On rediscovering my Halloween heritage.

As a child in Hertfordshire in the 1970s/80s we didn’t have Halloween. We celebrated Harvest festival at school and the village church – which involved donating tins of food. And then we had fireworks and a bonfire for bonfire night / Guy Fawkes.

But now a days Halloween seems to have taken a hold in England, having been introduced from America. Since having children it has become an important part of our year. It is possibly the children’s favourite day of the year, and definitely thought about far longer in advance than Christmas – combining dressing up, receiving sweets and meeting lots of neighbours, and at least one party.

Over the years I have learnt a little about the origins of the festival mostly in response to being asked about the argument from some Christians that it is wrong, and amounts to worshipping the devil. These arguments have little meaning for me – being an atheist. But from an intellectual point of view I find the theological and cultural tangle fascinating.

To have survived to the modern day with such importance in some parts of the Christian world – Scotland and Ireland there must be a Christian purpose to the festival. These countries have been Christian in some form or other since the fall of the Roman Empire! Halloween – is of course All Hallows Eve – the day eve of All Saints Day. When it was believed by many Christians that the souls of the dead where able to walk with the living. Halloween traditions stem from the perceived need to confuse these souls and protect people from malign forces through the disguises and light – in the form of bonfires and lanterns. The argument against Halloween seems far more of a puritanical denouncement of other denominations.

But recently Halloween has become more of a personal celebration. I recently watched the episode of Quantum Leap where Sam Beckett leaps into a novelist preparing the Presbyterian haunted house for Halloween. Presbyterian caught my attention. My gran is from a traditionally Presbyterian family from rural Northern Ireland and it got us talking. She shared her memories of just how important Halloween was – partly a post harvest celebration, partly charitable. Groups of men would come trick or treating, collecting money for charity. This is apparently re-invented in North America in the 1950s by a Presbyterian as Trick or Treat for UNICEF.

I had thought it was predominantly Catholic in origin. But no – Halloween in Northern Ireland was one of those rare things – celebrated by Protestant and Catholic alike. A festival enjoyed by all amidst the more sectarian Catholic feast of All Saints (although All Saints is celebrated with a different meaning by Presbyterians too). and the Protestant Reformation Sunday. And unlike the in hind sight rather distasteful English Guy Fawkes day it isn’t a festival originating in the discrimination against and violent reactions of a religious minority.

Now Halloween joins Easter and Christmas as celebrations that have their roots in the Christian culture of my ancestors, a link to my cultural heritage. Which can for me as an atheist provide a way of celebrating life, and an opportunity to make contact with neighbours, friends and family. Maybe next year we will reinstate collecting for charity in our house.

Halloween and other festivals of death and life – Google Books Result – more about Presbyterian Northern Irish Halloween celebrations.

Should Catholics Celebrate Halloween? - Halloween as a Catholic festival