubiquitous social institution in America and I don’t think anyone in the city of Buffalo or state of New York goes out trick-or-treating as a way to engage in Pagan worship.”
Ultimately, Einhorn does not believe there is anything inherently wrong about Jewish people observing Halloween, as long as they are cognizant of the holiday’s context and roots.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong about going out and observing [Halloween] if it’s a fun and meaningful experience for you that will create positive memories,” Einhorn said. “I just think it’s important to be aware not only of the present context but also the historical context of this holiday.”
Maddy Fowler is a news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org