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My Faith: Reclaiming Halloween's religious roots
A pagan altar constructed for Samhain, which Pagans celebrate around October 31.
October 31st, 2012
11:36 AM ET

My Faith: Reclaiming Halloween's religious roots

Editor's note: Christine Hoff Kraemer is managing editor of the Patheos.com Pagan Channel and an instructor in Theology and Religious History at Cherry Hill Seminary.

By Christine Hoff Kraemer, Special to CNN

(CNN) - As Halloween approaches, Americans rush to malls and shopping centers, credit cards in hand. Children are outfitted as ghosts, Disney characters, princesses and superheroes, while adults dress to impress with “sexy” witch, vampire or pirate garb. Cookies shaped like jack o’lanterns fly off the shelves along with bag after bag of packaged candy.

In American culture, Halloween has mostly become a reason for a good party.

So it may surprise you to learn that the roots of Halloween are religious. In fact, for Americans who practice contemporary Paganism, Halloween is one of the two most important religious holidays of the year. Known as Samhain (pronounced SOW-un), the holiday is modeled after the ancient Celtic festival that marked the beginning of winter.

In Ireland, Scotland and parts of what is now France, ancient people believed that on the night of Samhain, the veil between the living world and that of the dead grew thin. The festival was a time to honor one’s ancestors and to remember deceased family members, as well as to prepare for winter.

In some communities, windows and doors would be left open to invite the dead to visit. Herds would be culled and a feast prepared, with a portion set aside as a gift for the spirits. Those who were grieving spouses, parents, children or friends would hope, on that night, to receive a special communication from their loved ones, some message of love from the other side of the veil.

This ancient festival comes down to Americans through the Christian church. In Mexican Catholicism, it is still celebrated as El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead, observed on November 2).

The Samhain trend grows globally

On this day, family members build altars with photographs of deceased loved ones, bright marigolds, special food items, candles and images of playful skeletons in bright costumes. Families visit the graves of their loved ones, often holding picnics in the cemeteries so that the spirits of the dead can join the feast.

American Pagans are inspired both by the ancient Celtic Samhain and the Mexican Day of the Dead. In Paganism, death is seen as part of a natural cycle. Every fall, farmers harvest the crops that feed us, and then the plants begin to die. The death of the crops in winter is necessary to help fertilize the land and prepare for another year’s growth. This cycle of growth and death sustains human life.

Human life and death are often seen similarly, as part of a natural cycle. We are born, we make contributions to our families and communities, we raise children and then we pass away so that those children can make the world their own.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

Samhain is a time to contemplate mortality. But when Pagans remember their dead, they also affirm that those who have died are not wholly lost. As one Samhain prayer says, “What is remembered, lives.” Through remembering our ancestors and our loved ones, we maintain a connection to the past and to those we loved so dearly.

As a Pagan, I gather with friends and family on or near the night of October 31 to tell stories of our deceased loved ones. My beloved dead continue to teach me through the stories of their lives.

In years when I am grieving, I tell stories of my grandfather, who was orphaned as a teenager and lost his first wife to tuberculosis, but who learned to love again. In years when I am having adventures and taking risks, I remember my great-grandfather, who as a child once escaped from a locked schoolroom closet by tying the coats together and climbing out the window. And when I am nurturing my independence, I remember my grandmother, who lost her husband too early, but found her bliss in a close and loving group of friends.

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Halloween need not be a whirlwind of frantic social obligations and expensive purchases. Nor do you have to be Pagan to remember those who have passed over, or to make peace with your own mortality. This Samhain, I invite you to decorate not just with ghosts or witches, but also with photographs of your beloved dead.

Buy a bouquet of your grandmother’s favorite flowers, and invite friends to cook old family recipes for a Halloween potluck. Tell the family stories that your children or your spouse may have never heard; light candles, dim the lamps and listen to the wind. This year, let Halloween once again be a time for family and friends, and for welcoming the dark.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christine Hoff Kraemer.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Halloween • Opinion • Paganism

soundoff (591 Responses)
  1. Antonio

    A Celebration of Evil
    Halloween is a religious day, but it is not Christian. Tom Sanguinet, a former high priest in Wicca has said: “The modern holiday that we call Halloween has its origins in the full moon closest to November 1, the witches’ new year. It is a time when the spirits (demons) are supposed to be at their peak power and revisiting planet earth… Halloween is purely and absolutely evil, and there is nothing we ever have, or will do, that would make it acceptable to the Lord Jesus.”

