Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Halloween spirit has long tradition

If witches, ghosts and vampires make people suspicious of Halloween, then the Easter bunny, Easter eggs, Santa Claus and Christmas trees also should be questioned, two University of South Florida (USF) professors say. These holiday symbols originated from pre-Christian days, the professors said.

William Heim, an English professor who specializes in the occult, said he has gotten many calls in recent years from teachers and attorneys representing school boards asking whether Halloween is a religious or pagan holiday. In the past, he said, groups even have objected to Halloween decorations in public libraries.

His answer to them is that Halloween is a pagan holiday.

It dates back to a festival celebrated by Celtic people as the days grew shorter each autumn. They lit bonfires to "feed the sun" and prolong daylight, Heim said. The Celts believed the dead would return during the festival and left food for the spirits. Children, who were to be gathering firewood, often dressed as spirits and ate the food _ like early trick or treaters.

"The name is Christian, but all the customs associated with it can be traced back to an ancient, pagan time," Heim said.

Halloween customs are as related to pagan religions as the Easter bunny and Easter eggs, which are pagan fertility symbols of spring, said Flora Zbar, another English professor interested in the occult.

The incorporation of these symbols in Christian holidays resulted when the church conformed to many of the entrenched pagan holidays.

"There was a deliberate attempt to draw interest away from pagan holidays and give them Christian significance," Heim said.

Controversy over Halloween and its customs are cyclical, he said. The Puritans showed their disapproval by not celebrating the holiday.

Heim said he thinks media attention on devil worship and satanism in the last three or four years is responsible for the current opposition to the holiday.

Heim said Halloween's image has been tarnished in recent years by the rise of "neo-pagan" religions such as Wicca, a type of witchcraft that reveres the creative forces of nature. Parents have debated whether Halloween should be considered a religion and forbidden in schools.

"Many people view it as an actual revitalized religious holiday, and is therefore an introduction of religion into the schools," he said.

Zbar agreed that reactions to the holiday are spurred by the revival of pagan religions. She said these are affected by the social climate.

"Sometimes when there is economic threat or war threat, people look more toward earlier religions and they go to some of the more esoteric religions. They're looking for more control," she said.

But most people, especially children, do not see Halloween as a religious holiday, Zbar said.

Despite the controversy, Zbar predicted the tradition of Halloween will continue to be passed on because of the holiday's nature.

"Ghoulies and beasties and things that go bump in the night have always appealed to the Western culture," she said. "It is part of human nature."