Every year, as October 31 approaches and my church friends begin their usual round of posting links to blogs and websites explaining why Halloween is the devil’s holiday and their family chooses not to celebrate it, I always think I should post something on the blog about why we do take part in this annual ritual. But the last minute preparations around getting costumes ready and in some cases baking treats (as we did this year for two different parties my two different teenagers attended) keeps me so busy I never get time to write the blog post. One teen has already outgrown the trick or treating phase (Chris announced this year that one of his friends still wanted to go door-to-door, but the others outvoted him on the grounds that these hulking fifteen-year-olds “got too many judgmental looks last year!”, presumably from people who don’t want to feel like six-footers are shaking them down for candy that rightfully belongs to little kids). Emma will soon move out of that age bracket too, so this might be my last year of running to Value Village frantically looking for that last-minute item to complete a costume (unless, of course, it’s MY costume). It might also be my last year of being judged and condemned at church for allowing my kids to dress up on Halloween. Which would be nice, but unfortunately people who want to judge will always find something else that I’m doing wrong.
So many Christians have such strong feelings about Halloween, though, that I figured I should put my thoughts out there before it ceases to be an issue in our family.
First of all, I want to say that I absolutely support anyone’s right not to observe Halloween (or any other holiday for that matter). If you have decided for any reason whatsoever that it’s not right for your family, that is absolutely your prerogative and I will defend to the death your right to keep your kids home, not give out candy, plan an alternate celebration or whatever works for you. I’m all about individuals and families choosing what’s right for them. I’d love to see some of the same tolerance going in the other direction but I’ve learned that’s a bit much to hope for.
Celebrating — or not celebrating — Halloween, has become a much bigger issue in our own and other conservative Christian churches in the last generation. I laughed pretty hard a couple of years ago when one of my Adventist friends posted about how blessed she was that her children weren’t participating in this evil holiday, then went on to say what a wonderful time her daughter had had earlier that day at her ballet class. It made me laugh because when I was an Adventist kid growing up in the 1970s, Halloween was a non-issue — we had no idea there was anything wrong with it — but dancing? Not a chance. Even ballet was the devil’s art form because it was, after all, dance, and no Adventist girl I knew ever got ballet lessons.
It just goes to show that sin, like everything else, is subject to fashions and trends.
That said, Halloween itself has changed over the years, and maybe some of the church’s changing attitudes reflect that societal change. When I was a kid I remember Halloween being about cute and sometimes mildly “scary” costumes, collecting a modest-sized plastic pumpkin full of treats, and also collecting pennies for Unicef when we went door-to-door. That was about it. It’s only in recent years that it’s become a huge marketing extravaganza — apparently the third-biggest marketing season in North America, after Christmas and Back-to-School. Decorating for Halloween used to mean that houses with small children put a few construction-paper pumpkins in the window; now some houses put out Halloween decorations that rival their Christmas displays (which will, of course, go up the day the Halloween decorations come down — but don’t get me started on that tangent!) Our smallish city now supports three stores dedicated to Halloween costumes alone (almost four, really, since Value Village transforms into Halloween central during September and October). As a person who’s constantly alarmed by the growing tide of consumerism, I am, of course, bothered by this.
Halloween has not only gotten to be bigger business; it’s also more gruesome than when I was a kid. There’s far more emphasis on death, horror movies, zombie makeup and everything dark and scary, then I ever remember there being. I realize there are people who believe there’s a big psychological benefit to embracing and laughing at the darker sides of life, but that’s definitely not for me. I’m easily scared: I once shrieked in terror and ran out of the room because a bowl of blueberries fell out of my fridge and rolled across the floor (they looked like bugs when they hit the floor) and I have never watched even one second of a horror movie. If someone wants to eschew Halloween just because they want to stay away from “the dark side,” I totally respect that decision, although I firmly believe it’s possible to have a good Halloween without any gore or death-imagery at all. The rule for our kids has always been “No gory/scary/evil/death-obsessed costumes,” and that’s never been a problem for them (in fact, my own costume this year was probably the goriest one ever in our house — it’s the only time I’ve ever bought fake blood — but it was for the sake of historical/literary accuracy. More on that later!).
