Halloween. A traditional holiday based on pagan tradition, a harmless excuse for a good party or an insidious subculture of satanic worship that will brainwash our children?
Anyone who knows me will know how much I love Halloween. At this stage in my life, I’d say it is my favourite celebration. Memories of guising, parties, scary movie nights, ducking for apples, pumpkin carving and, of course, planning that perfect scary costume, fill me with excitement each year as the 31st October rolls around.
Halloween, as with many of our modern holidays, has become something of a lucrative business venture, another commercialised celebration, but it is interesting to consider the connection between our modern traditions and Americanised projection of Halloween that originate from the Celtic festival of Samhain. It’s not all about begging for sweets and scaring kids, and there are of course real reasons behind activities like trick-or-treat and dressing up. After the autumnal equinox, Samhain, old Irish Gaelic for ‘summer’s end’, was a celebration of life and harvest as well as a way of connecting with spirits at this time of year when it was thought that the mortal and supernatural worlds could intersect. Feasts were prepared, with places left empty for the spirits of lost family members. By the 19th century, dressing up in order to go unnoticed by evil spirits, and going to neighbouring houses to ask for gifts in honour of the dead, also became commonplace in Scotland and Ireland.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years and we now have our modern Halloween – a mix of these old Celtic rituals, Roman religious observances to honour the dead before All Saints’ Day, and American commercialism and slasher movies. A day of fun and fancy dress, with generally as little connection to religion than any other Western holiday. Saint Valentine is a chocolate brand yeah?
But if Halloween is generally seen in the UK and US as harmless fun, it’s a little different here in Russia. It has been interesting to hear different opinions about this holiday that I consider a highlight of the year. Whilst I personally don’t consider Halloween to be a religious holiday, many Russians cite their Orthodox beliefs as a reason to believe that Halloween is a dangerous celebration that undermines societal values. Why would you want to dress up as an evil creature? Does this mean that you, too, have the capacity for evil? It’s not something I even think about when I think of Halloween, but it makes sense, to a certain extent at least. Most people in the UK wouldn’t associate dressing up as a zombie or witch with any kind of preference for evil practices, but here it is seen as something that could be genuinely harmful for impressionable young people.
There is another reason why Halloween is not celebrated here. It’s not Russian. Or rather, it’s too American. People do actually have a similar practice to trick-or-treat on Old New Year, when children prepare songs or poems to read to neighbours in exchange for sweets and money. But even this is not often a welcome activity and can be met with stern dismissals rather than treats. “Halloween doesn’t exist in Russia.” Of course it does, I have born witness to it, but it’s treated as something that should be ignored, something that undermines Russian moral values and distracts from the true objectives of an Orthodox society.
The general impression that I have of holidays in Russia is that they are still very much focussed on religion and are times of serious reflection. Nothing is without purpose. The just-for-fun attitude that permeates our culture in Britain is not quite so applicable here, or at least not in the context of societal values. When I celebrated Halloween here this year, something about the dressing up and going out and partying did seem rather mindless, because people here don’t particularly understand it. Without the traditions and memories and connections to our past, it does become this objectified personification of the immoral Western influence of alcohol, hedonism and indulgence.
And I am but a lowly heathen of such a denigrating culture. “Хэллоуин – это путь к смерти”, (Halloween is the road to death) a poster informs me. At least my soul is happily doomed.