I hope you are having a great time during this holiday season. Which holiday? Well, take your pick. There are many different opinions about Halloween, of course, even among evangelical Christians. Some choose not to participate or recognize the holiday at all, some churches provide an alternative “harvest festival”, and some families just eagerly anticipate trick-or-treating without thinking much about the spiritual side of the celebration. I thought this week I might catch you up on all that October 31st means, and encourage you to do as God leads you to do.
First, the more obscure holidays. It was on October 31st that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517 starting the Protestant Reformation. And so protestants all over the world celebrate Reformation Day. I don’t know too many people around here who do Reformation parties, but it is certainly worth mentioning to your kids and centering a family devotion on the subject. When Luther stated his case against the abuses of the Roman church, he was doing so with the purpose of initiating change in the hierarchy of the church. Instead, his words were printed and reprinted throughout Germany, and then throughout the world, which was turned upside down by this revolutionary document and Luther’s other writings. Reformation Day celebrates one of the most important turning points in Christian history, and commemorates an event that we should all know and celebrate.
All Saints’ Day, originally observed in May, was a Christian celebration honoring those who had died in Christ. It was not a day for worshipping the saints, but for remembering them and thanking God for the lives of faith that they led. The date was moved from May to November 1 when on that date Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in the basilica of St. Peter in Rome to “all the saints.” It was Pope Gregory IV who ordered that all Christians observe All Saints’ Day on November 1. Remembering those faithful believers who gave their lives for Christ is a great idea. All Christians should know the stories of the early church, and of missionaries like Jim and Elizabeth Elliott. Let me encourage you to read biographies of St. Augustine and William Carey, of Lottie Moon and Eric Liddell. As we strive to “attempt great things for God, and expect great things from God,” it would behoove us to read about and recognize those who have already done both. That is what All Saints’ Day is all about. So take the time to reflect with your family on those who went before us. You will be glad you did.
The origin of Halloween is not as noble as those holidays we have just mentioned. Ann Hibbard writes a great explanation in her book: Family Celebrations at Thanksgiving and Alternatives to Halloween (Baker Book House, 1995)
Halloween as we know it finds its roots in the pagan cultic rites of the ancient Celtic people. The Vikings were a Celtic people, as were the ancient inhabitants of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Germany. Their high priests, called druids, taught the worship of things in creation: earth, sky, fire, trees, animals and the like. These people lived in fear of evil spirits, attributing to them the bad things in their lives. They reasoned that keeping the evil spirits happy was a way of preventing unpleasant circumstances.
One of the Celtic deities was Samhain, the Lord of the Dead, to whom they paid tribute on October 31, the eve of their new year. The druids taught that on this night, the souls of the wicked dead inhabited the bodies of living people in order to be entertained. These possessed people would go out in the countryside to the farmhouses and offer the ultimatum of trick or treat. If the frightened country folk did not provide suitable food, shelter, and entertainment, the trick-or-treaters would destroy the country folks’ property and cast evil spells upon their home. In Wales, ghastly faces were carved in gourds, then the gourds were lighted and carried by the trick-or-treaters to aid in spooking the country people.
So, at its foundation, Halloween is a fiendish celebration of death, a tribute to the wicked spirits of the underworld. It was not widely observed in our country until the late 1800s, when a large number of Celtic people immigrated from Europe – people who had never relinquished this yearly observance.
The name halloween is derived from All Hallows’ (All Saints’) Eve. Children love the ritual of dressing up and going trick-or-treating, most blissfully unaware of the macabre beginnings of this tradition. But occultists, Satanists, witches, and new age Celtics still observe even more frightening traditions that recognize this night as a dark and evil “worship service” to demons, dead ancestors, or even Satan himself.
So where do we draw the line? Are our children doomed to dress up as Martin Luther, lamely nailing papers to the neighbors’ front door as all the neighborhood children go by on their way to get candy? I don’t think so. This October 31st, my kids are dressing up and we will be taking them trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. We also hosted a harvest festival this past Saturday at our church for our members, our preschool families and the community which celebrated fall, fun, and fellowship. We had horse rides, a hayride through the woods, an inflatable castle, boiled peanuts, cotton candy, and, of course, face painting. There were no ghosts, witches, or scary costumes at the event (though there were several Snow Whites), despite the fact that most of the families in our preschool do not attend church or profess a relationship with Christ. We were glad for the opportunity to meet neighbors, to have some good family fun, and to be with our kids and their friends. When we go trick-or-treating (for lack of a better term, though we promise not to trick anyone) there are great possibilities for evangelism, to teach truth to our kids, and to meet many new people who need Christ. My family and I love the opportunity of Halloween to share Christ, and I believe that God wants us to use this cultural celebration for His glory.
For those of you who are afraid of the traditions of Halloween, I would encourage you to read Jeremiah 10, which tells us that cultural traditions cannot in and of themselves harm us. Here is the text of verses 1-5:
Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarcrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.
In other words, don’t be afraid of Christmas trees that do not point to Christ or pumpkins that are not carved with John 3:16 (no, the original context was not about Christmas trees or halloween but the principle still applies). Kids who dress up as Spider-Man or a Princess and walk through the neighborhood with mom and dad probably do not do so to worship Satan. To them, it is just a fun tradition. As long as kids are kept safe on the streets, do not get too greedy with the Snickers bars, don’t rot their teeth, and stay away from Freddie Kruger costumes, I don’t see the harm in it. It can be, and is for millions of Christian families (including mine), a great tradition that reminds us that neighbors are our friends and that celebrates the magic of being a kid. The traditions, in and of themselves, can do no harm or good.
But we can do harm or good if we take things one step further. When we begin to inject these traditions with new or old meaning, things can get more troubling, or more inspiring. Parents, remind your teenagers that for many this is a night to get in trouble. There is evil activity going on and godly teenagers need to plan to avoid it. Children, you should only dress up as godly or admirable characters. Skip the horror stuff, God hates it! Parents, you and your kids can have a great conversation about what makes a hero as you choose a costume wisely. And steer your kids away from haunted houses and scary decorations and toward more inviting front porches.
And if we are intentional, we can see this night resonate with God’s glory. Give away Halloween gospel tracts (available at Lifeway stores) with your candy, invite neighbors over for a party and develop relationships with them that may lead to sharing Christ, or simply welcome children and their parents with hot chocolate and take the time to make new friends. Halloween is the classic example that what Satan means for evil, God can use for good. So be intentional, and have fun (and save the Butterfingers for me!)