Version 3.9, copyright © 1997, 2001 c.e.

by Isaac Bonewits

I’ve received a number of emails from various liberal, moderate, and conservative Christians, including two dozen clergypeople, concerning their reactions to earlier versions of this essay. More often than not, they are horrified at the liberties their Fundamentalist brethren have taken with both historical truth and Christian theology, and have asked me to please not think that all Christians, are like those lunatics.So in the interests of not alienating those open-minded Christians who may not yet be aware of the duplicity and malice of many of their supposed co-religionists, I’ve edited this to make clearer the distinctions between mainstream Christians and their (dare I say it?) demonically obsessed brothers and sisters. If there are some readers who consider themselves to be Christian Fundamentalists, but who do not approve of the behavior or words of those described herein, I suggest that they admonish their brethren rather than myself, and that they meditate upon what it is about Fundamentalism that makes it so easy to slide into anger, hatred, fear and deceit in the name of Jesus (or Yahweh or Allah or Science, for that matter).

If you don’t like the music, you can stop it by clicking a button on the bottom of this page.

If you prefer a more colorful Halloween experience, you can click here for the regular edition of this essay.

Every year at this time, some folks begin shouting that Neopagans must be “stopped” from celebrating our New Year’s Day, which they describe as a “Satanic” holiday. Some Christian Fundamentalists say loudly and publically that we Druids, Witches and other Neopagans kidnap children, sacrifice babies, poison or boobytrap Halloween treats, drink blood, and hold orgies at Halloween. They use these claims to disrupt or prevent our religious rites, slander our beliefs, and blaspheme our deities, despite the total lack of evidence to support them:

You can visit the Satanic Ritual Abuse page maintained by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance for details on these psychotic fantasies and the findings of various reputable researchers. A good book on how urban legends have become entwined with American Halloween traditions is Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, edited by Jack Santino.

Perhaps the best book written on the topic of the Evil Satanic Conspiracy silliness so far is Satanic Panic, by sociologist Dr. Jeffrey Victor. The publisher’s card catalog description for this work sums it up well:

Again and again we are told — by journalists, police, and fundamentalists — that there exists a secret network of criminal fanatics, worshippers of Satan, who are responsible for kidnapping, human sacrifice, sexual abuse and torture of children, drug-dealing, mutilation of animals, desecration of churches and cemeteries, pornography, heavy metal lyrics, and cannibalism. This popular tale is almost entirely without foundation, but the legend continues to gather momentum, in the teeth of evidence and good sense. Networks of “child advocates,” credulous or self-serving social workers, instant-expert police officers, and unscrupulous ministers of religion help to spread the panic, along with fabricated survivors’ memoirs passed off as true accounts, and irresponsible broadcast “investigations.” A classic witch-hunt, comparable to those of medieval Europe, is under way. Innocent victims are smeared and railroaded. Satanic Panic uncovers the truth behind the satanic cult hysteria, and exposes the roots of this malignant mythology, showing in detail how unsubstantiated rumor becomes transformed into publicly-accepted “fact.”

People with poor self-images always want to inflate the power and evilness of their real or imagined opponents. After all, if there’s a Gigantic Global Satanic Conspiracy® to defeat the Forces of Goodness,® the people believing in it can think of themselves as “fighting on the side of the angels,” instead of as the pathetic, demon-obsessed, xenophobes that they really are. Of course, my pointing out that these folks are bigots will make them claim that I’m “Christian-bashing,” so they can retain their precious sense of victimhood. I find it very annoying that many racist, sexist and creedist groups in current (or former) power have managed to twist the term “bashing” away from its original reference to members of minority groups being physically beaten and killed to instead mean themselves being verbally criticised, and I refuse to capitulate to this linguistic hijacking. However, I’m going to steal Dr. Victor’s term for the rest of this essay, and refer to these extremists as Satanic Panickers, in order to distinguish them from other Christian Fundamentalists who may not be quite as nasty towards those of us who belong to minority belief systems.

If you’d prefer a more neutral discussion of Evangelical Christian Beliefs about Halloween, you can visit the website of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Their essay on How Christians View Non-Christian Religions is also quite good, as are most of their materials on their huge website.

Those who still think after reading this essay and others on this site, that I’m only saying what I’m saying because I’m, “filled with hatred for Christ and Christianity,” as several correspondants have informed me, may read my short discussion of “Anti-Christianityand Who-Hates-Who? elsewhere on this site. Denouncing professional (and amateur) inquisitors for their deceitful propaganda and hate-mongering, doesn’t mean that I hate them and “therefore” all of Christianity — frankly my attitude is one more of pity than anything else. I’ve received many emails from Christians, including a dozen ministers, who say that they don’t like the Satanic Panickers any more than I do.

