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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.

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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. HeavenSent

    My last post before my 15 minutes of free time are up at hospital for criminally insane

    October 31, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  2. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Yeah, so when do we get to reclaim "christmas" as the proper pagan Yule that it used to be before the borg christians assimilated it?

    October 31, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      hinduism, racism Mithra ism, Christ, savior ism existed way before they hind, fabricate another Mithra, savior, Christ called Jesus. Mithra ism, religion of hindu, racist Magi's, fortune tellers.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  3. Anybody know how to read?

    'Modern' hom0 saps think they are smarter than their ancestors. They ignore the mutations that they brag about.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  4. Anybody know how to read?

    Article:'.........Human life and death are often seen similarly, as part of a natural cycle..............' No wonder the natural foods aren't any better than the engineered slop. They think it's OK to kill you.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Your not the brightest light on the tree are you ?

      October 31, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Chad

      Your not ether.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      HeavenSent, standard Christian Doctrine proclaims death is not natural. You're a little light on that subject. Mother earth can't save you no matter what time of the month it is for her.

      November 1, 2012 at 3:23 am |
    • sam stone

      They weren't talking about "standard christian doctrine", they were tallking about paganism.

      November 1, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Stony, the natural place for criminals is jail. No cycle about it.

      November 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  5. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    I guess we'll never get clear of religion. When Christianity and the rest seem long dead there will be flakes who will try to relieve their existential boredom by bringing it all back – well, more likely, just the parts that seem nice and harmless.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  6. Meatwad

    We have a monster in our attic named Ted Nugent that looks like an onion with four Spider legs y'all. It thinks human body parts are it's juice And he is making a mess.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Spencer

      If he offers you a sandwich, what ever you do... do not eat it.

      November 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  7. Quiz Time

    Would you rather hang out with a Christian, a Muslim, a Mormon, or a pagan?

    Slam dunk. The pagans are waaaaaay more interesting, the Christians are a total drag, the Muslims might explode at any moment, and the Mormons might go into a psychotic jello overdose.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • MeatWad

      I just want to play with my dolls but I don't have no damn money so I use my infinite imagination.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  8. ladies luv m'log

    pagans love God as much as any other heathen heretics!

    October 31, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      pain in hind of a hindu, ID thief.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      This Eliminate thinks, he owns all the IDs of the world, stupid dog.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  9. HeavenSent

    You atheists love Halloween so that you can bend the minds and brains of children who are too small to filter Jesus' truth. It is time for you to start your walk with Jesus, our Lord who is God. My father loved me a lot, but he was always crushing my cigarettes. Read the Bible and humble yourself before God.

    Amen.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      It's becoming exceedingly difficult to tell the difference between fake HS and real HS.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Who is bending the child's brain. The person who allows the child to grow up and find religion if they want or the person trying to convince the child that some invisible guy lives in the sky before they have a chance to think for themselves?

      October 31, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Yes indeed

      The synthetic HeavenSent is absolutely indistinguishable from the real one if he doesn't add something about trailer trash cigarette habits.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      Jesus, who never existed.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      eliminat, be gone you Halloween SATAN of Theen Allah.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • sam stone

      If it is "Jesus's Truth", why does it need to be filtered?

      November 1, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  10. The Smokin' Hotty Skin-Tight Leather Catwoman Outfit Religion Of Gravity-Defying Or.gification

    Pagans Gone Wild!

    October 31, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • ladies luv m'log

      Yea baby!!!! Let's party!!!! Satan gets the best weed man. No seeds, or shake, just Beelzebub Blue!!!!

      October 31, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  11. Captain Gibson

    There was a time when pagans, witches and unbelievers were slaughtered. The world was more moral then. We have slipped into the moral dark ages.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • llittle timmy

      Captain 'tarded, evidently.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Poe Spotter

      Poe

      October 31, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Truth be sold?

      October 31, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Meatwad

      Hey you guys, it's Halloween. Do you think it would be easy to get whatever I want, like a ten speed, because that's what I really want.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Captain Gibson has been watching too much Monty Python.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Captain Gibson

      No one has given even one reason why the world would be more moral today. That's because they can't.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Captain Gibson

      No, it's not Poe. It's a reaction to the atheists on this belief blog. Indeed, we would be much more moral if we adopted the methods of the Islamic countries with respect to unbelievers. Atheists are sending this great nation to hell.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      TROLL

      October 31, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Captain Gibson

      Christians have to fight back.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vt0Y39eMvpI

      October 31, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @RL,

      Well of course, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. I was thinking more of this one:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrzMhU_4m-g

      October 31, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      To be fair, that logic is absolutely flawless (to Christians).

      October 31, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Ok truth be sold whatever you say.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Well Obviously

      Why is it more moral today than when Christians used to slaughter people who had other beliefs?