    Halloween has strong roots in paganism and witchcraft. It began as the Druid festival of Samhain. The Celts considered November 1st the day of death, because, in the Northern hemisphere, this was the beginning of winter, the leaves were falling, it was getting darker earlier, and temperatures were dropping. They believed that their sun god was losing strength and Samhain, the lord of death, was overpowering the sun god. The druids also taught that on 31 October, on the eve of the feast, Samhain assembled the spirits of all who had died during the previous year to return to their former home to visit the living.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Morgan

      Unfortunately, Antonio, your statement contains some false claims. I would direct readers to do their own research on this topic.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • lordnimrond

      I'm sorry, Antonio, but your particular brand of Christianity has no tolerance for ANYTHING outside of itself, and therefore can't be trusted to render ANY realistic opinion concerning other faiths and beliefs...

      Your particular brand of religion teaches that, unless you believe in God/Jesus the exact way it tells you too, then your "loving" god will send you straight to a burning "hell" when you die, to be tortured for all eternity...

      That's a total protection-racket scam, if I've ever heard one...

      You believing that your god is justified in sending me to hell for not paying the kind of respect to him that he demands, is like telling me that you think a gangster is justified in shooting me in the head if I don't pay him "protection" money to keep me safe...

      It's ludicrous,...it's ridiculous, and it's utterly corrupt and disgusting...

      Amen...

      October 31, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • open cinnamon shoe

      Stupid analogy. The gang banger didnt create you....God did. If there is in fact a God then I would say He has every right to dictate the terms of His creation. Why would you think you, the creation, deserve more authority than the creator? That argument is absurd to the max. Any sentence that begins with "what kind of God would..." is a testament to the arrogance of the speaker. If it is indeed God, why on earth do you think your opinion on what God should or shouldnt be matters?

      November 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  2. Morgan

    Even if you are not Pagan, there is no harm in taking this time to remember the dead. Telling funny stories of your loved ones brings joy to your heart. Sharing their pictures creates a thread that connects you to the past. Through these exercises you can lessen your fear of death and the dark.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  3. Hogan's Goat

    When I got too old to ring doorbells for candy, my friends and I used to TP houses where no lights were on. We put spuds up tailpipes and Playboy centerfolds on front doors, and filled mailboxes with leaves. It would be even more fun today pranking people who are actually cowering in the dark thinking Satan was at the door.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  4. James

    I'm glad to see this person didn't try to take ownership of a holiday. People can be quite ignorant in that aspect. We all live the days that pass by and it's unfair for one religion or group of people to claim it as theirs. There isn't such a thing as stealing a holiday. The day belongs to you as much as anyone elses, so it's up to you to make it what you want.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Johnny Blammo

      "Reclaiming" means "taking ownership."

      October 31, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  5. Christiana Gaudet

    Thank you for publishing this thoughtful blog. Blessed Samhain, good harvest and happy new year to all!

    October 31, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    October 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Brainwashing is not healthy for children or adults.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Petercha

      Amen, Atheims is not healthy.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • truth be told

      A clean mind is a gift from God, Truth is not brainwashing, Truth is the correct way of life. God is Truth.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • TrollAlert

      "Ronald Regonzo" who degenerates to:
      "Salvatore" degenerates to:
      "Douglas" degenerates to:
      "truth be told" degenerates to:
      "Thinker23" degenerates to:
      "Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
      "another repentant sinner" degenerates to:
      "Dodney Rangerfield" degenerates to:
      "tina" degenerates to:
      "captain america" degenerates to:
      "Atheist Hunter" degenerates to:
      "Anybody know how to read? " degenerates to:
      "just sayin" degenerates to:
      "ImLook'nUp" degenerates to:
      "Kindness" degenerates to:
      "Chad" degenerates to
      "Bob" degenerates to
      "nope" degenerates to:
      "2357" degenerates to:
      "WOW" degenerates to:
      "fred" degenerates to:
      "!" degenerates to:
      "pervert alert"

      This troll is not a christian. ..

      October 31, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but your assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module, the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book can help you:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      October 31, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs

      October 31, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    October 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Hogan's Goat

      When will YOU change? You never do. Get help.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • lordnimrond

      Obviously you don't pray then,...because you never seem to change...