By the way, if you’re interested in seeing just what idiots “real” Satanists are, you can read My Satanic Adventure and The Enemies of Our Enemies elsewhere on this website (or read the raving egomaniacal flamewars on the Usenet newsgroup “alt.satanism”). Just like some of their Christian Fundamentalist brethren, they also call me abasherand abigot,” — one Satanist online denounced me as an “anti-Satanic, anti-white, communist, fascist pig.” I must be doing something right! Apparently I’m a terrible person, since I’m unimpressed by their Christian Dualism in drag. Now, however, let’s focus on the Satanic Panickers’ weird fantasies about Halloween. 

You will often read in the hate literature published by Satanic Panickers (such as the infamous tracts and comic books — which one Baptist minister told me were “Christian pornography” — from multimillionaire publisher Jack Chick) that, “Samhain was the Celtic God of the Dead, worshipped by the Druids with dreadful bloody sacrifices at Halloween.” Chick embroiders this error in a tract called “The Trick” and a fullsized comic book called, “Spellbound?” (a panel of which is shown here.)

Chick describes Ancient Evil Druids going from castle-door-to-door seeking virgin princesses to rape and sacrifice. These comic book villians would leave carved pumpkins with candles (“made from human fat!”) in them for those who cooperated, and arrange demonic assassinations for those who refused to give them what they wanted.This, according to Mr. Chick, is supposed to be the “true” origin of trick or treating — of course he also publishes tracts insisting that Catholics aren’t Christians, that all non-Christians are Devil-worshippers, and that the entire rock-and-roll record industry is run by Satanists who cast a curse on every record before it’s released! (Can you imagine the logistics nightmare of trying to get a group together to curse even one new album in a hundred, out of the thousands released every year, let alone all of them?)

Let’s look at a few historical facts:

So where do Satanic Panickers get their weird beliefs about Halloween? One correspondant asked me, “How can these things never happen if so many people preach that it does? … Where would Christians get these ideas if they weren’t fact?” The short answer, of course, is that preachers are people and (1) all people make mistakes, (2) some people are ignorant, and (3) others just tell lies. After all, lots of people used to believe that the Earth was flat and that the sun moved around the Earth,. The Church quoted scriptures to “prove” these beliefs and burned early scientists at the stake for disagreeing. Yet merely saying, “They’re lying to you,” though true, can easily be thrown back into our own faces, if it’s only a matter of one group’s word against another (assuming neither group can get away with silencing the other). A more useful answer, one with the weight of solid academic research behind it, will take us a bit more time.

The sources of information that Satanic Panickers use are extremely few:

An essay called Halloween: Myths, Monsters & Devils, by W.J. Bethancourt III, contains a superb and detailed analysis of Satanic Panickers’ literature on the topic (his Bibliography page should not be skipped either). His essay says, among many other interesting things:

As for “Samhain” or “Saman” being the “lord of the dead,” this is a gross fallacy that seems to have been perpetuated in the late 18th and 19th centuries CE. I have found it in Higgins (first published in 1827, and trying to prove the Druids emigrated to Ireland from India!) where he quotes a Col. Charles Vallency (later a General, who was trying to prove that the Irish were decended from the inhabitants of Armenia!!!) Higgins also refers to an author named “Pictet,” who gives this name as that of a god, associating the word with “sabhan,” (which word I cannot find in any Gaelic dictionary at my disposal) and trying for a connection with “Bal-sab,” to prove a Sun god and Biblical association.

The full title of Higgins’ book (leaving out the solid capital letters) is: The Celtic Druids; or, An Attempt to shew, that the Druids were the priests of oriental colonies who emigrated from India, and were the introducers of the first or Cadmean system of letters, and the builders of Stonehenge, of Carnac, and of other cyclopean works, in Asia and Europe. Browsing through the facsimile 1829 edition of Higgins’ book (published by Kessinger Publishing, LLC, Kila MT), it quickly becomes clear that the Honorable Godfrey Higgins, Esq. while astute enough to notice the similarities between the Sanscrit, Latin and Irish languages, was working without the tools or knowledge of those disciplines which were to become known as linguistics, anthropology, archeology, or indeed any modern social or physical science. He made up for his ignorance with an obsession to reconcile what he knew of Celtic languages, cultures and history with Semetic languages, cultures and (the Christian Bible’s version of) history. The results, despite his prescient guesses about what would someday be known as the Indo-European languages and the common Indo-European clergy caste, are so far off the mark about almost every subject he touched upon, as to appear pathetic to even the most charitible modern scholar.

