It’s that time of year again. The dreaded Halloween period !
Many blogs out there have ramped up the discussions on whether we should participate or not. Most notably Michael Patton from Reclaiming the Mind is stirring the pot (again). And Joe Carter on First Things gives us some ideas on which tracts not to hand out. And as you can tell by the quick and swift reactions on Reclaiming the Mind, both pro and con, this is remaining a controversial issue amongst Christians. And it has been so for many, many centuries.
So for your pleasure, I decided to provide a little perspective, some history (although mostly anecdotal based on personal experiences) and cultural differences about this holiday. There are many better works and articles out there if you like more research on the topic, but perhaps this can be somewhat helpful.
The original fall festival that led to Halloween, was called Samhain in most Celtic regions and a bunch of other names depending on the language. It was celebrated in many areas of Northern Europe, from Ireland over Scotland, Wales and Brittany into the current areas of the Netherlands, Flanders and Northern France. During the festival, beets or turnips were hollowed out and a candle was placed inside. The local villagers would then proceed with a procession through the fields after the final harvest. From what I have read and understood, it was more a festival to celebrate the passing of harvest and plead for the coming winter, more so than a commemoration of the dead. Sure, there were rituals to ward of evil spirits since it was believed that at this turn of the season, the dead would visit our world. It was an attempt to ward of those things that go “boink” in the dark for the many dark winter months to come. But it was apparently not the frightening human sacrifice kinda feast that most sites tend to portray.
With the Christianization of Europe in the 3rd – 4th centuries, there was an attempt to Christianize pagan holidays and symbols. I can tell you dozens of examples from the regions were I grew up where old oaks trees all of a sudden started having little “Mary chapels”, locations where pagan sacrifices where performed sprouted churches, etc.
To Christianize the pagan holiday of the end of the harvest, the church instituted what is called “All Saints Day” on November 1st and “All Souls Day” on November 2nd. All Saints day was ratified by pope Boniface IV in the seventh century AD and confirmed by pope Gregorius IV in 837 AD. All souls day was added around 1,000 AD.
And people were asked to commemorate the Catholic saints on Nov 1 and the dearly departed on Nov 2. As a matter of fact, they still visit the graves of deceased family members on Nov 1 or Nov 2 in many regions of Europe. They will decorate the graves with flowers, especially Chrysanthemums, and say some prayers in memoriam.
In the English language, “All Saints Day” became “All Hallows Day” and the night before was called “All Hallows eve”. Which obviously is where we got the word Halloween from.
As you may recall, I grew up in Flanders. Where I grew up, they still walk through the fields with hollowed out sugar beets on a stick after the final harvest (which so happens to be the sugar beets right before winter hits) telling spooky stories and having a good time. As far as the dressing up part is concerned, I have to admit I never did this as a kid. We visited my grandparents grave. Later on my father’s grave. We had pancakes. And really good ones too ! The thin ones that we call “crepes” over here. With jelly or syrup. But we did dress up for carnival. The final day right before ash Wednesday. That was the day for merry feasting and joy and dressing up. In the American tradition of Halloween, people apparently started dressing up in the mid to late 1800’s, somehow combining the festivities of carnival with the Halloween tradition. How about handing out candy ? Nope.. Wouldn’t happen in November either. Where I grew up, going from house to house asking for candy or money actually happens on Epiphany. The day the Kings or wise men visited Christ is traditionally put at January 6th and it’s the day when children go from house to house, singing songs and are rewarded with candy for their effort. I’ll write an article about the pagan background of that day closer to Epiphany.
Noteworthy is that the attempts at Christianization of the pagan Samhain holiday (and many others like it) have been going on for at least 1.500 years ! So what us think that in the 21st century we are finally going to be able to accomplish what many generations of Christians could not ? Furthermore, you can notice that the way we celebrate Halloween with dressing up and handing out candy is really a mixture of many holidays, customs and there are cultural differences on how it is celebrated, if at all.
So what do we do with it ? Are we to celebrate it or not ?
I go back to the words of Paul in 1Corinthians 8.
7b But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
Paul clearly indicates that participating is something that is originally pagan in origin does not make us better or worse if we do or don’t. However, he does follow it up with a warning:
9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
From this I glean that we should all be prudent. Let those that want to participate go ahead. Let those that don’t have their freedom to abstain. Don’t try to convince those that are thinking otherwise. But through your daily living, set an example by your lifestyle that can lead others to Christ.
So do you participate ? Or not ? If so, how ? And if you use the opportunity to evangelize as a reason to participate, how are you evangelizing the other 364 days in the year ?