Monday, October 30, 2006

Discerning Halloween

Tomorrow is Halloween. Usually at this time of year many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have been up in arms for some time warning of the alleged evils of Halloween in books, tracts, websites, and probably podcasts by now. We all know the claims, but in case you haven't heard them, Halloween is allegedly evil because of Pagan origins, twisted because it celebrates death, satanic because of its occult-related icons, and harmful because children pretend to be monsters with their costumes. But is this "received wisdom" really the best way of understanding the holiday from a sound Christian perspective?

My friend Lint Hatcher provides an alternative worth considering. Lint was one of the brain childs, along with Rod Bennett, behind the now (unfortunately) defunct Wonder magazine. He has provided Christians with a resource in the form of a book titled The Magic Eight-Ball Test: A Christian Defense of Halloween. This book answers the specific allegations mentioned above and does so in a very entertaining manner. You can preview Lint's book here, and take an in-depth look through Lint's press kit that he assembled, that not only gives you a great look at his book but also demonstrates his great desktop publishing and artistic work.

Before you toss that horror and sci fi collection, or denounce the "evils" of Halloween from your pulpit or in your church newsletter, consider the case Lint puts forward.


philjohnson said...

A historical study of how Halloween came to be what it is can be found in three chapters discussing its history and development via Irish immigrants in the USA and among the English in Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) pp 360-385.

Hutton points out the roots of Halloween go back to two sources. One was a Christian day of observance to remember the martyrs that is traceable to the early centuries (at least to 373 AD). This later metamorphosed into "all souls day" to remember the Christian dead.

The other source was the Celtic festival celebrating the end of summer harvests and the onset of winter. Hutton observes that this festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in): "There is no evidence that it was connected with the dead and no proof that it opened the year ... its importance was only reinforced by the imposition upon it of a Christian festival which became primarily one of the dead." (p 370).

He then charts how small regional festivities in different parts of Ireland and England developed into Halloween in the USA (courtesy of Irish migrants) and in the UK but during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hutton observes this irony in the anti-Halloween protests:

"... a Christian feast of the dead is thoroughly embedded in the history of Halloween ... to describe the feast as fundamentally unChristian is therefore either ill-informed or disingenuous. Such an attitude could be most sympathetically portrayed as a logical development of radical Protestant hostility to the holy days of All Saints and All Souls; having abolished the medieval rites associated with them and attempted to remove the feast altogether, evangelical Protestants are historically quite consistent in trying to eradicate any traditions surviving from them. If so many of those traditions appear now to be divorced from Christianity, this is precisely because of the success of earlier reformers in driving them out of the churches..." (p 384).

Perhaps the drive to eliminate festival days inside the Church has actually helped to stimulate non-Christian efforts to recapture festivities and reinterpret them. Perhaps another instance of the "unpaid bills of the church?"

Scott Eggert said...


I was reflecting just the other day as I was preparing for our family's celebration of Halloween. As I drove throughout the town I noticed how many of the churches have posted their various signs for their "Harvest Festivals".

I was struck at the church's attempt to relabel a holiday with a different name, while doing nothing other than simply providing a safe place for the community to celebrate the holiday. While I applaud the effort to open doors for those in the community, I believe that the name change is at least a sign of the church's cultural ignorance, if not their ignorance of history as Phil so aptly points out.

I find it interesting that for years we simply ignored this holiday as a part of our culture, and now we find ourselves trying to re-brand it as some completely dissimilar occasion. It sort of reminds me of all of the noise I will hear as Christmas approaches when all of the Christians complain about the employees at Macy's welcoming them to the store with "happy holidays".

We so don't get it.

John W. Morehead said...

Philip and Scott, thanks for your comments. I appreciate the insights of Hutton that are relevant to historical and cultural considerations and the background to Halloween. These echo sentiments I found in my research earlier this year for my Cornerstone presentations. It seems as if Protestantism did indeed react against festivals in Roman Catholicism, including those that touch on death and the dead. Evangelicals continue this legacy with damaging effects in a number of areas.

Scott, I appreciate your comments on church's and fall festivals as well. I have had similar thoughts as well. Rather than being truly incarnational and finding ways in which to participate in and engage the culture with a genuine Halloween celebration, we put our toes in the water and engage in alternatives such as fall festivals which appear really to meet the needs of the faithful but which fail to engage the great numbers of people who help make Halloween the second most popular holiday in the United States.

Heartforthelost said...

I think we have found a way to be relevant and engage the Halloween culture as an opportunity to witness.
We went to the Haunted Houses and asked the folks what fear was and if that was a good or a bad thing? We then took them through the Gospel. I was more amazed at the amount of LDS folks we ran into out there prescribing the Haunted Houses as good. You can watch it if you would like.
From what I have read so far it does not appear that you are a fan of stranger evangelism so you might not agree with sharing the Gospel with strangers as we do here.

Sally said...

I guess we have to learn to balance celebration with apologetics... but I see a positive benefit in learning to celebrate and mark the passing of the seasons... people are crying out for connectedness!

Thanks for the links by the way, they were very interesting Halloween is quite different here in the UK. Some have embraced halloween US style whilst many others are either afraid or make connections with the pagan/ celtic/ folklore past which holds a strong place in celebration and festival!

Luce Della Luna said...

Hi John,
I really meeting you finally the other day, and I enjoy reading your blog. This subject was of great interest to me as a practicing Pagan. I was approached by a student at Weber State University, my alma mater, if I would give a historical account of Halloween. So I gave her historical info and instead she took the funny stuff, and ran with that. Disapointing! Now Halloween is not anywhere near what Samhain was, or as we practice it today. The gal couldn't or wouldn't get through her head that Halloween is based on an age old Pagan holiday, but it hasn't much of its true Pagan roots anymore. The costumes are still worn, but more for fun, and not as originally intended to scare off the dead spirits so they won't take over our bodies. The food left on the doorstep as an offering for our ancestors has turned into candy that kids beg for from door to door.

And the actual words "trick or treat" come from England where the orphans were allowed one day out of the year to go from house to house begging for food, which in return they were to pray for the families dead that they might enter Heaven. That also evolved into a thugs take all night, or if you don't give me what I want you will pay.

The bonfires on the hills, more for cleansing your house of old clothes, the cuttings from the greenery, and household items that are outdated has turned into a pumpkin with a candle in it.

I wonder if the same people that are against Halloween are also aware that Christmas, Easter, and Valentine's day are all based on Pagan holidays and customs?

A blessed Samhain to you John, and may your ancestors always be near,

John W. Morehead said...

Luna, it was indeed a pleasure to meet with you and Nita a few weeks ago. Glad to see you found my blog. As you can imagine, it is probably more controversial among Chrisitians than Pagans many times.

I appreciate your thoughts on Samhain and Halloween. I found similar materials in my research earlier this year for some presentations on Dia de los Muertos and Halloween.

I hope we can continue to interact. Who knows? Perhaps we can even get more representatives of our faith communities together in the future for understanding.