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Is God Finally Dead? The Triumph of Halloween’s Sacrilegious Celebrations

Photo by Waiting For The Word | CC by 2.0

At around 3:00 pm on Tuesday, October 31st, Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old legal immigrant form Uzbekistan, became the latest home-grown “lone-wolf terrorist.”  Driving a rented pickup truck on a bicycle path abutting the West Side Highway along the Hudson River in Tribeca, he hit pedestrians and cyclists, killing eight people (mostly Argentinian tourists) and wounding 12 others.  After crashing his truck into a school bus and attempting to flee, Saipoy was shot by a police officer and shouted in Arabic “Allahu akbar,” “God is great.”

A couple of hours later and only a few blocks away in Greenwich Village, the 44th annual Village Halloween Parade went on as planned.  An estimated one million merry-makers came out, children and adults adorned in the wildest costumes.  One can only wonder if Saipov, an apparent ISIS/Islamic State supporter, undertook his deadly lone-wolf act in protest to New Yorkers’ – along with millions of other Americans’ – celebration of a pagan holiday.

At the parade, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, dresses in his daily costume of a suit and tie, declared, “Tonight we’re at a Halloween parade to say, you [Saipov] didn’t win and you didn’t affect us, and we’re out and we’re celebrating and we’re doing what New Yorkers do and we’re living our lives because we’re not going to allow the terrorists to win. Period.”  NYPD Chief Carlos Gomez said, “We will proceed with the parade and certainly we’ve added more resources, more police officers, heavy weapons teams, blocker vehicles on the street leading to the route as well as more sand trucks.”

The Village festival is but one of dozens of street fairs, parties and other get-togethers held in New York to celebrate Halloween.  Among those for children are the 27th Annual Children’s Halloween Parade held at 3:00 pm at the fountain in Washington Square Park; the 51st annual Ragamuffin Parade in Bay Ridge (Bklyn); the Park Slope (Bklyn) annual children’s Parade; and Jackson Heights (Queens) parade.  Even the staid American Museum of Natural History offered more than 30 events for trick-or-treating as well as arts and crafts exhibits.

Halloween is an all-American celebration.  One recent survey found that three-fifths (61%) of Americans “plan to participate in the Halloween celebrations this year,” while 29 percent reported they would not celebrate the event.  Although Pres. Donald Trump and first lady, Melania Trump, did not appear in costume, a sure slight to George Clooney and the Saturday Night Live gang, the White House was transformed into a Halloween haven.  An Associated Press story notes that “giant spiders and their webs hung from the walls as Jack O’Lanters featuring the faces of previous presidents were scattered across the garden.”  Children from 20 nearby schools and military families were invited.  One youngster sported a skeleton wearing and wore a “Make America Great Again” hat, perhaps in recognition of the hollowness of Trump’s electoral pledge.  Most surprising, VP Mike Pence – who proclaimed, “I am a Christian, a Conservative, and a Republican in that order” — Tweeted, “Happy Halloween! Be safe and have fun.”

Like Christmas, Halloween has been fully Americanized, integrated into the market economy.  National Retail Federation estimated that consumers were expected to spend “a record $9.1 billion” this year on Halloween goodies, including $2.7 billion on candy alone; total spending is project to be up 8.3 percent from last 2016. Another study found that the top Halloween candies by state were: in Californian, Almond Joy; in New York, Kit Kats; Texas, 3 Musketeers; and in Pence’s Indiana, Nut Goodie.

The U.S. consumer marketplace is the great forgetting machine and nothing better attest to this than the adoption of Halloween.  It’s a very ancient pagan custom celebrated by the Celtic people some 2,000 years ago as Samhain, when the dead could visit the living.  Then, people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts.  In the 8th century, in an attempt to contain the sacrilegious celebration, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as a time to honor all saints.  In time, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of the older pagan festivities and the evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, thus giving rise to Halloween.

Halloween signifies the seasonal transition, of days growing shorter and nights getting colder.  Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of children’s festivities with trick-or-treating and the carving of pumpkin jack-o-lanterns.  Initially, the custom of “tricks” was related to the idea that ghosts and witches fostered mischief if their spirts were not honored.  In time, vampires, werewolves and zombies were added to the repertory of spirits.  Today, Ireland is the only country where Halloween is a national holiday, celebrated with fireworks and children are off from school.

One of the most informative sources about the origins of Halloween is the Christian Broadcasting Network.  In a post entitled, “The Pagan Roots of Halloween,” it describes the origins of some of the celebration’s key features.  Three are of special note:

+ Tricks and treats – “if the living did not provide food, or ‘treats,’ for the spirits, then the spirits would ‘trick’ the living.  People feared terrible things might happen to them if they did not honor the spirits.”

+ Masks and costumes – people “used to hide one’s attendance at pagan festivals or — as in traditional shamanism (mediated by a witch doctor or pagan priest) and other forms of animism — to change the personality of the wearer to allow for communication with the spirit world. Here, costumes could be worn to ward off evil spirits.”   In addition, “the costume wearer might use a mask to try to attract and absorb the power of the animal represented by the mask and costume worn.”

+ Jack-o’-lantern — the legend of “Irish Jack” explains the jack-o’-lantern. “According to the legend, a stingy drunk named Jack tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree for an apple, but then cut the sign of a cross into the trunk of the tree to prevent the devil from coming down. Jack then forced the devil to swear he would never come after Jack’s soul. The devil reluctantly agreed.”  However, when Jack died “he was turned away at the gates of heaven because of his drunkenness and life of selfishness. He was sent to the devil, who also rejected him, keeping his promise. Since Jack had no place to go, he was condemned to wander the earth. As he was leaving hell (he happened to be eating a turnip), the devil threw a live coal at him. He put the coal inside the turnip and has since forever been roaming the earth with his ‘jack-o’-lantern’ in search of a place to rest. Eventually, pumpkins replaced turnips since it was much easier to symbolize the devil’s coal inside a pumpkin.”

In Deuteronomy, the Bible warns: “There must never be anyone among you who … consults ghosts or spirits, or calls up the dead.” [18:10-12]

Halloween first came to America during the colonial era, with some cases found among early New England Puritans and others, but more incidents in the southern colonies, often mixing with Native American harvest celebrations.  However, by the mid-19th century, as mass immigration from Ireland and Scotland cast the nation’s population mix, Halloween grew into a more widely-celebrated festivity.  Now it an all-American party.

It’s not yet known why Sayfullo Saipov chose Halloween day, October 31st, to commit his terrorist act.  The Washington Times reports that “a French ally of the Islamic State had issued an unusually specific threat against Halloween gatherings in the West before Tuesday’s attack ….”  This story has yet to be confirmed, particularly with regard to Saipov’s actions.

The monotheistic god has been around for nearly four centuries, first with the Jews, then with Catholics, then with Muslims and then – 500 years ago this year – with Protestants.  In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche included “The Parable of the Madman” in his study, The Gay Science.  In it, he wrote:

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers.” … Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Religious fundamentalists, whether Islamists, Christian evangelicals and Zionists, loudly proclaim their beliefs, often imposing their values on those deemed unbelievers even at the costs of the nonbeliever’s life.  The louder they rant, the more they demand adherence to their beliefs, the more they acknowledge their god’s death.

God’s murderer is, of course, secular capitalism that has – in the 500 hundred years since Luther wrote his theses — remade the world in its amoral image.  With the art that only the commodity spectacle can fashion, both Christmas and Halloween have normalized, losing their individual religious and pagan identities to the marketplace.  For an every-growing number of Americans, god surely is dead and so they can more freely enjoy both Christmas and Halloween holidays.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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