It’s Happy Halloween, not “Happy holidays.” Wait… wrong holiday.
A perfect opportunity to show Christlike generosity—and give the best candy ever. But too many of us make a serious point of being grouchy, fear-addled spoilsports.
(Image swiped from a mommy blog.)
For more than a decade I’ve ranted about the ridiculous Evangelical practice of shunning Halloween. I call it ridiculous ’cause it really is: It’s a fear-based, irrational, misinformed, slander-filled rejection of a holiday… which turns out to actually be a legitimate part of the Christian calendar.
No I’m not kidding. It’s our holiday. We invented Halloween. No it sure doesn’t look like Christians’ original intent, but that’s ’cause we let the pagans take it over and transform it from a fun time for children, to an inappropriate adult bacchanal, or a celebration of creepy horror movie themes.
Then there are the Pagans with a capital P—religious Pagans, as opposed to irreligious pagans. I call ’em neo-Pagans because their religions date from the 1960s. Yeah, that recently. They revived ancient religions, which is why that “neo-” bit goes before Pagan; but they greatly adapted those religions for present-day sensibilities. Ancient Pagans often had a lot of racial and sexual boundaries as part of their identity; modern Pagans decidedly got rid of the racism and sexism.
Anyway, neo-Pagans claim Halloween was originally Pagan, and Christians stole it from ’em in a futile attempt to Christianize it. This is utter rubbish. Yet because some of them call themselves “witches,” and because kids dress as totally unrelated witches on Halloween (whether the Harry Potter sort or the Macbeth sort), they insist it’s their holiday, not ours. And despite the total lack of historical evidence, a lot of gullible reporters swallow these claims whole, and repeat them every year. They’ve been doing it for so long, people actually try to debunk me, by quoting 10-year-old newsblog articles. Which were poorly researched and incorrect then, and just as wrong now.
Nature religions don’t even celebrate Halloween anyway. They celebrate autumn. The vernal equinox, the end of summer, the beginning of winter, the turn of the seasons—which took place a full month ago, back on 22 September. They celebrate the equinox-related harvest festivals, which in Irish would be Samhain /'saʊ.ən/, a contraction of sam fuin/“summer’s end.” Totally unrelated to Halloween. They just happen to exist within the same 45-day period.
The harvest festival.
Nearly every culture celebrates the harvest. Whenever you harvest your crops, once the job’s finally done, you kick back, enjoy the fruits of your labor and the fat of your land, and celebrate. Even though far fewer first-worlders are in agro-business than they’ve ever been—hey, whatever excuse we can get to eat a lot and celebrate.
In the United States we do Thanksgiving. In ancient Israel they had Shavuot (or as we Christians call it, Pentecost). Among the ancient Celts, Samhain. And when we look at the way these cultures practice their harvest festivals, next to none of their practices are part of Halloween. Then or now.
The Celts didn’t wear costumes. Heck, neither do Americans, other than the school pageants where kids might dress as the Plymouth colonists or the Wampanoags. Me, I wanted to dress as an Indian so we could make those cool paper-bag vests. I’ve never been one for buckles.
There was food—including sweets, ’cause of course. No door-to-door hunt for candy. No pranks. Yes pumpkins; no, they weren’t carved into wacky faces, but eaten, and lately their spices added to everything. Bonfires and ghost stories? Sure, but those happen every time people go camping. Halloween resembles Samhain about as much as Cinco de Mayo resembles Memorial Day: They only thing they have in common is beer. And every holiday has beer.
Nor, despite neo-Pagan claims, was Samhain a religious holiday. It was a secular one. Nearly every culture, especially agrarian cultures, celebrates the harvest. As you should—after months of dried and preseved and stale food, now it’s fresh! The Celts harvested their crops, lit bonfires, enjoyed their food, and partied like it’s 199. Then they butchered the rest of the animals they’d need to eat over winter, stockpiled the rest of the grain, and got ready for it to get cold.