      October 31, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • truth be told

      To those uninformed replies
      It isn't about you, 7 billion fellow human beings on this earth need to know the Truths expressed, atheism is useless and God is available.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • TrollAlert

      "Ronald Regonzo" who degenerates to:
      "Salvatore" degenerates to:
      "Douglas" degenerates to:
      "truth be told" degenerates to:
      "Thinker23" degenerates to:
      "Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
      "another repentant sinner" degenerates to:
      "Dodney Rangerfield" degenerates to:
      "tina" degenerates to:
      "captain america" degenerates to:
      "Atheist Hunter" degenerates to:
      "Anybody know how to read? " degenerates to:
      "just sayin" degenerates to:
      "ImLook'nUp" degenerates to:
      "Kindness" degenerates to:
      "Chad" degenerates to
      "Bob" degenerates to
      "nope" degenerates to:
      "2357" degenerates to:
      "WOW" degenerates to:
      "fred" degenerates to:
      "!" degenerates to:
      "pervert alert"

      This troll is not a christian.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Spencer

      truth be told, do tell what god should we all be praying to? Given that every religion that has ever been or ever will be claims that theirs are the only true god(s).

      October 31, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • bob

      Whoops you goofed double post with same people replying

      October 31, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  8. Reilleyfam

    LIVE & LET LIVE.

    Why do we always feel the need to shove our decisions/opinions down everyone else's throat?

    October 31, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  9. Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

    Pagan belief conforms to modern day research of quantum physics and teachings of Abraham, by quantum physics, body is based on, dark matter, also known as Spirit, or soft ware, matter is attracted to form a body, sperm, grown to be a walking and talking person as programmed in spirit. Body is just a mechanism for spirit to be, end of the day, body dies, but spirit never dies, residing by his/her grave, waiting to be reunited with body, on the day of judgement. Spirits of dead can see you and hear you, but can not answer you, having no gift of choice, neither a body to communicate with living being.
    It is wrong for a person without education, knowledge in teachings of truth absolute, my friend pagan ism grew out of, first negligence, second ignorance and ended up in arrogance to truth absolute over time, word MOUT, in Hebrew or Arabic, means nothing else but END OF CHOICE, One has a choice while being, but as spirit have no choice, without a body, but under full control of truth absolute GOD. Human had knowledge of truth absolute, but they have deviated from it in their hindu Atheism, selfish self center ism. secularism.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • carl669

      So....you're saying Abraham taught quantum physics? And this whole time I thought he just battled vampires.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      This Eliminate dude is fvcking walking Halloween.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  10. Reality

    Only for the Pagan crowd:

    Mocking Wicca and Paganism?

    Spells, curses, covens, black magic, witches, voodooing dolls, hoodooing the results, shadow books, maypoles,
    god(s) and goddess(es), Gerald Gardner et al??

    Never!!!!

    October 31, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  11. Squeezebox

    Halloween is what happens when Christians steal Pagan holidays. The idea was to get the Pagans out of thier temples in into our churches. As a Christian, I refuse to apologize for that or to stop trick-or-treating. I don't believe in "harvest festivals" I believe in All Saints' Day and All Hallows Eve!

    October 31, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  12. Aloisae

    Strange than in mentioning the Christian tradition, she didn't mention the Catholic holy day from which the name "Halloween" comes. Halloween is a shortened version of the Middle English term for "All Saints Eve" ie. the night before All Saints Day which is still a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  13. Eric

    Not a single mention of the amount Americans spend on candy and costumes per year? Where did you get this person, CNN? From one of those pagan rallies? Those people don't understand "pagan" is not a religion. It is a generic term like barbarian.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Amazon

      In the past, the definition of pagan was "country folk" and has nothing to do with, as you said, "barabarism". That definition has changed over the centuries to describe those people who are pantheists or nature-worshipers.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Reality

      Not so fast !! I have a lot of stock in Hersey's. Eat on my sisters and brothers!!!

      October 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • lordnimrond

      Actually, Eric, you are obviosly ignorant about paganism in general, and the variety of religions (such as Wicca or witchcraft) that are a part of the pagan movement...

      The very word "pagan" comes from the Latin "pagani", meaning "country person".... Heathen, also, literally means "person who lives on the heath"...another reference to country folks of that time... Why country folks? Because they were the folks who were still practicing the "old ways" of elemental magic and folk traditions...

      It's only you and your "kind" who associate those words with anything negative... Samhain isn't about candy and the money spent on costumes,....it's about giving praise and remembrance to those who've passed away before us...

      October 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Not to endorse what Eric said, but...

      Could you people read before commenting? I mean really read?
      He wasn’t likening paganism to barbarism. He was likening the words “Pagan” and “barbarian” to generic terms.

      Probably only double digits in SAT reading comprehension, I’m guessing.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  14. Mark RamseyMD

    Tastefully done. I was afraid this would be an article to exclude those who don't share the religious beliefs of myself and the author.She merely suggests an alternative- don't get tied up in spending money and throwing bashes- Halloween can be a simple day of remembrance if you like. Remember- the pagan day begins at sundown, just as the pagan year begins at the beginning of winter. Happy New Year everyone. Blessed be!

