By Karis Pearson
Every year without fail, most of us (at least in the Western world) find ourselves celebrating the same holidays. Whether it’s gutting and personifying a pumpkin for Halloween, filling a giant sock full of gifts and giving credit to a guy called Father Christmas, or decapitating chocolate bunnies at Easter in the name of Jesus Christ. There is a long, rich history behind these celebrations, which is largely grounded in religion. Why then do so many of us participate? Be we atheist, agnostic, or a member of one of the many religions found among us in the UK today, the yearly holiday clock runs smoothly for most. Do we truly embrace the meaning of these holidays, or do we comply out of habit and a consumer driven agenda?
While the UK may still officially be a Christian country, the reality is not quite the case. According to a survey taken last year, 48.6% of the UK claim to have no religion at all. However, despite statistics like this, you can bet that many will stick pumpkins in their window and hand out sweets to any kids that come knocking. To an outsider to these traditions, it probably sounds pretty strange to spend an evening giving chocolate to children you don’t know, or to walk down the high street in broad daylight dressed as the Grim Reaper. Any other time of year you might find yourself getting arrested for engaging in these behaviours, but Halloween is a free pass for all this and more. For Christians, there are clear moments in history which explain the major holidays we celebrate in the UK. But, for the rest of us, who really knows or cares where all this came from?
Many people (including myself before writing this week) do not know where Halloween originated, or what it is we’re really celebrating when we put on a mask and embrace our spookiest side. Well, if this is you then let me enlighten you. Halloween was born out of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who celebrated their New Year on November 1st believed that on the night before it, there was a blurring between the worlds of the living and of the dead and on October 31st, the ghosts of the dead were able to return to earth.
Due to the presence of otherworldly spirits, it was believed that the Celtic priests, known as Druids, could more easily predict the future, which provided comfort in the face of the long and dark winter ahead. The Celts lit bonfires, dressed in animal heads and skins and told each other’s fortunes. By 1000 AD Christianity’s influence had spread to Celtic lands, and the church renamed the Samhain celebration All Souls’ Day, a festival to honour the dead. It’s believed the church was trying to replace the ancient Celtic festival with a church-sanctioned holiday. Fast forward to October 31st, 2018 and students could be found hitting Revs dressed as blood-soaked cheerleaders, or Scooby Doo and the Mystery Gang.
It’s interesting how often a religious influence is present in our behaviour. While I was made to re-enact the nativity story from an early age, and told the story of Jesus’ heroic resurrection, I pay little attention to these stories when Christmas and Easter come around, and I’m sure this is the case for many. While we are opening presents and eating ourselves sick, the Christian message of Christmas feels somewhat lost. However, the origins are still there, and the continued celebration of religious holidays shows how we in UK, and our neighbours in the US, are still to an extent playing along with the church’s narrative.
In the UK we add another celebration to our repertoire, remember remember the 5th of November? Now, usually (at least in my experience) Bonfire Night just consists of heading down to your local park and watching a firework display while your toes freeze slowly one by one. As holidays go, it’s a pretty harmless one, right? Not forgetting that nothing was more fun than writing your name with a sparkler when you were young. But, like all the other holidays, its origins are quite significant, whether we pay attention to them or not.
The celebration comes 1605, when the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and murder King James I, who was less than tolerant of Catholics in Britain, was foiled. Guy Fawkes, one of the Catholic conspirators, was caught, tortured and killed, hence we’re encouraged to burn effigies of Fawkes in celebration of his failure to inflict violence upon the British monarch.
Now, I am by no means condoning that violence is the answer, but is it not a little ridiculous to still be burning Guy Fawkes’ over 400 years later? We live in a multicultural society where religion is accepted in many forms and society is free to question the power of the monarchy, and yet, come November 5th, there we are, lighting bonfires which (whether we intend them to be or not) celebrate the safety of the monarch.
Among religious and royal influence, the increasingly commercial nature of these holidays shouldn’t be ignored either, as it is a large part of why they’re still celebrated so widely. Each year, like clock-work, these holidays come around, and we are trustily reminded by the right hand man of the capitalist agenda: advertising. It is not in the interest of big businesses if atheists stop buying Christmas gifts because they don’t believe in God, therefore, Christmas is marketed to everyone.
The religious aspect is filtered out and an all-inclusive, family oriented, eat, drink and be merry attitude is bought to the forefront of our TV screens and shop windows. It’s not just Christmas either. One quarter of sweets sold annually in the USA are purchased for Halloween; a whole lot of money for the confectionary industry. The same can be said for Easter, which can be credited for 10% of chocolate sales in the UK. It is no coincidence that these holidays, which originally held meaning beyond spending money, have become so associated with buying things.
For most of us, these popular celebrations are just a bit of fun. But, perhaps if we stopped and thought a little harder about why we complacently buy pumpkins and presents every year, we might realise we have less to celebrate than we thought.