Pardon me if the following seems a long digression, but the influence of this author’s book has been so long lasting and so pernicious to the reputations of the ancient Druids, and of Halloween, that it’s reasonable to quote several key paragraphs. Here, set in underlined type to distinguish it from real scholarship, or my own opinions, is what Higgins has to say about “Samhan or Bal-Sab” in Chapter V, Section XVII:

The God Samhan is placed by M. Pictet [“of Geneva, a learned friend of the author’s”] at the head of his double series, with the following explanation: Samhan eadhon Ceisil, eadhon Giolla; Samhan, that is to say the evil spirit, (Satan,) that is to say, the Serviteur.

Samhan appears to have been one of the Gods, the most revered, in Ireland. An annual solemnity was instituted to his honour, which is yet celebrated on the evening of the first day of November; which yet at this day is called the Oidhche Samhna, or the night of Samhan.

This solemnity was consecrated by the Druids, to the intercession of the living for the souls of those who had died the year preceding, or in the current year. For, according to their doctrine, Samhan called before him these souls, and passed them to the mansions of the blessed, or returned them to a re-existence here, as a punishment for their crimes. He was also called Bal-Sab or Lord of Death. It was probably this epithet which induced the commentator to call Samhan by the name of Ceisil, which, in modern Irish, means devil.

Samhan was also the Sun, or rather the image of the sun. This word is found in many Semitic languages: in Arabic, Schams, the sun; Hebrew, sms; Chaldean, smsa; Syrian, Schemscho; in Pehlvi, Schemsia; in Sanscrit, Hamsa, the sun. The Sun was the first object of worship of all the Heathens, either as Creator, or as an emblem or Shekinah of the Divinity. The attributes of Samhan seem at first contradictory, but they are not unusual amongst the Heathen Gods. With the Greeks, Dionysos, the good Demiurge, is identified with Hades. In Egypt, Osiris was the Lord of death; with the Scandinavians, Odin, the God beneficent, was, at the same time, king of the infernal regions. This deity was above all others whom we have named [in the preceding sections], but he was below the supreme being Baal. If Samhan were the Sun, as we see he was, he answers to Mithra of the Persians, who was the middle link between Oromasdes and Arimanius — between the Creator and the Destroyer, and was called the preserver.

Schelling says, the Irish doctrine was, that souls did not descend to the severe Zeus, (Pluto, the Jupiter of the Styx,) but that they ascended to the merciful Osiris. Such is the meaning of the Irish Samhan, who is a merciful judge, not deciding by his caprice, but holding his power from the God Supreme, of whom he is the image. In all this is a curious mixture of physical and moral doctrines.

I will leave as an exercise for the reader to count all the outright mistakes and obvious lapses in logic. That some Fundamentalist Christians should, to this very day, use such an abyssmal example of obsolete scholarship — he thought Irish was a dialect of Hebrew, and the Celts descendents of Moses for crying out loud! — as a primary source for their anti-Halloween propaganda, shows just how desperate they are.

For the real origins of Halloween customs and the identity of “Samhain,” we have to look a great deal deeper than Christian comic books, 19th century fantasies/speculations, or Sunday morning sermons to investigate the Paleopagan and Neopagan Celtic and Germanic calendars.

There were four Major High Days celebrated by the Paleopagan Druids throughout the Celtic territories: Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane & Lughnasadh (in the Irish spellings). Four additional High Days (Winter Solstice or “Midwinter,” Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice or “Midsummer,” and Fall Equinox), which are based on Germanic or other Indo-European cultures, are also celebrated in the Neopagan Druid calendar, along with others based on mainstream holidays (visit the linked essay for details).

The most common practice for the calculation of Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane & Lughnasadh has been, for the last several centuries, to use the civil calendar days or eves of November 1st, February 1st, May 1st and August 1st, respectively. You can see the just-cited essay for other methods used by Neopagans today, however, since we have conflicting evidence on how the Paleopagan Druids calculated these dates, modern Neopagans just use whichever method is most convenient. This means, of course, that we aren’t all doing anything uniformly on any given night, which fits perfectly with the Neopagan saying that, “organizing Pagans is like herding cats.” It doesn’t match the Evil Conspiracy theories about us — which have us all marching to a strict drumbeat in perfect Satanic unison — at all.

These four major holy days are traditionally referred to as “fire festivals” because to the ancient Celts, as with all the Indo-European Paleopagans, fire was a physical symbol of divinity, holiness, truth, and beauty. Whether in Ireland or India, among the Germans or the Hittites, sacred fires were kindled on every important religious occasion. To this very day, among Eastern and Western Catholics, you can’t have a satisfying ritual without a few candles being lit — of course, the Satanic Panickers consider them Heathen too!