I guess for me, my biggest quarrel with the anti-Halloween movement has been that all the talk about its “evil origins” and it being “the devil’s holiday” simply makes no sense. There are lots of theories about the roots of our modern Halloween, but the two things it can most easily be traced to (though neither in a direct line of transmission) are the pagan observance of Samhain and the Catholic observance of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. When I say there’s no direct line of transmission, I mean that modern Halloween is basically of modern origins, but it occurs at the same time of year as those two very old seasonal rituals, and borrows some imagery from them.
I’m not sure why people get so upset, to be honest, about the fact that holidays have “pagan origins.” Everything we do has pagan origins because all our ancestors were pagans. Ancient people lived much closer to the land than we do, and in agrarian societies, at least in parts of the world where we have four distinct seasons, rituals and celebrations tended to grow up around the turning of the seasons. In autumn, people want to celebrate the good harvest and huddle together against the growing darkness. At midwinter people wait and watch and pray for the return of the light. In spring people want to celebrate birth and life and fertility and growth. Naturally these seasonal rituals, rooted in God’s good created world all around us, got tied in to the feast and fasts of both pagan and early Christian religions. To deny that is to attempt to further distance ourselves from the earth, to imagine ourselves as purely spiritual beings floating somewhere above our planet, not really concerned with its times or seasons — and that’s a kind of Christianity which I wholeheartedly reject.
What I don’t get is — how does acknowledging a celebration’s pagan origins make it dangerous for those of us who no longer practice that pagan religion? I have been dressing up for nearly every Halloween, one way or another, for the better part of 48 years, and never once has putting on a costume or eating a mini chocolate bar made me want to worship an earth goddess or perform a human sacrifice. Rituals are what we make them, and the meaning they carry is the meaning we give them. My Wiccan friend has rituals and meaning associated with her modern, neo-pagan observance of Samhain which are not the same rituals as ancient Celtic pagans observed (though they may in some cases be inspired by them). Many Christians today celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day as religious services. And many modern, secular people observe Halloween without it being in any way tied to the religons their ancestors practiced. It’s essentially a secular celebration that occurs at the same time as some ancient religious celebrations, both pagan and Christian. What it means is what we make it mean.
So, dressing up and giving out candy on Halloween doesn’t make me a Samhain-celebrating pagan anymore than referring to the days of the week as Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, etc., makes me a worshipper of the Norse gods. There’s nothing wrong with knowing the origins of the things you do, but the origins of an event do not define its meaning. We define the meanings of events and rituals by how we practice them.
As for Halloween being “the devil’s holiday,” that just makes no sense. Ancient pagans didn’t “worship the devil” ; they didn’t even believe in “our” devil (nor do modern Wiccans or other neo-pagans). “The devil,” or Satan, is a figure of ultimate evil in the Christian religion and the Christian Bible; other religions don’t believe in him. Christians don’t dedicate holidays to him. So it’s pretty safe to say that there was nobody, hundreds of years ago, “worshipping the devil” at the end of October.
What I think causes confusion in some people’s minds and makes some Christians uncomfortable is that modern Halloween shares with both Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ Days a focus on the dead. This can be a positive focus — remembering and reflecting on those who’ve gone before, feeling close to them at this time of year — but it can also be a negative focus, an obsession with the idea of death (and un-death, as evidenced by the current zombie craze). For a lot of Christians, death is associated with evil and the devil, so the fact that those things are focused on much more at Halloween causes them to identify it as “the devil’s holiday.” Again, if that focus on death and “the dark side” makes people uncomfortable and feel they can’t participate in the celebration in good conscience, I totally respect that. But there’s nothing in either the pagan or the Christian origins of the late October holiday that specifically associates it with the spiritual power that Christians call “Satan” or “the devil.”
