Not only as a Druid, but as a well-read human being, I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m still sometimes shocked by the volume of Samhain and Halloween misconceptions.
A new thing historically speaking, these Halloween misconceptions abound in recent times. I’ve heard some odd ideas about where this festival finds its roots including:
- a celebration of a Celtic or Druid god of the dead or the “Lord of the Dead”
- a celebration of darkness in general, as in evil
- a celebration of someone named Sam Hane (or Sam Haine or various other spellings) who was a mass murderer or demon or a minion of Satan in other stories
- a Satanic holiday
- the “high holy day” of Satanists
More disturbing for me, from time to time I’m asked for confirmation on the dark and negative practices from urban myth that are perceived as part of this festival such as:
- animal sacrifices
- human sacrifices
- drinking blood
- conjuring up the devil or demons to procreate with for the purpose of later using those children in sacrifice during the next year’s festival
- Satanic cults roam around looking to select a victim (a child or an infant) to sacrifice to appease the lord of death
- leaving a hollowed turnip with a carved face and a light in it in trade for a sacrifice victim used in the celebration of the lord of death
- Satanists hand out poisoned candy to children
- children and/or animals are brutally butchered by Satanists in sacrifice to Satan
- glorifying or strengthening Satanic power through dressing up as “evil” creatures and decorating homes and other places with “occult symbols”
- a day of charging up dark powers to cast spells upon the opposers of Satan
As I consider Samhain the most sacred day of my Pagan year, I find this offensive and having crossed the line of ridiculousness several kilometres back. No longer a pastoral people as we are in our urban environments, in modern times, Samhain is celebrated more as a time for internal work. It’s meant to be a day spent honouring the ancestors and in spiritual introspection toward personal growth and development as we move into a new year. I feel a duty to bring some facts here to counter these Samhain and Halloween misconceptions that continue to devalue this extremely important time of year.
The Celtic word Samhain means “summer’s end” and according to the lunar calendar, the new year began on November 1st. The celebration would begin the sundown prior on October 31st and would continue to sunset on November 1st. At its simplest, it was the celebration of the Pagan new year. This was a seasonal festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year. For a pastoral people, this was very important and so the significance of the celebration was weighty.
Samhain was the biggest and most significant holiday of the year. This was due in part to the lifestyle change that went along with bringing in the herds, and so a great feast was held that included the bounty of the recent harvest. There was animal sacrifice, as there was in most other spiritual practices in ancient times and the later ones that descended from these ancient earth religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The significance of animal sacrifice in ancient society was what was offered during those sacrifices – life. The sacrifice was a celebration of life, liberated and sent back to the divine source. This practice was meant to strengthen the bond between the world and the divine, as well as the regenerative power of life or more simply, life feeding life.
The Celtic word Samhain means “summer’s end”
The Celts also believed that at Samhain time of year more than any other time, the veil between this world and the afterlife was thinnest. This allowed the ghosts of the dead to mingle with the living. This likely came from the ancient perception that on Samhain day, it was neither the old year nor the new year and so without bounds, the realms could interact with each other. They lit bonfires for the dead to show them the way back home as well as in honour of the ancestors since light was a symbol for life. Cattle or other livestock would sometimes be driven between two bonfires in symbolic purification and blessing for the upcoming year. People would do the same. The tradition of dressing up in costume came from this time. People would disguise themselves as beings from the afterlife (ghosts or skeletons or other suitable “dead person” appearances), and would make a lot of noise so the ghosts would leave them alone and not attempt to possess them in their confusion during this day without bounds. In earlier times, dressing up as animals was common as part of the end of the harvest season celebration when herders would bring their herds into the barns for winter.
Around the 5th century when Christianity invaded Ireland, the Catholic Church usurped the Samhain festival day in an effort to force the Pagan population into adopting Catholicism as the religion of the land. Pagan practices were immediately pronounced “evil” as was anyone who still clung to them. Practitioners of the old ways who refused to yield went into hiding and were branded “witches” by the Catholic Church. All Hallows Eve practices, the time before All Souls Day on November 2nd when the saints were celebrated, came to be blended with the Samhain traditional festival activities due, in part, to their often congruence. The day became known later as Halloween. On All Hallows Eve, dressing as animals was replaced with dressing up as saints to be honoured or devils or angels or fairies. A later custom arose of going door to door asking for small cakes in exchange for saying prayers for the dead relatives of the household to speed them along from limbo into heaven so they would not be stuck in purgatory.