Samhain or “Samhuinn” is pronounced “sow-” (as in female pig) “-en” — not “Sam Hain” — because “mh” in the middle of an Irish word is a “w” sound. It’s known in Modern Irish as Lá Samhna, in Welsh as Nos Galen-gaeof (that is, the Night of the Winter Calends), and in Manx as Laa Houney (Hollantide Day), Sauin or Souney. Samhain is the most important of the fire festivals, because (according to most Celtic scholars) it marks the Celtic New Year. Around the same time, the Celt’s Indo-European cousins in India celebrate Divali, which has some similar themes and customs. Samhain was the original festival that eventually became “All Saints’ Day” in the Western Christian calendar (Eastern Christians continued to celebrate All Saints’ Day in the spring, as the Roman Christians had originally). Since the Celts, like many cultures, started every day at sunset of the night before, this became the “evening” of “All Hallows” (“hallowed” = “holy” = “saint”) which was eventually contracted into “Hallow-e’en” or the modern “Halloween.”

Among other things, Samhain is the beginning of the Winter Half of the Year (the seasons of Geimredh & Earrach) and is known as “the Day Between Years.” It appears that to the Celts the year, like the day, began with its dark half. Interestingly, in India the mid-April festival of Rath Yatra begins their New Year and the summer season, possibly echoing an older idea that the year should begin with its brighter half. (There’s also an Indian festival in late January or early February to honor the goddess Sarasvati, who as matron deity of the arts and learning can be seen as a nearly direct equivilent to Brid/Bridget, the Irish goddess and later saint whose annual festival occurs in early February.)

The day before Samhain is the last day of the old year and the day after Samhain is the first day of the new year. Being “between years,” it is considered a very magical time, when the dead walk among the living and the veils between past, present and future may be lifted in prophecy and divination.

Many important mythological events are said to have occured on that day. It was on a Samhain that the Nemedians captured the terrible Tower of Glass built by the evil Formorians; that the Tuatha De Danann later defeated the Formors once and for all; that Pwyll won his wife Rhiannon from Gwawl; and that many other events of a dramatic or prophetic nature in Celtic myth happened. Many of these events had to do with the temporary victory of the forces of darkness over those of light, signaling the beginning of the cold and dark half of the year.

There is some evidence to indicate that three days were spent celebrating this festival. Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, speaking of both Paleopagan and Mesopagan Druids in England, had this to say about it in his Elements of the Druid Tradition:

Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November was a time of no-time. Celtic society, like all early societies, was highly structured and organised, everyone knew their place. But to allow that order to be psychologically comfortable, the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn, was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en.

But behind this apparent lunacy, lay a deeper meaning. The Druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the ’other side’. The Druid rites, therefore, were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than as sources of dread. The dark moon, the time when no moon can be seen in the sky, was the phase of the moon which ruled this time, because it represents a time in which our mortal sight needs to be obscured in order for us to see into the other worlds.

The dead are honoured and feasted, not as the dead, but as the living spirits of loved ones and of guardians who hold the root-wisdom of the tribe. With the coming of Christianity, this festival was turned into Hallowe’en (31 October), All Hallows [All Saints Day] (1 November), and [All Souls Day] (2 November). Here we can see most clearly the way in which Christianity built on the Pagan foundations it found rooted in these isles. Not only does the purpose of the festival match with the earlier one, but even the unusual length of the festival is the same.

The Christian Church was unable to get the people to stop celebrating this holiday, so they simply sprinkled a little holy water on it and gave it new names, as they did with other Paleopagan holidays and customs. This was a form of calendrical imperialism, co-opting Paleopagan sacred times, as they had Paleopagan sacred places (most if not all of the great cathedrals of Europe were built on top of earlier Paleopagan shrines and sacred groves, wells, etc.). So when Satanic Panickers come to your local school board and try to get Halloween removed from the public schools because “it’s a Pagan holiday,” they are perfectly correct. Of course, Valentine’s Day/Lupercalia, Easter/Eostre, and Christmas/Yule also have many Paleopagan elements associated with their dating and/or symbols, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others have pointed out for decades. So if we decide to rid the public schools of all holidays that have Pagan aspects to them, there won’t be many left for the kids to enjoy.

I find it amusing that American teens and preteens seem to have instinctively expanded their seasonal celebrations to add another night before Halloween, one on which they commit various acts of harmless (or unfortunately not) vandalism, including pranks on neighbors. If we assume that All Saints Day was invented to co-opt the central day of Samhain and was associated originally with the Gods and Goddesses of the Celts, and All Souls Day was supposed to co-opt the worship of the Ancestors, then the modern “Cabbage Night,” “Hell Night” (boy does that push the Satanic Panickers’ buttons!), or simply “Mischief Night” (which used to be April 30th — the night before May Day — in Germany, and is the 5th of December or Krampus Tag in Austria) would correspond to a celebration of the often mischievous Nature Spirits or Sidhe. This then nicely covers the Indo-European pattern of the “Three Kindreds” of Deities, Ancestors, and Nature Spirits.