During every celebration, if you believe in gods, you thank them. Look at Thanksgiving: The name itself implies we thank somebody, and for most of us that’d be God. Everybody else are just “thankful,” but don’t really ask themselves who to direct that thanks to. Then eat till they can’t move, then go watch football. The Celts would have sex… which right there makes Samhain way more interesting than Thanksgiving.
Samhain was a secular holiday. And the Pagans have Paganized it. Most Pagans grew up Christian, then got tired of dead religion and bad Christians, and switched religions. (I don’t blame them; dead religion sucks.) But because they’re burnt out on Christian traditions, Pagans often reject any traditions. Samhain observances vary from group to group, and about they only thing they have in common is bonfires. If that; if it’s “too traditional” for their comfort, they skip the bonfires.
Ironically, those Christians who believe Halloween is too Pagan, tend to call their Halloween alternatives “harvest festivals.” Which they’re not, ’cause not a single child goes to those parties expecting grain.
But let’s put aside all the Pagan stuff, and the dumber Christian stuff, and look at where Halloween actually came from.
As educated Christians know, we didn’t steal a single holiday from the pagans. We stole ’em from the Jews. Christianity’s an offshoot of the Hebrew religion, remember? Passover became Easter. Shavuot became Pentecost. Sukkot became the yearly church camping trip, which evolved into the yearly retreat, which is now observed at some nature-surrounded conference center, but indoors with fresh linens, water heaters, and wifi signals.
We added our own holidays. Whenever a Christian got martyred, we made a holiday of it. Not a happy holiday… well, not while the death was still fresh, but now we can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by getting blackout drunk and puking off balconies. Which doesn’t sound all that happy to me, but the alcoholics in my family insist no, it’s a blast.
We also added Epiphany, which worked its way backward: The 12 days before it became the 12 days of Christmas, then American shortened it to one day, then American merchants elongated it to the shopping season between Thanksgiving and 25 December… and of course the after-Christmas sales now stretch back to Epiphany and beyond.
Sometimes, like Christmas, our days happened to coincide with ancient pagan holidays. Pagan customs got mixed together with Christian customs. Usually without any endorsement from church leaders, but if they were benign, like chocolate bunnies, we don’t much care. And even when they’re not benign, like the drunken rampages of St. Patrick’s Day… I remember one bishop years ago who decided no, he wasn’t suspending Lent for the day, and the people of his parish reacted as if he just beheaded the Easter Bunny.
I mentioned celebrating saints’ martyrdoms. Traditionally, we’d celebrate the day they went to be with Jesus. More recently, like with Martin Luther King Day, we celebrate their birthdays. But for the lesser-known or unknown saints, who died for Christ but didn’t have enough publicity or support to get their very own holiday, the ancient Christians added “all saints days” to the calendar. Eastern Christians have all-saints-days scattered throughout the year, but in May 610 western Christians consolidated them into a single day. In the ninth century it was moved to 1 November.
Back then people went to church in the evening, so All Saints Day was celebrated the night before. The English called it “All Hallows E’en” (hallows meaning “holy ones,” e’en meaning “evening”) which was contracted to Halloween. The candy and costumes came later: They began by dressing as saints, and devolved into dressing as Batman.
So how’d it become secular? Two reasons: Christians let it go, and pagans took it over.
Fundy fright night.
I grew up Fundamentalist. And back in the 1970s Christians, including loads of Fundies, still celebrated Halloween. Every Halloween party I ever attended in my childhood was church-related. No, it wasn’t always on the same day, ’cause that day was reserved for trick-or-treating. But it meant I got to wear my Batman costume more than once that year, while I still fit in it. (See, you thought I was only joking about Batman. I was a big fan of the TV show.) There’d be punch and apple-bobbing and cookies and candy and cartoons. Next day we could go round the neighborhood and gather candy.
