"Of course not," I replied. "Who told you that?"
It turns out he heard it from a classmate, whose church-going family doesn't permit her to go trick-or-treating at Halloween. She doesn't participate because her parents told her that Halloween was an evil holiday.
Now, I'm a church-going person myself, but my family has always enjoyed Halloween. We see it as a great neighbourhood event -- one last chance to see everyone on the street before we all retreat into our homes for the winter, emerging only to shovel the snow. Plus, the kids enjoy dressing up and -- of course -- getting all that candy.
But not everyone feels the way I do. A quick spin through the World Wide Web brings up sites, run mostly by evangelical Christians, telling why people who love God should not let their kids participate in Halloween activities.
For example, an evangelical pastor in California is quoted saying that Halloween "has become evil personified." An essay from the Christian Broadcasting Network says that "every act around Halloween is in honour of false gods, which are spirits in the realm of the Satanic." A group called the Christian Youth Alliance says that "Satan loves Halloween because it glamorizes the powers of darkness, drawing little kids into his realm."
But it's not just evangelical Christians who find Halloween uncomfortable -- Jehovah's Witnesses feel the same way, too. According to Walter Sopiwnyk, an elder at the Silver Heights congregation, Jehovah's Witnesses don't let their children go trick-or-treating because of Halloween's pre-Christian origins, and because they believe it propagates false ideas about life after death. Muslims also don't let their children participate; Winnipeg Muslim community leader Shahina Siddiqui says that most Muslims consider it a pagan holiday that teaches children to be greedy and beg.
Other religious groups, however, like Mormons, Sikhs, Roman Catholics and Jews, among others, see Halloween as a benign event, and view participation as a matter of personal choice. Rabbi Alan Green of the Shaarey Zedek synagogue says that most Jews view it as "harmless secular celebration that gives kids the opportunity to collect giant bags of candy in costume. It's good, clean, innocent fun -- something in far too short supply these days."
But what about those groups who see a dark side to Halloween? Well, they are right about one thing -- Halloween does have pre-Christian origins. It is rooted in the ancient Celtic calendar, which featured festivals that marked the beginning of the seasons. The winter festival, called Samhain, fell on Oct. 31; on that night it was believed that spirits moved freely throughout the Earth before moving on to their final resting place. Huge bonfires were burned and lanterns lit to guide the spirits along; people also sacrificed animals, told fortunes and dressed up in costumes.
As it did with other pre-Christian festivals, traditions and sacred places, the church christianized this holiday; in 835 Pope Gregory IV moved the Feast of All Saints -- a day set apart to honour believers who had died -- from spring to Nov. 1. In medieval England, All Saint's Day was commonly known as All Hallows, "hallow" being the Old English word for saint. Oct. 31 then came to be known as All Hallows Eve; today we call it Halloween.
The church was only partially successful -- the old practices were never completely eliminated, and some, such as doing pranks on Oct. 31, were brought to North America by European immigrants. But the modern-day practice of going house-to-house to collect candy is a North American invention, introduced in the 1920s because harmless pranks had turned into vandalism in some communities. Interestingly, trick-or-treating is similar to the old
European custom of "souling," where people went door-to-door on Nov. 2, All Souls Day, asking for "soul cakes." The more cakes they received, the more prayers they would promise to say for the dead relatives of the donors.
Maybe those who are concerned about Halloween's origins could add their own special religious meaning to it; although All Saints Day is a Catholic event, others might find it meaningful to take one day a year to especially remember family and friends who have died. For Protestants, Oct. 31 also has special meaning -- it's Reformation Day, the day Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation by nailing his concerns about the state of the church to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany.
So: Is Halloween a dark holiday to be avoided? Or is it just a benign activity that generates lots of money for candy makers and dentists? It depends on what you are looking for -- if you look for evil in it, you will likely find it; if you look for the positive, you will find that, too.
John Longhurst has been involved in communications and media relations with church-related non-profit groups for more than 20 years. He can be reached at email@example.com