Where does this custom come from? Is it really ancient, a few centuries old, or relatively modern? Let’s look at the evidence:

Kevin Danaher, in his remarkable book The Year in Ireland, has a long discussion of the traditional Irish celebrations of this festival. In one section on “Hallow-E’en Guisers,” he says:

A familiar sight in Dublin city on and about October 31 is that of small groups of children, arrayed in grotesque garments and with faces masked or painted, accosting the passers-by or knocking on house doors with the request: “Help the Hallow E’en party! Any apples or nuts?” in the expectation of being given small presents; this, incidentally, is all the more remarkable as it is the only folk custom of the kind which has survived in the metropolis.

A couple of generations ago, in parts of Dublin and in other areas of Ireland, the groups would have consisted of young men and grown boys, who often travelled considerable distances in their quest, with consequently greater reward. The proceeds were usually expended on a “Hallow E’en party,” with music, dancing, feasting and so on, at some chosen house, and not merely consumed on the spot as with the children nowadays…

Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, ii, 370, states that in parts of Count Waterford, Hallow E’en is called oidhche na h-aimléise, “The night of mischief or con.” It was a custom in the county — it survives still in places — for the “boys” to assemble in gangs, and, headed by a few horn-blowers who were always selected for their strength of lungs, to visit all the farmers’ houses in the district and levy a sort of blackmail, good humouredly asked for, and as cheerfully given. They afterward met at some rendezvous, and in merry revelry celebrated the festival of Samhain in their own way. When the distant winding of the horns was heard, the bean a’ tigh [woman of the house] prepared for their reception, and got ready the money or builín (white bread) to be handed to them through the half-opened door. Whoever heard the wild scurry of their rush through a farm-yard to the kitchen-door — there was always a race amongst them to get possession of the latch — will not question the propriety of the word aimiléis [mischief] applied to their proceedings. The leader of the band chaunted a sort of recitative in Gaelic, intoning it with a strong nasal twang to conceal his identity, in which the good-wife was called upon to do honour to Samhain… “A contributor to An Claidheamh Soluis, 15 Dec. 1906, 5, gives a example of these verses, from Ring, County Waterford:

Anocht Oidhche Shamhna, a Mhongo Mango. Sop is na fuinneogaibh; dúntar na díirse. Eirigh id’ shuidhe, a bhean an tighe. Téirigh siar go banamhail, tar aniar go flaitheamhail. Tabhair leat ceapaire aráin agus ime ar dhath do leacain fhéin; a mbeidh léim ghirrfiadh dhe aoirde ann ages ciscéim choiligh dhe im air. Tabhair chugham peigín de bhainne righin, mín, milis a mbeidh leawhnach ’n-a chosa agus uachtar ’n-a mhullaigh; go mbeidh sé ag imtheacht ’n-a chnocaibh agus ag teacht Ôn-a shléibhtibh, agus badh ó leat go dtachtfadh sé mé, agus mo chreach fhada níor bhaoghal dom.

‘(“Oh Mongo Mango, Hallow E’en tonight. Straw in the windows and close the doors. Rise up housewife, go inside womanly, return hospitably, bring with you a slice of bread and butter the colour of your own cheek, as high as a hare’s jump with a cock’s step of butter on it. Bring us a measure of thick fine sweet milk, with new milk below and cream above, coming in hills and going in mountains; you may think it would choke me, but, alas! I am in no danger.”)’

Wow, that chant sure sounds Satanic, doesn’t it?

As I mentioned before, because it was an “in-between” kind of holiday, spirits (nice or nasty), ancestors (ditto), or mortals (ditto?) were thought to be more easily able to pass from This World to the Other World and vice versa. It was also a perfect time for divination or “fortune telling” (Danaher talks about all of this at great length). While some monotheists may consider either or both of these activities to be “evil,” most religions in human history have considered them perfectly normal.

Before and after the arrival of Christianity, early November was when people in Western and Northern Europe finished the last of their harvesting, butchered their excess stock (so the surviving animals would have enough food to make it through the winter), and held great feasts. They invited their ancestors to join them, decorated family graves, and told ghost stories — all of which may strike some monotheists today as spiritually erroneous, but which hardly seems “evil” — and many modern polytheists do much the same. So where does “trick or treating” come in?