Still old, but trick-or-treating is a more recent addition to the tradition of Samhain celebrations as societies moved beyond being merely pastoral. There are several old traditions from various points in history including the All Hallows Eve Catholic tradition of exchanging cakes for prayers that have all merged into what we know as trick-or-treating in modern times. Most of them are Irish in origin.
An old Irish peasant practice was to go door-to-door collecting money, eggs, apples, bread cake, cheese, etc in preparation for the festival of St. Columbus Kill. Another custom involved begging for soul cakes or offerings of one’s self in exchange for protection against bad luck or for prosperity. The tradition of appeasing the mischievous fairy folk, inhibitors of the Otherworld, grew out of the still-understood idea that the veil was thin between the worlds on Samhain. People went door-to-door begging for treats and failure to supply them would usually result in good-natured practical jokes being played upon the owner of the house and blaming the spirits. Offerings of milk would also be left out on the steps of the house for the fairy folk to gain their blessings for the coming year.
In 370AD, there is an account of the activities on “The night of mischief or con” (or oidhche na h-aimléise) and the custom still survives in places today. Groups of boys would visit the farmers’ homes and levy a sort of good-natured blackmail which was just as cheerfully paid. Appointed horn blowers for each group would announce their soon arrival at each farm house and the woman of the house would hand the levy to boys through a half-opened door. Meeting up later, the revellers would celebrate the festival of Samhain with the profits of their “blackmail”.
When immigrants from rural Ireland and Scotland came to North America, they brought their Samhain traditions with them. Girls would stay indoors and play divination games while boys would roam the countryside engaged in ritualized pranks their elders “blamed” on the spirits who crossed the veil.
Modern trick-or-treating where children beg for candy became a harmless secular activity and is a blend of several of these ancient and more modern influences. The origin can be traced to mid-19th century New York where a very high concentration of Irish immigrants adapted their rural Halloween practices to the urban New York environment. Groups of children known as “ragamuffins” dressed in costumes and begged for pennies from adults. When the Great Depression clashed poverty with increased urbanization, towns and cities organised “safe” Halloween events and householders began giving out bribes of sweets to the neighbourhood children to distract them from their previous and increasingly expensive mischief and pranks.
Origins of Urban Myths – The Rise of Modern Samhain and Halloween Misconceptions
A paranoia among extremist Christians grew during the 1960’s where a fear of deranged adults out to harm innocent trick-or-treaters spawned multiple urban myths and fuelled the Samhain and Halloween misconceptions. This type of “Satanic Panic” has occurred in cycles throughout history and is usually blamed upon a traditional enemy and though without basis, capitalizes on people’s fears and is used as a ploy for power. During the 60’s, this was circulated more widely than other myths during any previous times in history due to the new ability of mass media to reach further and so gained a lasting popularity despite a lack of fact or evidence. Media stories of razor blades hidden in apples and rat poison-coated candies took a prominent front.
Anton LaVey formed the Church of Satan in the 1960’s in direct opposition to these extremist groups. And in the event you were curious, Anton LaVey didn’t believe in the existence of Satan – LaVey’s version of Satanism begins with atheism, so no God and no Devil. Seeking to both shock and mock these groups, LaVey dedicated 3 major holidays for the Satanic year – one was his own birthday. The other two holidays, April 30th and October 31st, he chose in direct response to the “witch holiday” superstition that existed within these extremist groups and with their own paranoia continuing to expand upon the myths, these dates became linked with Satanism of which there are several varieties. Adolescent Satanism, the most sensationalized form with upside-down drawn pentagrams spray-painted on public buildings, general vandalism, and devoid of any real philosophy is rare and a tiny segment yet the type that catches the media and entertainment industry’s imaginations. Though would likely never even be claimed by other Satanist groups as being related, but I digress…
“Satanic Panic” has occurred in cycles throughout history
The ill-founded belief that Satanic cults were plotting to kidnap and sacrifice children on Halloween grew to a frenzy in the early 1970’s. This was further circulated by the media who ate up the sensationalist claims. Screenwriters picked up these urban Satanic myths and we saw the rise of Halloween-themed horror where before that point, horror film had been based on Gothic morality tales involving vampires or misguided monsters.
