But the church manages to annoy me every year.
For some reason I've never entirely understood why some Christians just cant cope with Halloween. Something about the day terrifies them. Somehow, to the Legion of the Easily Offended, the thought of boys and girls carving goofy faces into pumpkins, bobbing for apples, and dressing up in costumes, conjures up a satanic effort to lead them into witchcraft and sorcery.
Reality check for those baptized in vinegar: If sugar overload and wearing a pointy hat is the most cunning plan the Devil can come up with to lead children astray, maybe it's time Old Scratch called it quits and retired to Cancun to watch the sunsets. He's clearly past his peak.
Not that the church is much better. Christian alternatives to Halloween include "harvest festivals," which are nothing but Halloween under a different moniker; and "Hell Nights," with a fixation on evil and gruesome eternal punishment that puts slasher films to shame. I'd suggest the church retire to Cancun as well, except that Satan is already going there, and such a combination would be worse for the place even than tourism.
The loudest criticism leveled against Halloween from Christian quarters is that the day outright glorifies witchcraft and Satan, because most Halloween customs have their roots in pagan practices that involved divination and animist beliefs.
There is some truth to that. The ancient Celts, whose harvest festival Samhain provided the template for modern Halloween, believed that spirits could cross into the natural world on this night. Livestock would be slaughtered to preserve meat for the coming winter, offerings of food would be left out for the spirits of the departed, and any number of rituals from bonfires to jack-o'-lanterns were put in place to ward off evil spirits.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether to reject traditions rooted in these ancient beliefs, or too see them as something that points to Christ. When we ask, we should remember that Jesus himself seized on the customs of his culture and reinterpreted them in light of his own claims about himself. During the seder meal, he linked the breaking of the matzoh and the wine of redemption to his impending death. In Jerusalem during Hanukkah, he proclaimed himself the shamash of the world, and connected his message with the renewal of the Temple.
We also should remember the example of Paul the Apostle. At Mars Hill in Athens, Paul saw the idolatry of the people as evidence of their great spirituality. He linked an obscure altar left over from a plague generations earlier to Christ, and gained an instant audience intent on his message.
So the question is, do we alienate ourselves from the culture at large by refusing to observe its holidays, or do we find a common ground that points everyone toward deeper truths?
For me, it's no contest. Halloween's pagan origins reveal a day that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.
At its simplest, Samhain was a celebration of community, a celebration that included members of the community both living and dead. The dead were not feared, but revered; their lives and histories were celebrated in stories, and those still living could gain wisdom and insight by recalling the dead.
Jack-o'-lanterns, originally carved in turnips or other similarly sized Old World vegetables, were meant as a ward against evil spirits. My children know that Christ has triumphed over evil, once and for all. So when we carve a jack-o'-lantern, whether it has a frightening face or a goofy expression, we do it as a statement of faith that Christ has defeated Satan, that Light has triumphed over Darkness, and even though autumn is the dying season, there is no need to fear.
Today it's a children's game to dress like Spider-man and Harry Potter as they go trick-or-treating; originally it was the druids who disguised themselves, to lead malicious spirits away from the village, to protect the people. Halloween costumes are a fun game of Let's Pretend, but here also we can see a deep truth: Putting on Christ's likeness, in faith, safeguards not only ourselves but those around us from spiritual harm; living a life of compassion brings great good to everyone.
Trick-or-treating itself has its roots in another Samhain practice, where families would leave offerings of food and drink out for the spirits of their departed loved ones, to make them feel welcome. Practically speaking, this ensured that the needier members of the community would have food and drink. I hope to perpetuate that attitude in later years by taking the girls to volunteer at the soup kitchen when Halloween isn't on a school night; in the meantime, I also remind that that the search for candy brings fleeting pleasure, but the search for Truth brings lasting joy.
Like any of our other holiday traditions, there is no meaning intrinsic in our Halloween customs beyond what we give them. I really don't understand why some Christians prefer to live in fear that having fun trick-or-treating or carving faces in a pumpkin is going to set their children on the road to perdition.
At their simplest and most basic, these are harmless and essentially fun distractions when the weather starts getting cold; but when we take the attitude of Christ toward our society, and work toward its redemption rather than absenting ourselves from things we don't like, we can find ourselves involved in the community instead of being deliberately isolated from it.
That act alone is enough to teach our children some valuable spiritual lessons, and it's more likely to keep them interested in Christ than a dozen "safe alternatives" ever will.
Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.