A Halloween Autopsy
October 30, 2015
In a recent post Collin Garbarino took on the hordes of Halloween detractors to provide us with a piece of the real history of Halloween. I would like to ride his coattails (and let him take the majority of the angry emails) by confirming that the historical record is fully supportive of his comments. What I would like to do here is expand on his historical framework a bit.
One of the great confusions in history is the assumption that influences on one holiday must always form the creation of other holidays. We are all familiar, for example, with the claims that Christmas was simply a halfway house for recent pagan converts. This story, too, is embellished though it is repeated each year without citation or qualification. For this reason, thoughtful Christians have fallen prey to believing Santa Claus was a demonic trap sent to confuse earnest Christians--even if St. Nick was a bishop and one of the framers of the Nicene Creed.
As with Halloween, the actual history of Christmas is somewhat different. The Romans certainly had feasting on December 25th, as it was the darkest day of the year, and if you live in a world where the days are dark by 5pm, the thought of Spring on the horizon was reason enough to party. Think of it as a Roman 4th of July, only barbeque was not yet invented. It is true that Romans sacrificed to the gods on this day, but they did that as often as they could: at the table, before an arena match, and even at public urinals. For Christians to utterly do away with celebrations that coincide with Roman holidays would be to reinvent the calendar itself. In the end, the church felt that feasting on a day that looked from darkness towards light was an appropriate time to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World.
But even if we assume Christmas is an utterly pagan device, this does not mean that other Christian holidays carry this same freight. Take Easter, for example. It seems to escape our minds that Easter was born out of the Feast of Passover, only our celebration falls on the nearest Sunday. Perhaps the earliest controversy on record to be decided by a regional council was the issue of the use of the Jewish calendar. In the 2nd century there arose the issue of Quatrodecimism--essentially those who felt we should always follow the precise dating of Passover, even if it fell midweek. The church demurred, wanting to keep services on Sundays, and this was capped at the Council of Nicaea, which officially decided the timing of Easter. Each of these debates involves the relationship between Jews and Christians, not the adoption of pagan practices.
What occurs later with Easter, of course, is the entanglement of Christian practice with European pagan ideas of Spring, fertility, and ridiculous bunny eggs. But this was an adulteration of the original celebration of Christ as our Passover Lamb. The mingling of Easter and pagan practices was part of the long conversion process of European culture, which did not have the luxury of the influence of Jewish practices. Missionaries today could tell us of similar challenges in their contexts, as people slowly entangle what is religiously off limits and what is merely cultural heritage.
This mingling of original holiday with later invention is on display with the modern treatment of Halloween. Just as with other parts of our cultural fabric, elements of Halloween have been adulterated from their original Christian source. So Halloween has suffered the same gentle decline to commercialism. While All Hallows Day was formerly a time to celebrate the saints--especially the martyrs--now even NPR will interview Wiccans and describe Halloween as their high holiday. Of course Wiccan practices were invented in the 1920s, but the imagery of Halloween as a dark, brooding time of evil portent will not cease.
The important truth for Christians is to realize that the real history of Halloween should inspire us to sober judgment. The fact is secular markets have borrowed nearly all Christian holidays. Non-Christians are just as prone to give Christmas presents and buy the Charles Dickensian view of a religiously neutral time of peace and goodwill, but this has not provoked as much anxiety about celebrating the Incarnation during the season. The same reality is true of Easter. And we should remember, too, that we have at times borrowed from secular holidays even in our modern times. The same pastors who condemn trick-or-treating are not so exacting when it comes to Mother's Day--at least if they do not want to face the mothers of the church after neglecting to honor their heroic work. And we are not subject to complaints about Thanksgiving in America, even if there is no theological focus on why exactly we give thanks in the first place...we still carve our turkeys and fall asleep to football.
Of course, I do not advocate for parents allowing their kids to participate in downright spooky or horrific scenes for the sake of cultural conformity. But then my kids are afraid of the lion's mouth in Aladdin's Cave of Wonders and the green glow around Maleficent. They're also afraid of the stove, thunder, and crossing the street without looking both ways. In all things, my wife and I strive to protect them from needless worry. Halloween in our neighborhood is not one of them. This year my kids are dressing up like TV characters, playing with their friends, and eating candy...so basically what they do on all their play dates. But we steer clear of our weird neighbor who dresses up like a character from The Ring and walks around her driveway with a kitchen knife. But I'd like to think I would do that other days of the year, too...
Of all the strange twists in this story, the hardest to overcome is the fact that Christian antipathy towards Halloween provokes in us the very pagan culture we seek to avoid. Unlike ancient Romans, Christians do not treat a certain day as a sort of talisman that has unique demonic activity in it. Spiritual battles are no more real on other days of the year; Paul tells us they are an everyday reality. We also do not believe that we are more holy, or warded from danger, by what we refuse to wear, by shutting ourselves up in our homes with the lights off, or by the relatively low blood sugar we have compared with our neighbors.
Friends and family may continue to take issue with this holiday. My friends in Britain, for example, have reminded me that their Halloween practices often trend in a direction that is much more grim. I do not dishonor their desire to refrain from the holiday altogether. Our friends around the globe could share equally complex questions as to how to live in a world where cultural activities may come with religious undertones that may wound consciences. The problem is that, in our theological matrix of North America, we are too often collapsing our faithfulness to Christ into a blind assumption that we are keeping ourselves undefiled from the world, but we are doing so with the thinnest possible display of protest. But if anything the modern practice of Halloween has more to do with the so-called 'post-Christian' era we find ourselves in than it is the onslaught of hostile forces.
Ryan M. Reeves is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Dean of the Jacksonville campus