Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Nightmare Before Christmas

One of my favorite opening lines in literature, and certainly the one I recall most often, is the one that begins The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953): “"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

As I have mentioned previously in my writings, I do not take this to mean that morality is not constant. Certainly, there are absolute ideals of good and evil that are recognized across borders and centuries, but there are also concepts that are embraced (or shunned) due to cultural ideas that are subject to change. Even the recidivist thief H.I. McDunnough summarized this duality (albeit hypocritically) by stating “There's what's right and there's what's right, and never the twain shall meet.” (Raising Arizona, 1987)

This past week I got to observe (the Protestant, American Midwest) society’s intricate dance around the holiday called Halloween. Because some religious conservatives object to the traditional holiday, there appears to be a widespread re-branding, not unlike the one these same people complain about come Christmas-time, with events having names like “Fall Party”, “Harvest Festival”, and the like. Of course, the events still have plenty of costumes and candy, they just won’t call it by its actual name so as to not offend – but come December, watch your butt if you dare say “Happy Holidays” or have a “Winter Party”. Apparently, it is acceptable to rename some holiday events, but not others.

Potty on, Wayne. Potty on, Garth.
Of course, of those people I know who may be opposed to celebrating Halloween, none suggest that dressing up in a costume, walking with one’s children through the neighborhood, or eating fun size Twix bars is inherently wrong. Surprisingly, none of them even refer to the redistribution of candy as an indoctrination of children toward socialism. As best I can understand, the objection is that the modern holiday, though commercialized and diluted, is derived from ancient, non-Christian rites, but again the problem must either be selective principle or historical ignorance.

While there are some similarities between Halloween and some Celtic pagan rituals (especially Samhain), these are commonalities due primarily to the time of year in which the holiday falls. Bonfires may have been lit with some intent or significance thousands of years ago, for example, but a church youth group lighting one in the 21st century is hardly a nod toward paganism; it is little more than a sign of the season turning a bit colder. In fact, many scholars believe that in spite of certain correlations, our holiday is primarily of Christian origin, as the very name is derived from “All Hallows’ Even”, which also spawned “All Saints’ Day”, “All Souls’ Day”, and its Latin American version “Dia De (los) Muertos”, or Day of the Dead.
Of course, the average trick-or-treating ten-year-old boy concerns himself with neither Celtic nor Catholic rituals, and adults will largely fail to complement the sights of skeletons and caskets with introspection on the certainty of mortality. It is merely a nation-wide dress-up day. Sure, we can take advantage of the North American contribution to the day by carving a pumpkin or two; pumpkins entered the Halloween narrative only in the last couple of centuries, as they were native to North America when Irish settlers brought a similar tradition with them (in Ireland, they carved turnips). And let’s face it, if it were not for this gourd genocide, what would we do with all those pumpkins? I’m sure handling this surplus La Tomatina-style could result in some serious injury.

But, if one is going to object to the holiday based on a tie to pagan symbolism or pre-Christian ritual, then why celebrate Christmas? While it does commemorate the supposed birth of Christ (scholars disagree on the time of year, and even the year), it has been well-documented that decorating a fir or other tree that lived through the winter (at or near the Winter Solstice) was a pre-Christian tradition. In fact, when Christmas was first celebrated (not until the mid-fourth century), it too bore little resemblance to the holiday we know today.

Even the typical Nativity scene (with Magi alongside shepherds in front of a pale-skinned newborn) is obviously errant according to the gospel of Matthew.  While I acknowledge that this is merely a harmless, cultural adaptation, it still puzzles me why certain foreign elements are largely accepted while other elements (even that are not actually counter to orthodox Christianity) are equated with evil (see "yoga", "karate", "meditation", "rock music", and "quesadilla"). 

Puritan pilgrims to the New World disapproved of celebrating Halloween, but they did not approve of celebrating Christmas, either.  The Puritans of today seem to be more selective.  While they largely disapprove of Halloween's focus on deception and trickery, they take no issue with the blatant hypocrisy of telling a child caught in telling an untruth that "if you lie, Santa won't be coming on Christmas Eve".  They take no issue with supporting a materialistic society that claims to work on merit but really only reflects the budget of parents and grandparents (subtly equating the notions of wealth and goodness).  They may just trample you when the store opens at 8pm on Thanksgiving Day.  But whatever you do, don't greet them with "Happy Holidays".  That's just wrong.


  1. Well put. I always held to my parents' views on this, we never celebrated Halloween, though we did occasionally give out candy, and from an early age I knew that Santa Claus was dead, because he had lived a long time ago, and was not the one who brought presents. Same thing with the Easter Bunny, and any other holiday that involves something of that sort.

    1. I applaud your family's practices, and Todd has shared those with me in the past. I think you would agree, however, that the vast majority of American parents that do celebrate Christmas/Easter (on a religious level) do in fact lie to their children by mixing in non-Christian myths and presenting them as fact, including the majority of those families that do not celebrate Halloween based in large part on the evils of mixing in non-Christian myths.

  2. While I agree with your core argument here, I feel you're painting with pretty broad strokes toward the end of your post. Your experience may be different, but most of the people I know who take issue with the supposed pagan origins of Halloween would have the same objection to the "secularization" of the Christmas holiday, and likely wouldn't be knocking people over at Black Friday sales.

    1. To be fair, sir, I said they "may just", indicating an extreme, but your point is well taken. What I would say is that it seems logical to assume that someone who feels that "secularization" detracts from the original (if fourth century AD can be considered original) intent should then have little issue with modern Halloween as well, as it too has been secularized and commercialized from earlier intents (Celtic, Catholic, or otherwise). Either a holiday retains its original incarnation when its celebrants make no correlation, or it does not. I would also say, comparing apples to apples, my point remains that the tradition of the decorated evergreen is of pagan origin, and if this connection is truly an issue, then it seems as if those that make these correlations about Halloween, for example, would be adamant about removing references to rabbits during Easter or refusing to bring in a fir or pine for Christmas.

  3. I viewed the origin of these holidays to be a way to recruit believers to the new religion.