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Halloween – learning from synchroblog

25 October 2007

The synchroblog on Halloween has been one of the most rewarding and informative so far, and I’d like to thank everyone who took part. I certainly learnt a lot from it.

Here are some of the things I learned

1. The US celebration of Halloween is about community

My own view of US Halloween customs was fairly negative. I’ve never experienced them at first hand, and all I know about them comes from reading, films and conversations.

Some years ago I lived in Windhoek, Namibia, and an American friend’s children were discussing what they should do on Halloween. They clearly missed the dressing up and all the rest of it, which they had done in previous years, but it would simply have bewildered the inhabitants of Windhoek. But they couldn’t articulate what it was they missed to adults who had never experienced what they were talking about, to whom it was culturally alien.

All I could see was that it resembled some sort of juvenile protection racket, and though people had assured me that it was not so, and that it was innocent fun, this never really convinced me.

But in the synchroblog many of the bloggers began by describing what they had done as children, and what it meant to them, and reflecting on it as adults, and a new picture began to emerge, for me at any rate. What it was really doing was building community in the neighbourhood. Suburban life often does not have much community, in just about any part of the world including America,

I remember a few years ago in electronic forums large numbers of Americans were particularly scornful of an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Perhaps they were also the ones who rejected the Halloween activities.

The picture that emerged from the synchroblog, however, was that Halloween helped to create the kind of community one found in villages, the kind of community that could raise a child, where people knew their neighbours and their neighbours’ children.

Several synchrobloggers also described the Fall, the fall from that innocence and sense of community, first through the urban legends of razor blades and poison, and then through the ideology that declared that Halloween was evil.

So I’d like to thank my fellow synchrobloggers for teaching me something important, and helping me to understand better a cultural custom.

2. Factoids rule, but is it really OK?

Another thing I learned was that many synchrobloggers believed and repeated the factoid that Christmas, Easter and Halloween were originally pagan festivals that had been “taken over” by Christians.

My contribution to the Halloween synchroblog (Who stole Halloween?) dealt with the Halloween part of this, and I’ve also blogged about the Easter one here.

I found this a little surprising, but not so much as the next thing I learned.

3. Some American Evangelicals replaced Halloween by “Harvest festivals” because they believed the former was of pagan origin.

This is related to the factoid that Halloween is of pagan origin. American Evangelicals are not alone in believing that. There have been some wildly inaccurate accounts of it in my own (Orthodox) tradition — see here, for example.

I was not aware that harvest festivals had been deliberately introduced by some American churches as substitutes for Halloween. Apart from anything else, I thought that Americans already had a big harvest festival a few weeks later, called Thanksgiving.

I found this ironic, because a far better case can be made out for harvest festivals being of pagan origin than distinctively Christian ones like Christmas, Easter and Halloween.

Even there, however, the relationships are not simple. In an urbanised world we tend to lose awareness of where food comes from, because we buy it in shops, wrapped in plastic, and until disaster strikes, we are unaware of how precarious the food supply was for our ancestors, and how bad things were if the harvest failed. Here in South Africa the Rinderpest has only just passed from living memory, and it led to a clause being inserted into the Anglican Litany:

From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence and famine; from locusts, murrain and drought; from battle and murder, and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.

Even then “murrain” was an archaic word, and people ofen asked what it meant. But a century ago, when 80-90% of Africa’s cattle died in the Rinderpest, it inspired even more fear than Peak Oil does today, because cattle were not just a source of food, they were the means by which agricultural produce was transported to the cities.

So most religions in agricultural societies have had something like a harvest festival. And even Easter was originally linked to the barley harvest, while Pentecost was the wheat harvest, though those links are now several times removed.

In pagan Zulu society there is still the feast of the first fruits, where young men wrestle a beast to death (though aninmal rights organisations may have put a stop to that) and people bring offerings of corn to the chief, which they cannot continue to harvest until they have brought them to him.

In England there was Lammas, the Loaf-mass, at the beginning of August, which was a kind of first fruits ceremony at the beginning of August. It was probably celebrated before the English became Christian, and so was a Christianised version of a pagan festival.

Anyway, I’d like to thank everyone who participated in this month’s synchroblog. I learnt a lot of things that I didn’t know before, and got a few new perspectives on things that I did know.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 October 2007 6:03 pm

    I posted an article about halloween on my site and received several interesting comments. See http://tinyurl.com/ypd2ck

  2. 29 October 2007 5:26 am

    Robin,

    Thanks for the link to your article, which I read with interest. However, there is a lot of inaccurate information in it, which I believe you should check. In particular, there is no deity called “Samhain”. Samhain was a season of the year, and its connection with Halloween is merely coincidence — that the Western Halloween happened to fall within it. Halloween has been (and still is) observed on different dates by different groups of Christians.

    See the synchroblog article below on Who stole Halloween? below for more details. There are links to other synchroblog articles written by more than 20 Christians, well worth reading.

  3. 29 October 2007 3:09 pm

    Steve
    Great appraisal, and thank you for your part in organising this. We often do not revisit the things we start, but therein lies the real fruit.

    I think upwards of 20 blogs was a bit much to take in, (is synchroblogging dead already?) but was worth every word.

  4. 29 October 2007 7:46 pm

    Nic,

    Yes, it was a lot of reading, but interesting stuff!

Trackbacks

  1. Johnny Beloved | Who Stole Halloween
  2. Headspace @ www.lainiepetersen.com » Our Own Private Zombie: Death and the Spirit of Fear
  3. October Synchroblog – Christian responses to Halloween « Notes from underground

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