FIRST-PERSON: What's a Christian to do with Halloween?
MAYFIELD, Ky. (BP) -- Halloween in some form or another has been around for a long time. What we call Halloween originated in two other autumn festivals -- the ethnic Celtic celebration of Samhain and the Christian All Saints Day.
The Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (Gaelic - perhaps "Summer's End") possessed multiple facets in Celtic folklore that celebrated harvest, the dead and even the Celtic new year. Samhain probably derived from an earlier pagan celebration. Following custom among early and medieval Christian churchmen, Christian leaders often placed their holidays near popular pagan celebrations to wean their converts away from the pagan festivals. Hence, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day from May 13 to Nov. 1. Although never stated in any source that Gregory's motive in the move was to counter the popular autumn festivals with pagan roots, his decision seemed to conform to previous practice.
All Saints Day, and its variants, All Hallows Mass and Hallowmas, never entirely disassociated itself in the popular imagination from the earlier association with pagan fall festivals and superstition. Much to the chagrin of church leaders of the medieval ages, popular observances preserved some of the older pagan features of the holiday, such as manifestations as autumn bonfires (from "bonefires"), maintaining links to the occult, folk magic and superstitions concerning the dead. These features were thought to be deployed most prominently on the evening before All Hallows -- therefore the modern name Halloween or "All Hallows Evening." The term itself originated in Scotland.
In addition, new customs evolved that had little direct connection to the church-sanctioned holiday of All Saints Day (or the later All Souls Day on Nov. 2). For instance, some burned candles or used lighted hollowed-out turnips ("jack-o-lanterns") to drive away the malevolent spirits of the dead on the eve of All Hallows. The custom of adults and children disguising themselves to fool these spirits and beg for food and coins on or near All Saints Day ("guising") emerged as the origin of "trick or treating." This popular custom of adults participating in guising even drew the negative comment of Shakespeare in his play "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" when the character Speed accuses his master of "puling [whining or whimpering] like a beggar at Hallowmas" (Act 2, Scene 1).
Not at all unlike many Baptist pastors today, both Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders of the Reformation era condemned the survival of pagan, occult and superstitious customs observed around All Saints Day and Halloween. Later, some Protestants eventually encouraged their people to observe instead a "Reformation Day" as a replacement for Halloween since Martin Luther started the Reformation on the eve of All Saints Day in 1517. This practice simply continued the long trend of supplanting questionable popular holidays with Christian observances.
In the early United States, some success in eradicating the pagan and occult practices associated with Halloween occurred. Many of the Christian groups who settled America like the Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers and Baptists refused to observe All Saints Day -- let alone Halloween.
Nevertheless, Halloween was rekindled as Celtic immigrants from Scotland and Ireland poured into the United States in the 1800s. They substituted the American pumpkin for the turnip to make their jack-o-lanterns; thus the most prominent decoration of the holiday became fixed in American culture.
Furthermore, as Irish politicians, policemen and fireman became dominant in the larger urban cities, they revived the old medieval custom of guising, but this time limited the practice to children. Reacting to their large Irish populations, big city mayors (often Irish themselves) of the 20th century declared an official "trick or treat" day usually on Halloween itself. Since many urban neighborhoods were thought unsafe for children, the Irish-dominated police and fire departments often provided Halloween costume parties or trick or treat stations at police precincts and fire stations. These and other Halloween customs among Scottish and Irish Americans quickly became accepted in mainstream American culture and even spread to rural areas of the South and West. By the mid-20th century Halloween was well on its way to joining Christmas in becoming the two top holiday events in the American cultural year.
Yet, even as most Americans, including its evangelical Christian community, found little harm in such Halloween customs as trick or treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, yard and home decorating or even costume parties for adults and children, a darker side of the holiday traced its genesis to the 1960s. The counterculture that emerged in that decade expressed some sympathy for genuine occult and pagan practices associated with the holiday. Groups that claimed pagan or satanic connections celebrated the holiday as their own. Real and exaggerated reports of trick or treat candy tampering (most reports usually turned out to be false) originated during this decade, and many parents questioned the wisdom of allowing their children to participate in civic-sponsored trick or treat observances. Although Halloween possessed a long history of largely harmless pranks, the 1960s witnessed outbreaks of "hell night" or the "devil's night" in some communities that took human life and millions of dollars in fire damage. This destructive phenomenon largely was identified with Detroit and other large cities. The introduction of "gore" into Halloween culture, costumes and makeup owed much to George Romero's 1968 film "The Night of the Living Dead."
By the early 1970s many Christians had soured on these features of the Halloween holiday and they began an internal discussion about the holiday, asking themselves, "What do we do with Halloween?"
Since the 1970s the evangelical Christian and Baptist community have answered this question with diverse responses. Some Christians overlook Halloween's excesses and allow their children and young people to participate in community and civic events, while other Christians have remained adamantly opposed to the holiday and renounce all features of the festival. Other Christian community leaders have used the time around Halloween to conduct "Hell Houses," "Operation Nightmare" and similar events. These are designed as evangelistic events with the purpose of revealing to young people the reality of hell and a life without Christ. Although these are provided with the best of intentions, Hell Houses remain controversial and even many Christians have lamented that evangelistic efforts like these may lead to questionable conversion results.
The most emergent contemporary response to Halloween in the evangelical Christian community is to provide a Christian alternative to the popular holiday. Under such names as "Fall Festival," "Holyween," etc., many churches now offer the church itself as the focal point for providing a Halloween alternative. These festivals may provide some or all of the following: "trunk or treat" or a trick or treat alternative for young children, a fall décor for the church, costume parties for both children and teens, fall-themed games and amusements, seasonal foods and refreshments, bonfires, and other related seasonal activities. Generally, these churches discourage costumes with occult, pagan or "gory" themes and they refrain from calling these events Halloween parties. In addition, these churches also offer prayer and devotion before their festivities and also pass out evangelistic tracts to visiting community members.
Pastors who favor this response believe that it is better to embrace this option rather than allowing their people to participate in the popular but largely secular Halloween activities of the general culture. Ironically, this approach mirrored historic and contemporary efforts by Roman Catholics and Protestants to provide alternatives for the unpleasant associations of the autumn holiday. It is doubtful that "Fall Festivals" will replace Halloween on the calendar, but the churches that provide these Halloween alternatives serve a useful function. Parents of children and teens like the idea of a safe and Christian-themed environment for their Halloween alternative.
However Christians respond to Halloween, two certainties remain: Halloween will survive and Christians, following a centuries-old tradition, will offer alternatives to the festival's worst features.
Stephen Douglas Wilson is dean emeritus and chair of the history department at Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., and a member of the SBC Executive Committee. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).