Halloween: The Cultural Onion

Skeletons are not attractive. They are, however, popular lawn ornaments right now – just take a stroll through my small town. “Ah yes,” the average homeowner is likely to say, “nothing says ‘fall’ quite like a dead body and a pumpkin or two.”

This is a season of extremes – costumed vampires hold hands with ladybugs, witches and happy pumpkins stand side by side, children bump around the town in search of nothing more than candy while drunken orgies and vandalism sprout in the growing darkness.

Amid the hubbub of Halloween comes the annual hullabaloo among Christians. The question is this: should Christians celebrate Halloween or should they not? Is trick-or-treating an unspeakable sin or a witnessing opportunity? Is this merely another holiday like every other?

The Culture

Halloween, despite all appearances, did not find its beginnings in the seasonal aisle of Walmart. Traces of a similar celebration can be found in the early centuries of the first millennium A.D. The Celts, a people group that inhabited much of western Europe, observed the festival of Samhain around the first of November. This was a high time – not only a celebration of harvest, but also a potent season of appeasing the spirit world.

According to tradition, the heavy curtain between life and death waned at this time of year, and spirits of the dead wandered the countryside. Celtic priests and leaders, known as Druids, led the people in sacrificing their animals and crops to soothe the underworld. Costumes, bonfires, and even hollowed-out vegetables with lights inside (hello, jack-o-lantern) warded off unfriendly spirits while divination, fortune-telling, and gift-giving invited good fortune and prosperity for the coming year.

Samhain, being the pagan holiday it was, fell under severe criticism when the Roman Empire swept across Europe. The Roman Catholic Church denounced Celtic devil worship and sought ways to counteract it. “Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the pope [Gregory the First] instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.”1

To help the cause along, another pope took All Saints Day (a Catholic holiday set in March) and moved it to November 1st. This rearrangement was meant to be a healthy Christian alternative. Instead, it grew into a curious hybrid of spirits and saints. The night before All Saints Day (or All Hallows Day) became an event in itself – “soul cakes” were baked, masks were donned, superstitions were whispered. All Hallows Eve morphed into Hallow Evening which became Hallowe’en.

The Church

What shall we do with this pagan/Christian holiday? “It’s harmless fun,” many evangelicals say, “just do it.” Or “It’s a chance to witness,” we hear, “don’t lose it.” As one blogger advised: “Don’t miss the best opportunity you have each year to meet your neighbors.”2 Others tell us that we should wrest Halloween away from Satan and boldly celebrate Christ’s victory over him. “What better way to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve than to invert the world for a moment, laugh at the devil, make light of death for a moment…”3 Many churches produce Halloween substitutes – “trunk or treat” parties and Reformation Day celebrations.

In my observation, we Anabaptists usually fall into one of two ditches. Either we denounce Halloween and completely ignore it (as far as the neighbor’s inflatable jack-o-lantern will allow), or we participate in a watered-down version of trick-or-treating because, after all, young Sally looks just darling in a princess outfit. Both reactions are wrong and here’s why: they fail to address the core issue of Halloween.

The Crux

Halloween is a cultural onion. Peel away the layers of candy and costume, fellowship and harmless fun. What is left? The very center of Halloween – death. It is everywhere, the shadow under every message and every symbol.

We are fascinated with death. Indeed, who could blame us? Death is the great unknown, the inescapable dread, the ultimate question that man cannot answer. Halloween caters to our fascination with a carnival of blood, corpses, skeletons, haunted houses – the list goes on and on. We get an adrenaline rush from having our deepest fears exposed.

This dark quality sets Halloween apart from every other holiday on the calendar. Were it simply a matter of pagan origin, Halloween would be taboo – along with Christmas, Easter, and practically every American holiday. But origins, no matter what you choose to do with them, are not the point. Church traditions and cultural habits have been traded so often throughout the centuries that the onion is quite large and the layers a bit thick. How do we know what is “ours” and what is “theirs”? One thing we can say with surety – fear and death and darkness are not ours.

We are Christians, the children of a loving Father. Though we were held captive by fear and darkness, Jesus Christ took on our humanity – became one of us – “that through death he might destroy the power of the devil, and deliver all those who through the fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”4 Do you fear death? Then something is wrong. If we have given our souls to Jesus, we are safe. He has conquered death, once for all, and broken our chains of fear. No more slavery; no more torment.

Since we are now free men, shall we laugh it up? Poke fun at death? Rib the devil? The world, whether aware of it or not, is asking hard questions – and it isn’t laughing. “What happens after I die?” “Will I be all alone?” “Is anyone out there?” The sting of death is very real for those who have no Savior.

Shall we dip our toes into the more shallow Halloween waters? If Halloween is indeed a celebration of death, then endorsing it is not a matter of bad taste; it is a matter of bad theology. Children of light do not praise the very darkness from which they have been saved.

What’s a Christian to do? Use this season of death; introduce the Author of life.

“For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”5

Questions: What are some practical ideas for witnessing during Halloween? What are some ways we can be proactive in reaching out to the trick-or-treat crowd – without supporting the party?

Amanda.jpg Amanda Gingerich is a reader. She reads the classics, the Bible, and the signs of the times. She’s probably read your Facebook page. But don’t read into that.

Works Cited

  1. Santino, Jack.“Halloween: the Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows” Library of Congress. September, 1982; updated 2009. Web. Accessed September 28, 2016
  2. “Stetzer, Ed. “Four Reasons You Should Go Trick-or-Treating Tonight” Christianity Today. October 31, 2013. Web. Accessed September 28, 2016.
  3. Donathan, Alicia. “Halloween, a very Christian holiday indeed” Kuyperian Commentary. October 31, 2013. Web. Accessed September 28, 2016.
  4. Hebrews 2:14b-15 (English Standard Version)
  5. Ephesians 5:8-11

4 thoughts on “Halloween: The Cultural Onion

  1. When we lived in the country, I could basically ignore Halloween. Now that we live in town, I can’t ignore it, and I feel a sick dread as the day approaches. The spiritual darkness in our town that night is tangible.

    What have we done to bring life? Last year I slowly drove around town with my van windows down and prayed aloud. I prayed the blood of Jesus over the darkness. I worshiped and praised God, and proclaimed Jesus Christ as the Son of God. The whole time I had goosebumps all over my body. I don’t think I have ever stood up to evil the way I did that night.

    This year, my husband and I are also countering the darkness with thanksgiving. At every evening meal, we go around the table and each person in our family (and visitors if they come!) says what they are thankful for. Then we take time to praise God. God is enthroned on the praises of Israel. (Psalm 22:3. I wrote a little about it on my blog. https://arabahrejoice.com/2015/12/04/enthroned-on-the-praises-of-israel/.)

    Thank you for this well-written article!

    Like

  2. Well done, Amanda. I enjoyed the READ!

    One line in particular put a smile on my face. One word in that line made
    me grin. Now, this is completely incidental to the substance of your fine
    work, so I beg your pardon, in a sense.

    Here is the sentence:

    >>>Since we are now free men, shall we laugh it up?

    And this is the word:

    >>>men

    And this is why joy overtook me from within and raised my lips to a smile:

    I thought, “Here is a young woman who remains deeply attached to the
    fabric of God’s universe. She is “spitting” in the eye of Feminist culture,
    though it lurches upon her at every turn and voraciously seeks her as prey.
    This one won’t buckle; this one won’t cave. She won’t be shaped by the
    threats of menacing, degenerative, neutering, inclusivist Western culture.”

    OR… maybe I’m READING too much into a word 🙂

    Best wishes.

    Like

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