Costumes, Candy, and Christianity

October 29, 2014
Pumpkins
Pumpkins at HDS's Center for the Study of World Religions. / Photo: Alexis Gewertz

Halloween is the second most commercially successful holiday in the United States after Christmas, with Americans spending an estimated $6 billion annually.

But while most people are familiar with the origins of the Christmas story, the background of Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve, is perhaps not as clear. Some believe the holiday has solely Christian roots, while many argue its origins lie with early Celtic harvest festivals, particularly Samhain.

HDS turned to Matthew Potts, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies and an ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, for his take on how Halloween has evolved over time, why it has become so commercially profitable, and how Christian congregations treat the matter of remembering the dead.

HDS: Do you have a sense of why Halloween has become so popular in the mainstream and why it's perhaps less known today for its significance as a religious holiday?

MP: I think it's probably significant that Halloween's "success" is defined here in commercial terms. At least part of the answer to why Halloween is commercially successful has to do, of course, with commerce. In other words, just as the commercial success of Christmas largely has to do with corporations taking profitable advantage of the Christmas custom of exchanging gifts, American corporations have evidently also taken quite considerable advantage of the Halloween traditions of candy and costume.

Of course, there is also the question of why these traditions are so popular in America and why they have become so susceptible to manipulation by market forces. Candy is obvious: it's irresistible. Costuming, on the other hand, may be a more complex phenomenon, and I suspect it has something to do with the pleasure of temporarily allaying or altering one’s identity, or of experimenting with and exploring a new one.

That our identities are constantly under construction on largely unconscious terms is a lesson we have learned from psychoanalysis, postmodernity, and the study of religion. Halloween might therefore be understood to offer individuals the discrete (and discreet) opportunity for the conscious construction of identity in playful, deliberate, and socially sanctioned ways.

HDS: Modern Halloween is filled with customs and icons—such as trick-or-treating and jack-o’-lanterns. How did these traditions originate and evolve over time?

MP: The tradition of visiting one's neighbors, sometimes in fancy dress, with demands for food or drink is not unique to Halloween. The Christmas tradition of wassailing or caroling is another variant of the same custom and, in fact, some similar practice would have been undertaken on any high holy day in the Middle Ages. The particular custom of what we think of today as trick-or-treating—with playfully disguised children going door-to-door seeking treats—originated in Scotland in the late nineteenth century, and may have been influenced by Celtic traditions of wearing masks and costumes to placate or imitate the dead.

Originally, the term jack-o'-lantern was a synonym for the will-o'-the-wisp, which is a flickering light sometimes seen above peat bogs in the British Isles or in other wet, swampy, or marshy places. In Europe, these lights were often understood to be the apparitions of mischievous spirits of the dead. When trick-or-treating, Scottish children began carving vegetables such as turnips, beets, or squash to use as lanterns on their Halloween walks. The ghoulish faces these vegetables bore and the flickering candles they housed quickly invited comparison to the mysterious peat bog phenomenon from which the veggies eventually took their name. 

HDS: Rituals focusing on prayer and remembrance of deceased friends and family members have been observed for thousands of years, including Día de los Muertos in Mexico and other similar holidays around the world. From a religious standpoint, why is celebrating the deaths of ancestors important?  

MP: Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said that "death is the irreducible common denominator of all men." Scholars of religion typically don't like speaking in universals, but death is one we can be fairly sure of. So, perhaps it is no great surprise that customs such as these arise worldwide.

I wonder if the phenomenon might be more complicated than this quick first glance reveals. It is a truism that religion solves an existential dilemma for humans. We humans do not like the idea that we must die, and religions—it is often said—help ease this deeply human anxiety over our common destination in death. But I think it may be that this individual existential problem is paired to a more complex problem with love, too.

In other words, while it may be true that the thought of my own death will generate some anxiety in me, it's just as true that thinking about the permanent extinction of people I dearly love—parents, children, close family, and friends—will stir at least as much anxiety in my heart, if not more. That beliefs, rituals, customs, and practices would consistently arise around the question of our lost loved ones is therefore entirely understandable. 

HDS: In your experience, do most Christian congregations avoid talking about or recognizing the holiday altogether because of some of the more pagan/dark aspects of it? Or, do they try to incorporate some of the traditions or historical aspects into services?

MP: Some Christian churches today might want to avoid Halloween for its complicated historical and cultural heritage or out of a cautious aversion to images of witches, ghouls, zombies, etc., but my sense is that most Christians and Christian communities don't police things so closely. This is probably a good thing, because there's nothing within the Christian tradition that is not adopted from other traditions and drawing boundaries around authentic or unsullied practice is always a tricky (and usually a dangerous) business. To name certain customs or practices as inalienably and irredeemably irreligious or un-Christian probably misconstrues the nature of religious practices as they develop within and across cultures, as well as the generous and generative theological concerns of the Christian tradition itself. 

At the church I serve, we had a Halloween party for our Sunday school classes this past Sunday without too much anxiety and my kids went to church in their costumes. I think this is relatively typical. Most Christians I know are more concerned with helping their children feel safe and loved at church than with safeguarding them from the ‘pagan’ aspects of Halloween.

Having said that, though, I think All Saints' Day on November 1 (or All Hallows, to which All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween, is joined)—along with the corollary feast of All Souls' Day on November 2—really is the primary celebration for many churches, rather than Halloween. This day serves as a remembrance of the dead, and it is done not only without anxiety but with real attention and devotion in most places, too.

At the church I serve, names of long deceased members are inscribed literally everywhere. (This is even more true at both Harvard's Memorial Church and in Divinity Chapel at HDS, where the dead are remembered all over the sanctuary walls.) A woman whose dead son's name is engraved on the back of our large processional cross introduced herself to me one summer's afternoon a couple years ago. Turning pages in our gospel book last fall I saw the name of the husband of a widow in our congregation. In the past few years, I’ve helped a family purchase and engrave a brass thurible and another to do the same with an aspersorium. Each of our stained glass windows bears the name of a long-dead benefactor.

In the church, we are literally surrounded by the memory of the dead and, in fact, I think the church is one place in our culture where this attention to the dead, to their lasting memory, influence, and even presence with us, can be comfortably and deliberately considered. In some ways, this makes All Hallows/Halloween a unique window into the Christian tradition—candy, costumes, and all.

—by Jonathan Beasley