The most famous “Halloween poisoning”, and from where many urban myths sprung, was in 1974 and the death of 8-year-old Timothy O’Bryan from Texas. His father murdered him for the insurance money with cyanide-laced Pixie Stix. Attempting to attribute the poisoning to the work of a Halloween madman, he also gave poisoned Pixie Stix to one of his other children and three other children, but by luck, none of them ate the candy. The father was not a Pagan or a Satanist, only a sick murderer and nothing to do with Halloween or Samhain beyond the event occurring on Halloween night and involving candy.
The second most famous “Halloween poisoning” occurred in 1970, when 5-year-old Kevin Toston died as a result of ingesting heroin that was apparently sprinkled on his Halloween candy. Investigation revealed the small child had got into his uncle’s heroin stash and the family sprinkled heroin on the candy after the death to deflect attention from the uncle. Picked up by the media and touted as a Satanic Halloween murder, it was later recanted, but the original reporting was so sensational no one recalls the actual facts of the case.
The one true story that comes closest to the myths is the story of Helen Pfeil, a housewife from Greenlawn, New York, who, in 1964, grew annoyed at the older children who came trick-or-treating. She made them up “special” packages of inedible items that contained dog biscuits, steel wool pads and ant traps which were clearly labelled “poison” and she told the teenagers what she was giving them as she handed them out. She was, of course, charged with endangering children and rightly so.
There are several other incidents occurring on or near Halloween that were attributed to Satanic Halloween madmen. Though all were without basis, media does love a good, gruesome story to report on a slow news day, so they continued to circulate.
Too numerous to list here, according to the November 9, 1989 Los Angeles Times story interview with Joel Best, professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno, in 30 years, he found 78 total cases reported as Halloween madmen or Halloween poisonings in the media, and 2 were deaths (the Pixie Stix O’Brian murder and the accidental heroin poisoning of Kevin Toston). Nearly all 78 reported cases were unfounded or candy-tampering pranks with pins or razor blades, often by children for the satisfying reaction from their parents, and a very few perpetrated by sick individuals with the same malicious intent as are any other unconnected-Halloween crimes. None were Satanists or Pagans or performing ritualized animal mutilations, though the myths continue to abound.
What is Samhain and Halloween Now?
As it is for myself and other Pagans, Samhain continues to be the sacred day it always has been. It remains a time to reflect and be introspective toward making personal growth during the coming new year. It’s a time to think back on the past, including honouring our ancestors and learning from their wisdom when we can apply it to our own lives. It’s a time for celebration of life and for new beginnings. Beyond that there is the modern Halloween celebration – the same innocent secular activity for children it began as, with lots of sweets and dressing up and having fun and nothing more sinister than that.
Sometimes and for some, the two intersect and then it’s twice the fun. And from either view? No relation to the urban myths that sprang from any Samhain and Halloween misconceptions.
Now light the jack-o-lantern and pass the candy already!
Don’t take my word for any of this
Poisoned Halloween Candy: Trick, Treat or Myth? by Robin Nixon, Oct 27, 2010; livescience.com
About Halloween – The myth about the “Celtic god of the dead.”; Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Samhain, Wikipedia, original post 16 October 2001, updated Oct 29, 2015
Halloween Distortion: Sociologist Finds Perils of Trick-or-Treating Have Been Greatly Exaggerated; Los Angeles Times, Oct 29, 1985 by Anne C. Roark
Adulterated Halloween Candy: “Razor Blades in the Apples” Hoax; Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Readers Angry but Still Unable to Find Case of Halloween Horror; Los Angeles Times, Nov 9, 1989 by Mike Spencer
How Christians Made Halloween a Satanic Holiday, Oct 29, 2012 by John Sanidopoulos
Halloween Non-Poisonings (updated Oct 26, 2015)
Halloween Sadism: The Evidence by Joel Best
Halloween Errors and Lies
What Fundamentalist Christians don’t want you to know about Halloween
(Version 4.7) Copyright © 1997, 2006 c.e. by Isaac Bonewits
Are Satanists Pagan? by Jason Mankey, Sept 12, 2012
Has Anyone Ever Actually Poisoned Or Put Razor Blades or Needles in Halloween Candy? by Staci Lehman, Oct 24, 2013
The Truth About Halloween Poisonings; MedFriendly, Oct 31, 2006
The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand
The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand
The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand
Curses! Broiled Again! by Jan Harold Brunvand
How Christians Made Halloween Satanic