According to Tad Tuleja’s essay, “Trick or Treat: Pre-Texts and Contexts,” in Santino’s previously mentioned anthology, Halloween, modern trick or treating (primarily children going door-to-door, begging for candy) began fairly recently, as a blend of several ancient and modern influences. I’m mixing Tuleja’s material here with my own insights, see his essay for details of his opinions, which I’ll mark with italics to separate from mine:

Pranks became even nastier in the 1980’s, with widespread poverty existing side-by-side with obscene greed. Unfortunately, as criminologists, military recruiters and historians know, the most dangerous animals on our planet are unemployed teenaged males. Bored kids in a violence saturated culture slip all too easily from harmless “decoration” of their neighbors’ houses with shaving cream and toilet paper to serious vandalism and assaults. Blaming either Neopagans or Halloween for this is rather like blaming patriots or the Fourth of July for the many firecracker injuries that happen every year (and which are also combatted by publicly sponsored events).

By the mid- 20th century in Ireland and Britain, it seem only the smaller children would dress up and parade to the neighbors’ houses, do little performances, then ask for a reward. American kids seem to remember this with their chants of “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg,” and other classic tunes done for no reason other than because “it’s traditional.”

All this is a far cry from the horrific images “conjured” by Satanic Panickers, (as in this Chick Publications tract “The Trick”). Rather than an ancient Satanic plot to kill or corrupt children, the American tradition of trick-or-treating is a modern custom invented by town councils, schoolboards and parents in the 1930’s to keep their kids out of trouble.

To a great extent, the costumes worn by modern trick-or-treaters represent, as they might have in older times, an effort to entertain, amuse and/or scare the neighbors, and to compete a bit with others in beauty, ugliness, humor, scariness, and costuming skill.

One Christian mother told me that even though she now understands more about the origins of Halloween, she is still reluctant to let her kids celebrate it, as she put it, because, “People today are totally unconcerned and disrespectful of the value of life and safety of others. Regardless of personal religion, selfishness and cruelty have no place in society, but has been allowed all the same. (Yes, that includes the Fundamentalist crowds).” Perhaps this is why the other 1930’s parental solution of supervised parties has continued to grow in popularity even as after-dark trick-or-treating has dwindled.

One rather wise Christian teenager told me:

Probably the thing that makes Halloween so different is not that people act far differently (some minor increases in vandalism and rabble-rousing), but rather that it is so simply accepted. What makes my peers decide to egg somebody’s house on Halloween rather than another day? The fact that it is accepted and almost anticipated. And so they join the bandwagon, fearing less repercussions because of the “viable” defense, “Hey, anybody could’ve done it — all those weirdos out and everything.” How many Satanists go trick-or-treating vs. the number of high school kids smashing pumpkins? Common sense speaks for itself. I would personally say if Halloween is to survive as a non-controversial institution, we need to first clean up the simple and obvious criminal element. Without that, many so-called Christians would lose their leg to stand on. However, and I hope you agree, we (meaning the Biblically-based Chrisitian community vs. subscribers to other faiths) could discuss the underlying spiritual issues without the argument of increased criminal activity (supposedly incited by Pagans) twisting the issue. Besides it’s easier to discuss things coherently when your house isn’t TPed in the dark and you’re looking for a scapegoat.

Is Halloween an appropriate holiday for Christians to celebrate? I suppose that depends on which kind of Christians are asking. Conservative Christians, who often place far more emphasis on (the parts they like of) the “Old Testament,” than they do the “New Testament,” can simply point to the genuinely traditional Halloween customs of divination and communication with otherworldly spirits and dead ancestors, and say these activities are forbidden to them. Liberal Christians, who usually pay more attention to the “New” than the “Old Testament,” may come to different conclusions. Moderate Christians, of course, will be caught in the middle as usual. But no one, regardless of religion, should need to “bear false witness” (lie) about Halloween, or indeed any other religious topic, in order to make a spiritual decision for him- or herself, or their children — the only folks for whom they may have the right to make that decision.

What was Halloween in America like forty years ago? Read Phaedra Oorbeck’s Halloween and Me essay on this website for some heartwarming memories.

Why Bother to save Halloween? is an essay by Richard Seltzer, which has yet more reasons why it’s important to keep the custom of trick or treating alive:

Halloween is a time that reconfirms the social bond of a neighborhood (particularly the bond between strangers of different generations) by a ritual act of trade. Children go to lengths to dress up and overcome their fear of strangers in exchange for candy. And adults buy the candy and overcome their distrust of strange children in exchange for the pleasure of seeing their wild outfits and vicariously reliving their own adventures as children. 

In other words, the true value and importance of Halloween comes not from parading in costumes in front of close friends and family, but from this interchange with strangers, exorcising our fears of strangers, reaffirming our social bond with the people of the neighborhood who we rarely, if ever, see the rest of the year. 