Personally, I’m not just a Christian but a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, which means that I believe the dead, both the good and the bad among them, are sleeping soundly in their graves, unable either to haunt or to comfort us with their presence. I appreciate that ancient people believed the “veil” between this world and the afterlife was thinner and more permeable at this turning point of the year but I don’t personally believe that, or even believe that there is any such veil. And while I appreciate the impulse behind Christians who observe All Saints’ Day, I think about my beloved dead, especially my mom and my friend Jamie, every single day and don’t feel closer to or more “in touch” with them at any particular time of the year. Really, the dead have no place in my family’s celebration of the modern, secular rite of Halloween.
So, why do we celebrate Halloween at our house? In a word? Costumes. I love dressing up. I love the creativity of coming up with a costume, and you could not possibly make me happier than to invite me to a costume party, whether at the end of October or at any other time. Although it’s sometimes been a hassle I have thoroughly enjoyed helping my kids concoct their costumes every year as they have moved from cute animal costumes through characters inspired by the books and movies they’ve loved.
We’ve had Jedi knights, superheroes, princesses, pirates, characters from video games, and this year, the Greek goddess Athena (speaking of pagan religions!).
As for me, I’m happy to work in a place where dressing up on Halloween is encouraged, because I love costumes. It’s true that some years I take the path of least resistance and just put on my Star Trek uniform shirt with a pair of black jeans because I’ve been so busy helping my kids with their costumes I have no time to think of my own. On the other hand, this year, since I was in the middle of teaching Julius Caesar in English 2201, I decided to go as Caesar in the middle of being stabbed on the Senate floor (hence the fake blood). I love that there’s a holiday that gives us a chance to celebrate creativity and costuming, and that is really the sum total of what Halloween “means to me” and to my family. And since I believe meaning is something we make, I’m fine with that.
As for the church’s approach to Halloween, again, I respect other people’s beliefs but I wish we could be a little less heavy-handed on the condemnation. As I said, when I was an Adventist kid growing up in St. John’s, I did not even know there was supposed to be any issue with Halloween. Then sometime during my elementary school years we had a church school teacher who informed the kids they shouldn’t be observing Halloween because it had pagan origins. We heard this the occasional time from other teachers and pastors over the years, but it was one of those things, like veganism, that we just assumed Adventists “from away” got worked up about. If they didn’t want their kids to go out trick or treating, that was their business, but they generally refrained from imposing their views on everyone else.
Over time, there came to be a bit of a “missionaries vs natives” divide over this, as there was with many things in the church of my youth. As the anti-Halloweeners grew more and more vocal, we eventually came to a place, in my early-parenting years, where most of those of us who’d grown up in our local church dressed up our kids and took them out trick or treating, while those who had either moved here from away, or were recent converts to Adventism, very vocally avoided the holiday. This reached somewhat of a crescendo one year when, on the Sabbath closest to Halloween, we were informed from the platform that if we allowed our children to go trick or treating we were “passing them through the flames” to sacrifice them to Satan (and a few parents got up and walked out of church).
I was composing this post while my students worked on an assignment this morning, and one of them, not knowing what I was writing about, came up to show me the following pic she’d snapped on her phone from someone’s door last nigh. It reminded me that people have all kinds of reasons to be preachy and judgmental, and some of them have nothing to do with religion:
Again, if you don’t observe Halloween, I totally respect your right to make that choice for yourself and your family. I hate it when people say to non-Halloweeners, “Oh, you’re depriving your children of a fun part of childhood, how cruel!” We all make choices for our families based on what we believe is right and wrong, and that inevitably results in some choices that are counter-cultural and even annoying to our own children (ask my kids about my current crusade to try to use only fair-trade chocolate in the house — it’s not what they’d choose, but I’m all about inconveniencing your kids in the name of a cause you genuinely believe is morally right, and that’s one of mine). I guess the only reason I feel the need to outline my own thinking on the subject, after years of being preached to about the evils of Halloween, is to clarify that my observance of Halloween has nothing to do with Satan, Samhain, the dead, or zombies, and everything to do with costumes and candy.