Halloween is generally thought of as a day of candy and costumes but for some, Oct. 31 also has a religious significance. The holiday’s combination of Christian and Celtic roots causes some students to see the day as more than just an excuse to trick-or-treat.
“Halloween is a day to laugh at our own fears and teach children not to be afraid,” said the Rev. Gerry Cunningham, chaplain of the Newman Catholic Student Center.
According to Cunningham, Halloween is an important Catholic celebration of the victory of Christians over the devil.
“Saints Day, which is the day after Halloween or ‘All Hallows’ eve celebrates the idea that Jesus Christ beat the devil and all the saints were saved,” Cunningham said. “Halloween is a holy day.”
According to the president of the Catholic Student Organization, junior Becky Pietsch, the Newman Center will sponsor a trip on Oct. 31 to the Dominican House of Studies located near Catholic University. At the church there will be a Vigil of Saints followed by a one-hour prayer service. Pietsch is expecting at least 20 students to go on the trip.
“All Saints Day as well as All Souls Day are meant to be holy days of obligation. The point is to remember those who led an exemplary life,” Pietsch said.
Even though Halloween has its roots in the Catholic religion, it did not originate there. Halloween is a western celebration originated by Celtic pagans, Cunningham said. The holiday was adapted into the Catholic religion when missionaries went to Ireland to convert the Pagans to Catholicism.
The original Celtic celebration of Oct. 31 is called Samhain and is actually celebrated by many Americans, including GW English Professor Kathy Larsen.
“For the Celts, Samhain was a happy festival that symbolized the last day of the harvest,” Larsen said.
Larsen, an “elapsed Catholic,” has celebrated the Samhain for five years. She said her fascination with the original holiday began when she started reading Irish history books and mythology.
“Samhain is easy to celebrate because it has been the least transformed,” Larsen said. “The Christian church tried to make Halloween a scary holiday, but the Celts were not afraid of the dead.”
According to Larsen, the origins of trick or treating came from the Celts ritual of leaving food outside for the spirits. For the Celts, Samhain is one of the transitional moments where the world of the dead crosses with the living.
“I do a lot more that is geared towards the harvest end of the celebration. My kids still do the trick or treating, but I just try not to play up the scary end of it because I don’t think it is a scary thing,” Larsen said.
Whether Halloween is regarded as a frightening holiday or not, there are still some religions that view it as an Americanized cultural celebration. Halloween is not grounded in the Hindu tradition at all. Instead, the “Hindu New Year,” known as Deepavali is celebrated at the end of October commemorating the new harvest.
However, Vineet Chander, GW’s Hindu chaplain said many parallels do exist between the two holidays.
“Candles are lit in every house (no jack-o-lanterns though) symbolizing the forces of light triumphing over darkness,” Chander said. “Sweets are also exchanged door to door.”
Other people such as some Muslims choose not to acknowledge Halloween at all. Aaron Cambel from the Hajj Foundation of North America said Halloween has negative connotations for the Islam religion.
“Because of our religious roots of only believing in 1 god – we don’t like to celebrate holidays that give praise to those other than god,” Cambel said.
However, because Halloween has become much less of a religious holiday, Cambel said, in America, children of Islam who live in this country still celebrate by dressing up and trick or treating.
“No Americans, regardless of religion, really care about the roots of Halloween,” Cambel said.
Junior Gabe Gershowitz said his religion does not look at Halloween as a religious holiday either. Gershowitz, who practices Judaism, said his religion would not celebrate a Pagan holiday but many Jewish Americans still participate in the cultural celebration.
“Nobody in Israel would even know what Halloween was. I think, as Americans, we are a society that takes every opportunity we have to do something together,” Gershowitz said. “Anything that unites us culturally we do and that is why we celebrate Halloween.”
According to Gershowitz, there is another Jewish holiday in the Spring called Purim where they are supposed to dress up in costume and celebrate a time when they were saved from destruction. Gershowitz said he will go out on Thursday night but think of it no differently than any other celebration.
“For me,” Gershowitz said, “it will be no different than a super bowl party.”