      Because we don't allow Christians to slaughter people who have other beliefs.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  12. EX catholic

    Idolatry (the worship of demons) supersti-tions and fanatism all walk hand in hand. Catholics are compulsive Idolaters and most conservatives/protestants will kiss the Pope's ring on halloween.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  13. Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

    Prop hit Abraham and others, never claimed to be, teachings of his or their own ,but reviled by angel Gabriel from Allah, truth absolute, those teachings are being proven right by today, science.
    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. Please visit limitisthetruth.com to learn causes of differences among humanity.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Reasonably

      I swear there's a code in what you write, because otherwise it's just gibberish...can you give us the secret decoder ring?

      October 31, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      word fondu is based on Latin word dippity doo, hot gooey, chips, great, chip dip, to be in greatness, pita chip, to be creamy to both of them, fondu, a noun in yummy, fonduism, way of yumminess.

      Visit dippingisfun.com to learn about fonduism, deliciousnessity of fondu's, deliciousness to impose fonduism, veggie dipping on humanity by fonduism, cheese skin of truth absolute by dipper. Be a dipper, not a fondu, lactose intolerant like a fondu, double dipper.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      No. Just plain nuts.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, copy cat.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Huebert

      Reasonably

      Don't bother trying to understand the posting Hindu thing. No one else can.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Eliminate Mullah is a donkey from desert of Arabia.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  14. Thanks anyway

    If it's all the same to you, I'll stick with the candy, Hotel Horror ("Six Floors of HELL!"), and partying all night with Naughty Zombie Nurse ("Includes blond wig and a very surprising specimen jar!") I find it gives me more reason to attend All Hallows' Day mass the next morning, with a whole list of saints to apologize to.

    However, if you want to celebrate Beltane in the traditional manner, I'd be happy to show you how I got the name "The Long(er) Man of Wilmington". Call me in the spring, and be sure to bring your maypole ribbons.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Towelie

      If you are going to party all night with Naughty Zombie Nurse, don't forget to bring a towel!

      October 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Don't forget to wear your galoshes!

      October 31, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Never go anywhere without your towel.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  15. Meatwad

    I'm starting to get scared ya'll. I am playing an Atari game called Video Ouija, which allows players to communicate with the dead. Plus it's past my damn bed time.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Spencer

      Just go over to Carl's house and lounge in the pool.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Meatwad

      I want to but I saw Carl spit in the pool.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  16. Krizia

    True Christianity and religion are two different things. Not the same.
    Devil is a deceiver and it is working for him.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Yeah the boogieman is coming.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • The Goo on the Wailing Wall

      Christianity is not a religion in much the same way that water is not wet and my shit does not smell foul.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Reasonably

      What about other religions' gods? You're hurting their feelings!

      October 31, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Krizia

      I'm sorry, let me give a few of examples...
      If you think Adam & Eve bit an apple....show me where it says they did
      And if THREE wise men visited Jesus, where does it say?
      And most importantly...If I'm not mistaken..it says The Son of Man's hair was like wool. Since when does sheep have silky straight hair?
      Christian who call themselves Christian need to stop going by other false teachings. You are told to test the spirits to see if they are of God. Seek God and He will reveal Himself to you. Stop going by your own understandings or others because the blind can not lead the blind.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • The Goo on the Wailing Wall

      I'm sorry, let me give a few of examples...
      If you think Adam & Eve bit an apple....show me where it says they did I DON'T THINK THAT.
      And if THREE wise men visited Jesus, where does it say? I DON'T THINK THAT.
      And most importantly...If I'm not mistaken..it says The Son of Man's hair was like wool. Since when does sheep have silky straight hair? WHO CARES.
      Christian who call themselves Christian need to stop going by other false teachings. THEY ARE ALL FALSE SO WHO CARES. you are told to test the spirits to see if they are of God. Seek God and He will reveal Himself to you. Stop going by your own understandings or others because the blind can not lead the blind. TURNIPS

      October 31, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Translated: don't think for yourself. Let some book from ancient times direct you.
      No thanks.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Krizia

      You all make me laugh...
      but hey...that is what foolishness does...make people laugh.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  17. therealpeace2all

    For all of you Christians out there, who seem to think you guys were the originators of most our ancient celebrations:

    **Earliest Trace**

    Peter Tokofsky, an assistant professor in the department of folklore and mythology in UCLA states, ***"The earliest trace*** (of Halloween) is the ***Celtic festival, Samhain***, which was the Celtic New Year. It was the day of the dead, and they believed the souls of the deceased would be available" (Navarro).