Several correspondents have said, if the holiday isn’t evil why are there so many evil images associated with it such as ghosts, skeletons, black cats, ugly witches, demons, monsters, and Jack O’Lanterns? The answer, of course, is that most of these images aren’t evil, and the ones that are were added by people opposed to the holiday.

Ghosts have always made perfect sense, for Samhain was the festival where the Gates Between the Worlds were open wide and departed friends and family could cross over in either direction. As I mentioned earlier, people invited their ancestors to join them in celebration. The only ones who would cower in fear would be people who had wronged someone dead and who therefore feared retribution of some sort. The often repeated folk tale that the dead roamed the earth after dying until the next Samhain, when they could then pass over to the afterlife, makes no sense in either Celtic Paleopagan or Medieval Christian beliefs, so is probably fairly modern.

Samhain was the time of year when the herds were culled. That means that farmers and herders killed the old, sick or weak animals, as well as others they didn’t think would make it through the winter with that year’s available food. Prior to the last few centuries in the West, most people lived with death as a common part of life, especially since most of them lived on farms. Samhain became imbued with symbolism of the death of the old year and the rebirth of the new year. So skeletons and skulls joined the ghosts as symbols of the holiday. Again, there’s nothing evil here, at least to the innocent in heart. Indeed, in Mexico, where the holiday is known as Los dias de los Muertos, or “Days of the Dead,” (combining All Saints Day with All Souls Day) skeleton and skull toys and even candies are made and enjoyed by the millions, many by and for devout Roman Catholics.

Medieval Christians feared cats, for reasons as yet unclear, and especially feared black cats who could sneak “invisibly” around at night. It’s ironic that they feared cats so much that they killed tens of thousands of them, leaving their granaries open to rats and mice, no doubt causing much food to be wasted, and leaving Europe as a whole open to the Black Plague, which was carried by the fleas on those rats and mice. Unfortunately, the millions of human deaths caused by the Black Plague were later blamed on the Gothic (Satanic) Witches the Church invented, then murdered. Cats, as “evil” animals, became associated with the “evil” witches.

Witches as figures of unalloyed evil were invented by the medieval Church. Paleopagan “witches” were usually local herbalists, midwives, healers and fortune tellers, who might sometimes be suspected of doing evil magic, but who were thought of mostly in terms of their crafts. As diviners, they may well have been consulted on the best divination night of the year, but I know of no formal association of witches with Samhain until the late Middle Ages.

As the Church tried harder and harder to make people abandon their Paleopagan customs for the new Christian ones, Samhain became a prime target. The Church began to say that demons were abroad with the dead, and that the fairy folk were all monsters who would kill the unwary. When Gothic Witchcraft was invented, the “Evil Devil-Worshipping Witch” simply became the newest monster to add to the others. The green skin was a touch the Wizard of Oz movie added to the “evil old hag” version of the Gothic Witch.

Halloween became a holiday in modern times for which half the fun was being scared out of one’s wits. Modern fiction added new monsters to the American mix, including vampires (previously known mostly in Eastern Europe), werewolves, mummies (after modern Egyptology started), and various psychopathic killers and ghouls. These are not images anyone actually needs to perpetuate, but the teens certainly enjoy them.

Jack O’Lanterns, as mentioned earlier, became popular as house decorations in the USA after immigrant Irish discovered how much easier pumpkins were to carve than turnips, unleashing what has turned into quite an art form in the last decade or so. They certainly add a spooky touch, especially when the glowing faces appear from the darkness.

Most psychiatrists and psychologists seem to agree that Halloween’s emphatic celebration of death serves to bring out our culture’s suppressed feelings about the topic, which can be a healthy experience for both children and adults. I strongly suspect that the primary reason for American culture’s aversion to thinking about death and dying is that most modern Westerners don’t actually believe the mainstream monotheistic religions’ doctrines on the topic, or if they do, they fear eternal punishment more than they expect an eternal reward. The Paleopagan/Neopagan views that death is a transition to a new state of being where things go on much as they have here, at least until one reincarnates, is much less frightening (at least for those having a relatively happy life now), and makes most spirits of the dead unthreatening to us.

Certainly, Halloween gives parents an opportunity to discuss their beliefs and attitudes about death with their children, one hopes with no recent close death to cloud the issues, and to soothe whatever fears their children may have.

Reporters are always asking us what we Neopagans “do” for Halloween. Well, usually we take our kids around our neighborhoods trick-or-treating, as cautiously as any other parents. Those who stay at home may hand out commercially packaged candy to those who visit our houses (we might prefer to give out homemade goodies, but paranoia has made such treats unwelcome). Over the weekend, our circles of friends will have rituals that might include “dumb suppers” (silent, saltless meals) for the Ancestors, or separate “kid circles” and costume parties for our children — and we always wind up with at least as many kids as we started out with! Most of us will do some divination, give honor to those who have died in the past year, play traditional games, and meditate on our own mortality.

