Fuss over Halloween being a festival of death is overkill

On Monday, the Daily covered Maranatha Christian Fellowship’s suit against the University and the group’s public condemnation of Halloween because it is sinful and celebrates death. Regarding the latter, campus evangelist Johnathon Bislew is quoted as saying, “Halloween started with the Europeans worshipping death … you can read that in history books.” Which history books?

A discussion of the origins of Halloween is given by Sir James Frazer in Volume I of his classic “The Golden Bough,” first published in 1922. Frazer notes that what we call Halloween was celebrated when summer ended and the onset of winter was coming, and “under a thin Christian cloak (it) conceals an ancient pagan festival of the dead.” He says it was a festival of the dead, not of death. According to him, “Halloween … seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside.” Does this sound like a worship of death?

To be sure, there was another side to Halloween. Again according to Frazer, “Witches then speed on their errands of mischief, some sweeping through the air on besoms, others galloping along the roads on tabby-cats, which for that evening are turned into coal-black steeds. The fairies, too, are all let loose, and hobgoblins of every sort roam freely about.” He goes on to describe “the kindling of fires, accompanied by all the usual ceremonies designed to prevent the baleful influence of fairies and witches.”

Until recently, most moderns considered it silly to fear the “baleful influence of fairies and witches,” but was it sinful for simple people who really did fear such influence to attempt to neutralize it by the only means – kindling bonfires and the performance of crude ceremonies – they knew of?

Frazer’s description of the origins of Halloween shows that Bislew’s characterization of Halloween as the worship of death is a misconception. I have to wonder why Maranatha makes this fuss when “people dress up as evil creatures and ‘demonic things’ the Bible condemns as sinful.” Is it easier to turn one’s concern toward such trivia – to be involved with “spiritual busywork,” as a newspaper columnist (whose name I have forgotten) recently wrote – than it is to try to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked and visit the sick and those in prison. Or, I might add, put a dollar in the pot of the striking clerical workers who stand in the cold rain showing cheerful and confident faces that conceal hearts full of fear and anxiety.

Arnold Fredrickson is professor emeritus of chemical engineering and material science. Send comments to [email protected]