Shorter days and darker nights are upon us. A long slumber, if not outright death, lay ahead for many living things as the Earth’s orbit tilts away from the sun. For millennia, humans greeted the arrival of cold and dark days with a warranted trepidation. Winter meant lean times. Increased darkness made it harder to see predators. Our fears grew. That Halloween is celebrated at the end of October, instead of Spring, should be no surprise to anyone. What should be a surprise to Americans, with little chance of famine and no chance of being attacked by a mountain lion in the dark, is that we celebrate Halloween at all. Our country, we are told, is founded on Judeo-Christian traditions. If this is true, why do we concern ourselves with celebrating Halloween, the most pagan of holidays? To be sure, there are many orthodox practitioners of these traditional religions who would squash Halloween out of existence. These faithful are few and far between when compared to the great majority of Americans who, I would argue, are all themselves pagan.
There is a stigma about pagans, cultivated by major religions for centuries, which holds them out as misguided at best, and immoral or evil at worst. The beliefs of pagans, they say, run contrary to the long running traditions of their own Judeo-Christian religions. But, if it’s long running traditions that are important to these faithful, it is they who need to recognize that their religions are actually the break from even longer traditions. When Christianity was new, this was a concept that its disciples were familiar with. They had to combat the traditions of the masses, traditions already thousands of years old. Their success was limited. It took edicts from emperors and wars of subjugation to spread their faith. Even through force, they were still unable to completely separate people from their pagan traditions. In the end, to get people to follow their lead, they had to conform to the old ways. People wouldn’t give up their Festival of Saturnalia or winter solstice celebrations, so they made the birth of their Savior to coincide with these pagan holidays. The pagan Spring festivals celebrating rebirth was the perfect time of year to celebrate the rebirth of their Savior. Without these compromises, Christianity might not have ever taken off. Once they were able to get people on board with Christianity, the Church would be in power, and they then could slowly separate the people from these older beliefs. To this end, the Church made great headway during the Dark and Middle Ages. By the middle of the last millenia, the Church controlled everything from countries, kings and queens to the peasants in the fields. Any individual who might choose to think outside official church dogma ran the risk of being branded a heretic. A woman, banished to the outskirts of a settlement because she wanted to dabble with the powers of nature (an early scientist?), and wanted to think for herself, might be branded a witch and burned at the stake. Any threat to the power of the Church was met with an smear campaign to designate the challenge as evil. It was clear force, not persuasion to the free will of others on the merits of their philosophy, that built Christianity.
A funny thing happened two and a half hundred years ago. A new nation took root, derived in liberty and separating the powers of church from state. What would happen to the Church if it lost its teeth? Would threats of Hell after death be as persuasive as their threats of torture in this life? The answer was: only for awhile. The more generations that pass since the founding of America, the more our ancient pagan traditions seem to re-emerge. Proof of this is everywhere. Halloween is so popular that Americans spend $9 billion a year on its celebration. Ministers across the land decry that we have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas by embracing wreaths, trees, lights, yule logs, gifts, reindeer and elves over Christ. Easter has become about bunnies, chicks and eggs, all pagan symbols of Spring fertility and birth, not about a Man being tortured to death for our sins. The leaders of organized religion would tell us that we have forsaken our traditions, but I would offer to you that we have rediscovered them. The best part of Easter, Christmas, and All Saints Day is the pagan aspects we have rediscovered through them. We are creatures of this world, not the next. Worshipping the seasons of the year, the solstices, Spring fertility and rebirth are of vital importance to us and our place in nature.
Centuries of Church indoctrination have not erased that which is ten times older within us.We may call ourselves Jews, Christians or Muslims, but most Americans are pagan at heart. That is why we throw coins in fountains. It is why we read our horoscopes. It is why we knock on wood. It is why we bring trees and lights in our house on the darkest days of the year. It is why we paint eggs. It’s why we wish on stars. Don’t be afraid to go full pagan lest you abandon your traditions. They are your traditions. They are all our traditions. They are older than the ones of your grandparents and of their grandparents. They may be primitive attempts at understanding our world, but at least they are of this world.