In 1997 c.e., something new was added to our Neopagan Samhain traditions in the United States. Hundreds of us met in Washington, DC (as well as in other cities) wearing green clothes, bringing canned goods for the local food banks, cleaning up local parks and monuments, and just being visible as part of the American religious landscape. We brought thousands of flowers (both silk and real), to represent those Neopagans who could not join us because of travel or job scheduling difficulties, or because they rightfully fear Satanic Panicker persecution in their home towns should their names or faces become publically known as belonging to a minority belief system. The flowers were later taken to local hospitals and nursing homes.

This event, called Blessed Be and Meet Me in DC, was staged by an informal coalition of DC-area Neopagans and participated in by Neopagans at simultaneous “mirror events” in other cities. I was there, and was delighted to see, despite death threats and promises of violence from Satanic Panickers, a couple of hundred Neopagans at the Jefferson and Lincoln monuments, as well as members of other liberal and moderate religious communities, and a few representatives of the mainstream media.  Unfortunately, since nobody got shot and we weren’t actually doing anything lurid, we didn’t get nearly the coverage we had hoped for. The event was repeated in 1999 and 2000, and the mainstream media has started to pay more attention. To find out how you can participate in future events, visit the BBMMDC Website for details, and come back often for updates! For stories of the BBMMDC 2000 celebrations, visit The Wiccan-Pagan Times website.

So what do we American Neopagans really do on Samhain? No blood drinking, no baby sacrifices, no orgies — just good, clean, all-American festivity with some thoughtful additions appropriate to the season and a few gentle political and social statements about our right to exist and our presence in the vibrant fabric of American religious pluralism. I know that disappoints the Satanic Panickers — especially the ones who run around on the 31st of October looking for Occult Crimes In Progress, or who try to crash any Neopagan rituals they can find that night. (Note for law-and-order types: it’s a violation of state and federal laws to disrupt any  religious ritual in progress unless there’s a clear felony happening — which you won’t find at our rites.) 

Some of the Satanic Panickers (as well as other conservative Christians) spend Halloween engaging in what they call “spiritual warfare” against local Neopagans. While for some Christians this phrase (at least on Halloween) refers only to saying prayers for “peace, protection, safety and for God’s influence,” as one correspondent told me, to the Satanic Panickers, spiritual warfare means saying “imprecatory psalms” and praying for the destruction of all of us folks they think are Evil Incarnate. Oddly enough, when members of competing religions are accused of doing such things, the process is labled “casting curses” or “evil black magic” by these very same Christians!

Don’t believe it? Here’s a quote (minus the all-caps shouting) from an email I received in 1998 c.e.:

”…just keep your mouth shut! and don’t ever try again to make those web pages! … You better erase your web pages as soon as possible otherwise you will be sick to death within two month. Two month! Remember this!”

Since I’m still alive, we know that this one illiterate “spiritual warrior” was sorely disappointed. Of course, so was the one who promised to pray me to death the year before… I get a half a dozen emails every year now, challenging me to battle them on the astral plane and promising to destroy me and all other Neopagans, Druids, Witches, etc., in the name of Jesus. Funny how there’s more of us every year, despite the “spiritual warriors” and their supposedly inevitable victory over all of us Heathen.

Witches, Druids and other Neopagans are not responsible for the Satanic Panickers’ bizarre fantasies of who and what they think we are. We will no longer let them get away with commiting or advocating hate crimes against us — and then whining that they’re the ones being persecuted because we’re allowed to exist and to celebrate our own holy days according to our own beliefs.

Other Christians may join the mother who told me, “I choose to believe the Bible principals verbatim, but I do not agree with everything my church leaders tell me as addendums. I require solid evidence.” I hope this essay has provided just that kind of evidence.

For everyone else, as one Pagan couple put it a couple of years ago, “Have wonderful and thoughtful memories, and plan a fantastic and responsible future, as our year ends and the New Year starts.”

Copyright © 1974, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. Anyone may print out up to ten copies to be given to local school boards, clergy, or law enforcement agencies as needed.

Note: this is one of his most popular essays, so if you want to mirror it, that's fine with him, but please check back regularly for updates. If anyone wants to translate this or others of his essays into other languages, he will be happy to post them on his website. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

Is having access to this material worth a few dollars, punts, pounds, or euros to you? Click either graphic to make a fast and secure donation to Isaac Bonewits, so he can afford to keep his website going and growing! Or you can refer a website design client to him at his secular eddress of, or suggest to your local Occult/New Age bookstore that they bring him out for one of his colorful presentations, or you could just send money to him at PO Box 372, Warwick, NY, USA 10990-0372.