    October 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  15. Hogan's Goat

    Halloween is the day we make fun of evil, so it figures that the worst kind of Christian is against it. "Fall Festival" is their way of saying "Aw, poor Satan. Quit picking on him."

    October 31, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  16. Adam

    Religion is such a disgusting term to mix with Halloween.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  17. Hogan's Goat

    So you will vote for a Mormon, but you are afraid of trick or treat? Nope, doesn't make sense.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • I know they were tasty, but...

      Did you ever cough those shirts up?

      October 31, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  18. Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

    Pagan belief conforms to modern day research of quantum physics and teachings of Abraham, by quantum physics, body is based on, dark matter, also known as Spirit, or soft ware, matter is attracted to form a body, sperm, grown to be a walking and talking person as programmed in spirit. Body is just a mechanism for spirit to be, end of the day, body dies, but spirit never dies, residing by his/her grave, waiting to be reunited with body, on the day of judgement. Spirits of dead can see you and hear you, but can not answer you, having no gift of choice, neither a body to communicate with living being.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Hogan's Goat

      What the hell is wrong with you?

      October 31, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      This guy posts crazy stuff all day long. Pay no attention to the nut job.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • emma

      Islam and humanity are contradictions in terms.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      Hogan's Goat
      It is wrong for a person without education, knowledge in teachings of truth absolute, my friend pagan ism grew out of, first negligence, second ignorance and ended up in arrogance to truth absolute over time, word MOUT, in Hebrew or Arabic, means nothing else but END OF CHOICE, One has a choice while being, but as spirit have no choice, without a body, but under full control of truth absolute GOD. Human had knowledge of truth absolute, but they have deviated from it in their hindu Atheism, selfish self center ism. secularism.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • carl669

      So....you're saying Abraham taught quantum physics? And this whole time I thought he just battled vampires.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Petercha

      Good point, Emma. While most muslim individuals are OK, the teachings of the Koran are horrible. Read it for yourself if you can.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • MOUT, in Hebrew or Arabic, means nothing else but END OF CHOICE

      By God, Hogan, I guess he told YOU off, huh?

      October 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Then give me a better explanation

      Okay, I think I see what's going on here. This is what happens when you combine Lysergic acid diethylamide with Ramadan extreme fasting.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  19. religion is a fable

    Thats a nice story thanks for sharing. However, like all religions they are nothing but fables. There are no gods.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Adam

      Get over it. Stop messing with Halloween. Wish you were swimming in New Jersey right now.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Hogan's Goat

      "Wish you were swimming in New Jersey right now." How very Christian of you to wish that.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Sandy

      Many Pagans, like myself, do not believe in any "god". We believe in nature, the cycles of the seasons, honoring the Earth, etc.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Johnny Blammo

      Isn't that just nature-appreciation secularism? I'm totally for your approach, go for it, but why label it as if it is a religion?

      October 31, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Your Mom

      Hogan's Goat: " How very Christian of you to wish that."

      Who said he was Christian, or do you just simply label anything azzholish as "Christian?" If so, you're a "Christian."

      October 31, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  20. Cherries

    Easter: candy and ham
    Labor and President's day: store sales
    Halloween: candy
    Thanksgiving: eating
    Christmas: Gifts
    Don't mean to be such a downer, but there's no real meaning to the holidays anymore. All I see is consumerism and greed.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Jubilee

      It always saddens me that Zombie Jesus Day is now celebrated by little kids having fun finding colored eggs.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Giggling Lenny

      CHERRIES ARE RED AND REDS ARE COMMIES! GO BACK TO RUSSIA, BOLSHIE!!

      October 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Spencer

      Thanksgiving: they day we celebrate our triumph over the dinosaurs.... by eating one.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Curious

      Is candy and ham actually worse than believing in the zombie resurrection of your invisible superbuddy?

      October 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • lordnimrond

      Cherries,....if that's all you see in those holidays,...then of course, that's all you'll ever get from them,.....ever... You can't really blame that on the "idea" of the hildays themselves, nor can you blame that on how others treat those holiday "ideas",...you can only blame your own perceptions, and how those perceptions make you feel, on yourself...

      I don't mean to bum you out, but many folks don't live in a world tainted by your very limited and pessimistic perception.... They are quite happy and content to find deeper meaning in all the holidays you mention... The meanings THEY see give them happiness, hope, and emotional joy...

      My you one day find the same,....not just in the idea of holidays, but within your life in general...

      October 31, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.