    **Samhain**

    Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) means "summer's end" by the Celts. In old Germanic and Celtic societies, what we call equinoxes and solstices marked the middles of the season, not the beginnings." (Chamberlain) Therefore if there exist an autumnal equinox, winter solstice, spring equinox and a summer solstice, there are also the beginning of autumn, winter, spring and summer. All of these eight dates were important. Summer's end which meant the beginning of winter was an important time for people who survived on plants grown in the field and animals that were kept in pastures. (Chamberlain) "This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death" (The History Channel Exhibits- History of Halloween) It is most likely this reason that the Druids (Celtic pagans) believed that the spirits of those who died the preceding year roamed the earth the night of Samhain (MSN Learning & Research- Halloween)
    Descriptions

    The Druids celebrated this holiday "with a great fire festival to encourage the dimming Sun not to vanish" and people "danced round bonfires to keep evil sprits away, but left their doors open in hopes that the kind spirits of loved ones might join them around their hearths". On this night, "divination was thought to be more effective than any other time, so methods were derived to ascertain who might marry, what great person might be born, who might rise to prominence, or who might die" (Chamberlain). Also during the celebration, the Celts "wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes". Crops were burned and animals were sacrificed (The History Channel Exhibits- The History of Halloween). The spirits were believed to be either "entertained by the living", or to "find a body to possess for the incoming year". This all gives reasons as to why "dressing up like witches, ghosts and goblins, villagers could avoid being possessed." (Navarro )

    **Roman Influence**

    By 43 AD, "Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory." For the 400 years they occupied Celtic lands, two Roman festivals: Feralia (the commemoration of the passing of the dead) and a day to honor Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruits and trees). The apple served as a symbol for Pomona and which might have been incorporated into Samhain by the practice of "bobbing for apples" (The History of Halloween).

    **Christian Influence**

    When "local people converted to Christianity during the early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church often incorporated modified versions of older religious traditions in order to win converts." Pope Gregory IV wanted to subst-itute Samhain with All Saints' Day in 835, but All Souls' Day (Nov. 2nd) which is closer in resemblance to Samhain and Halloween today, was "first inst-ituted at a French monastery in 998 and quickly spread throughout Europe" (MSN Learning & Research- Halloween). In the 16th century, "Christian village children celebrated the vigil of All Saints' by doing the Danse Macabre.

    **Modern Halloween**

    Halloween came to the United States when European immigrants "brought their varied Halloween customs with them". In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants including the Irish fleeing from the potato famine in Ireland in 1846. By combining Irish and English traditions, Americans began the "trick-or-treat" tradition. In the later 1800's the holiday became more centered on community and in the 1920's and 1930's, Halloween became "a secular, but community-centered holiday". In the 1950's leaders changed Halloween as a holiday aimed at the young to limit vandalism. This all led to what Halloween actually is like today. (The History Channel Exhibits: The History of Halloween)

    ------------------–

    The festival of celebration that came around this time, without question has its *roots* or *beginnings* with the Celts and the Druids with Samhain. The Christians began to co-opt this festival or celebration, per usual, like other holidays, i.e... Saturnalia/Festival of Yule(Christmas), Eostre/Festival of renewal and fertility(Easter), etc...

    Peace...

    October 31, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Christianity – usurping and b*stardizing ancient holidays to ease the subjugation of the locals since 1 A.D.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Reasonably

      Excellent ! 😀

      Peace...

      October 31, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  18. christie d.

    This article was lame. I practiced paganism...when I was 13!! All religions are just fairy tales for people who never grew up.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Did you children hear that?

      October 31, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  19. Lamb of dog

    Brainwashing children to believe in something that cannot be and never will be proven is unhealthy. Teaching them that's it's OK to blindly believing in what they are told is unhealthy for future mental development.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  20. John Respecter of Wicca

    I enjoyed the article and, as a Christian, am always glad when the Pagan roots of the timing of Christian feasts are better understood (you think Christmas falls in December by accident?...but that's another matter).

    However, I am sure that Ms. Kraemer is aware that Samhain actually started as a late pastoral/late harvest festival when people came together to take stock of their provisions, get the herds in from the fields and prepare for the winter (Druid roots here too, but too much to go into); the "Dead" became part of the festival because it was thought they liked to visit their relatives at such a convivial time). I am also sure that November 2nd has been observed across the Catholic Church as "All Souls Day" (or, "The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed") for centuries, and not just in Mexico.

    In addition and partly to co-opt Samhain (which can fall on either October 31st or November 1st) the Church began celebrating November 1st as "All Saints Day," in honor of all the Saints of the Church, canonized and un-canonized, during the papacy of Gregory III (around 735 or so). The celebration of All Saints Day actually originated a century earlier under Boniface IV, but was originally set sometime in the middle of May, if I recall correctly. Gregory moved it to coincide with the Pagan feast and offer a counterpoint thereto. The term "Halloween" (actually "Hallowe'en") refers, then, to the "Eve of All Hallows" (or All Saints).

    So, good piece, but a missed opportunity to educate people even more. (

    October 31, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
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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.