Friday, October 23, 2015

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

Among evangelical Christians, especially those with young kids, there's an ongoing debate as to whether it's appropriate to celebrate Halloween. I grew up with a foot in both camps: in a few of my early years, my siblings and I would go trick-or-treating dressed in innocuous costumes; but during certain years we were living on a missionary training camp where there was some sentiment against Halloween, and so we didn't bother with it there. 

A Christian who was arguing against Halloween would probably lean on a case like this: Halloween (we assume) has its origins in pagan festivals that celebrated either the dead (Parentalia) or the spirit-world (Samhain), and most of its trappings, such as costumes, trick-or-treating, and jack-o-lanterns, might possibly have to do with these non-Christian elements. Christians should "avoid all appearance of evil," and certainly ought not to be honoring pagan (possibly demonic) spirit-beings, so it's best just to abstain from all Halloween activities. Further, some other religions and a few anti-Christian cults have adopted Halloween as one of their high holy days, and we don't want to be seen supporting the Satanists, Wiccans, and Neo-Pagans in their respective delusions.

On the other hand, a Christian arguing for the celebration of the holiday might rely on a case like this: Halloween (as near as we can tell) actually has its origins in ancient Christian practice. The name itself derives from "All Hallows Eve," that is, the night before one of the great feasts of the church calendar, All Saints Day on Nov. 1. Most of its trappings, such as costumes, trick-or-treating, and jack-o-lanterns, probably have to do with medieval Christian beliefs about the journey of the soul after death, not with pagan rituals. As it's currently celebrated, Halloween is mostly harmless fun and a good opportunity to connect with our communities; conversely, abstaining from Halloween makes us look rather unneighborly, gives our churches an impression of nitpicky legalism to outsiders, and cuts us off from interacting with our communities on one of the few civic occasions nowadays where neighbors actually cross paths. And, while we certainly don't want to be seen as walking arm-in-arm with the practices of Satanists, Wiccans, and Neo-Pagans, neither should we abandon the field and let them claim a charming civic holiday for their own ends.

Of the two perspectives, I favor the latter. I prefer to err on the side of loving my neighbors, and if that means shoving copious handfuls of chocolate into the waiting arms of faux zombies and witches, then so be it. Those of you who regularly read my posts know that I'm a history buff, so the historical argument is the most interesting part of this to me. Unfortunately, on this question, it's a bit of a wash. There's probably no way to settle the matter with certainty. A lot of historians have made intriguing connections between Halloween and pagan festivals, and a lot of historians have made just as compelling a case for a merely Christian development of the holiday. Our sources in late antiquity and the early medieval period simply do not speak with much clarity about such details in the lives of ordinary people. If I were to make a guess, however, based on my academic training in anthropology and history, I would lean toward the interpretation that Halloween is almost entirely based on medieval Christian culture, not on any pagan predecessors.

The Pantheon in Rome, a former pagan temple converted into a church
But, regardless of such evidence one way or the other, we actually have an attractive historical precedent in Christianity for taking over old pagan stuff and sanctifying it to serve our aims. The traditional Christian reaction to a pagan institution was not necessarily "Let's have nothing to do with it!" Rather, it was, "Let's subject it to the authority of Christ!" Early Catholic missionaries took over pagan temples and turned them into churches; they chopped down one kind of sacred tree and then instituted the honoring of another kind of tree, which better fit the symbolism of Christian faith. I like this outlook. Rather than adopting a position of perpetual retreat, of throwing up walls against the advances of the non-Christian world, we can demonstrate our faith in the God who is greater than all human cultures, and we can take hostage the ways of the non-Christian world and sanctify them in submission to Christ. That means that even if some elements of Halloween could be proven to have pagan roots (again, a disputable notion historically), we could still, even then, plant the flag of faith there and claim it for Christ. We can use Halloween to teach our children about the great saints who went before us (it is, after all, the eve of All Saints Day); we can meditate on the reality of death (a Christian spiritual practice that the medievals did much better at than we moderns); and we can love our neighbors through kindness and generosity.

The Apostle Paul writing his letters
Does this mean you have to celebrate Halloween? No, of course not. I favor the more accommodating of the two positions, but there are a lot of Christians out there whose consciences prick them terribly when it comes to the thought of accommodating a holiday that makes play out of the very serious subjects of death and evil. I regard this as an example of one of the issues that Paul calls "disputable matters" in Rom. 14:1. In Paul's day, the debate was whether a Christian ought to eat meat, knowing that it might have been butchered in a manner that rendered honor to pagan gods. Paul addresses this debate a number of different places in his letters, but the basic principles that come out are consistent: (1) You shouldn't eat such meat if doing so would make it look to outsiders as if you're actually rendering homage to idols; (2) You shouldn't eat such meat if doing so would dishonor the conscience of a fellow Christian whom you happen to be with at the time, who feels strongly about it; and (3) Other than those two specific exceptions, it's a non-issue. You can eat the pagan meat or not eat it, because God made all things good, including that meat, and nothing that comes in from the outside can make you spiritually unclean before God. If you have reservations about eating it, then don't eat it. If you don't have reservations, and can use your eating as an act of thanksgiving to God, then eat up!

The debate about Christians practicing Halloween, it seems to me, falls along the same lines. If your conscience compels you to abstain from all Halloween activities, then abstain. But if you want to use the holiday to connect with your neighbors and celebrate a long Christian tradition, then go right ahead.

(Images -  Top inset left: Samhain ritual at a boulder in Sweden, 11/7/2009, photo by Gunnar Creutz, public domain; Middle inset right: "Icon of All Saints," by Simeon Khromoy, c.1600; Middle inset left: "Roma, Pantheon," 1/10/2013, photo by Lalupa, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; Bottom inset right: "Saint Paul Writing His Epistles," attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, c.1619, oil on canvas)