But in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, there was a big push for conservative Christians to get out of Halloween altogether. Every so often some worried parent would talk our youth pastors into showing a really disturbing video about how Satanists ran amok that night. Certain con artists, Mike Warnke in particular, pretended to be ex-Satanists, and told these outrageous stories about what their fellow devil-worshipers do every Halloween. None of it was true, but it scared the willies out of gullible Fundamentalists. Warnke made really good money on the church lecture circuit, and suddenly we Christian kids were forbidden from celebrating “the devil’s birthday.” Fortunately for me, I was “too old for that kid stuff” by the time the hammer came down.
By the 1990s, many churches had either dropped their Halloween functions altogether. Or, because they didn’t wanna, they turned them into “harvest parties.” Kids still wore costumes, still got candy… that is, till some irate parent complained, “Waitaminnit… this is a Halloween party! All you did was rename it!” (Well duh.) So compromises had to be made with the angry parents. Costumes had to go. Then candy. Then fun. Basically it became like every other youth service. Sometimes they’d even turn it into a mournful prayer vigil, calling upon God to be with people despite all the devilry going on that night.
Or worse: Some Christians created Hell Houses. I’ve seen a few of them, and they’re some of the least Christian things we’ve ever invented. Take a haunted house, then remove anything fun. Show realistic images of violently suffering the worst-case consequences of poor life choices. Then show ’em what hell literally looks like. (As if anyone knows what it literally looks like; most of the images are just Hieronymus Bosch paintings, or duplicated scenes from the Gustave Doré edition of The Divine Comedy.) Scare the kids into turning to Jesus.
Both festively and morally, we Christians abandoned our own holiday.
As the Christians put it down, the pagans picked it up—just as they did with St. Valentines Day, and just as they’re longing to do with Christmas. Bereft of Christian influence, left to their own devices, adults began throwing wilder and wilder costume parties. Teens and adults escalated the pranking, violence, and inappropriate costumes. And here we are.
Fighting evil on Halloween.
So can we do anything about the way people celebrate Halloween nowadays?
Absolutely we can. If we get involved, and use Halloween as the ministry and outreach opportunity it is.
But lots of Christians don’t care to. They still consider Halloween “evil,” too tainted to redeem, and they’d rather just say to hell with it. They won’t even acknowledge the day exists—no harvest parties, maybe a prayer vigil, but nothing else. They’re the ones whose porch lights go dark that night, and pretend no one’s home when the cute little four-year-olds ring the doorbell. Or worse: Go to the door anyway, self-righteously say, “We don’t celebrate Halloween,” and even lecture the poor little kids… whose only crime was wanting to show off their costumes, and longing for the rare full-size candy bar.
If you wanna legitimately fight evil, may I suggest not being evil?
What’re you showing trick-or-treaters? The grace of God, or the wrath of God? Which one does he want us to show people? Pick that one.
Does your church throw a harvest party? Good. Now, start rethinking how you do ’em. I believe most of them target the entirely wrong group: Little kids. Not that little kids shouldn’t have a fun time, but they’re not the ones who are pranking, drinking, dressing inappropriately, or getting into trouble. That’d be the older children, the teenagers and young adults. Churches need to reach out to them if we want to provide a better alternative. As things currently are, churches provide little for teens, have nothing fun to invite ’em to, and they’re left with nothing better to do than run off and raise hell. Which they do.
Since it’s All Saints Eve, what about the saints? The Roman Catholics and some mainline churches have this down, but every church oughta get in on that. Remind your fellow Christians what the day is supposed to be about: Celebrate the great Christians of the past. Celebrate the heroes of faith—both those who’ve gone to be with Jesus, and those who are still around us, whom we know personally.
That’s plenty. ’Cause too many Christians do nothing.
Yeah, it’s depressing. We’re supposed to take territory, not cede it. Halloween is a defeat, and deep down we Christians know it, which is most of the reason the holiday bothers us so much. As it should. We need to take it back.