A Theology of Halloween

October 29, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Sadly, the holiday of Halloween does not seem to elicit much reflection beyond concerns such as What shall I be this year? and Will that one neighbor be giving out king-sized candy bars again? 

And even more sad, one might notice that such a pattern does not differ much from other holidays, such as Christmas (What should I buy for Dad? ; Are we going to make cookies this year?) and Easter (What should I wear to church? ; Will my bunny be dark chocolate?)

Yet, unlike these other holidays, which receive a great deal of attention from the church (Christmas isn’t just about Santa; Easter isn’t just about eggs), Halloween is often overlooked, or possibly, avoided, as if to say We have no idea what to do with Halloween!?!

There are some churches that vehemently reject participation in it, or, in some strains, advise their members to go on the offensive and fight the powers of darkness that are supposed to be more active on this day [!Wouldn’t it be more logical to assume that such forces, being made complete in evil, are as completely active as they can be on every day!]

And there are some churches that “take back” the holiday by providing a Halloween alternative (Trunk or Treat, Har-Fest, etc.). However, the activities at these events hardly differ from their secular cousins, and they often seem to assume that Halloween is not a Christian holiday, but a secular one only, for which they are providing a safer, homogeneous environment.

But Halloween is a Christian holiday (co-opted from pagan traditions of course, just as all the others were). The particular history of the this holiday begins with the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain, which focused primarily on the transition from the lighter half of the year to the darker half and also included the recognition of death and those who had passed on.

When adapted by Christianity, this time of the year was crowned “Hallowmas” or “All Hallows,” which is the archaic terms for “All Saint’s Day,” (traditionally celebrated on November 1st, and preceded by “All Hallows Eve”). Furthermore, thanks to Luther, October 31st has also become recognized as “Reformation Day,” which is often celebrated together with All Saints Day. Thus, by way of the Christian liturgical calendar, this period of time is officially not ordinary, but holy (a time of holiday).

Thus, whether you celebrate Halloween (and all holidays for that matter) purely for their Christian remembrances, or as mixed with cultural activities (feasting, gift-giving, partying) and symbols (trees, pumpkins, eggs), Halloween is indeed a holiday that should provoke us theologically.

Perhaps the easiest concept that Christians can celebrate in Halloween is the Harvest, a time of the year when vegetation, having ripened and matured, is gathered and celebrated. Beyond reminding us of our own charge to bear fruit, the harvest helps to direct our attention to God’s bountiful provisions in our lives and prepares our hearts for Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.

Yet another theme of Halloween is death and the remembrance of those who have gone on before us. For those cultures that are profoundly disconnected from the concept of death (such as American culture is) this holiday often brings to the forefront a recognition of our mortality. And while Freud would say that a holiday like Halloween allows people to consciously process our unconscious fears of death, for Christians, the holiday’s recognition of death should be a reminder that death is neither our ultimate fear, nor the ultimate victory; a natural part of this fallen world, but a reminder also of a world that will one day be reversed.

Furthermore, death reminds us of all those who have gone on before us and with whom we will one day be reunited. Traditionally commemorated with a feast and, sometimes, a graveyard visit, the celebration and remembrance of the Saints is a festivity that could probably be revitalized in modern Christianity and in the modern celebration of Halloween.

Finally, the theme of the spooky, through often troubling to the Christian, is not irredeemable, but a reminder, yet again, of those things that are indeed scary to us now (spiders, snakes, bats, creaking stairs, fog, the dark, the uncanny, etc.), but will not be in the new earth, where we will be reconciled with all of the things that go bump in the night. And, while we know that there are dark forces at work here on earth, as Christians, this holiday should remind us that, scary things, whether real (demons) or unreal (ghosts) are not to be feared, nor are we to be superstitious about them (whether throwing salt over our shoulder or refusing to carve pumpkins out of the fear that doing so will open us up to dark forces).

On a side note, I think that people can choose to abstain from certain Halloween activities, but their reason for doing so should be to redirect focus and/or shape character rather than out of fear that participation will condemn them spiritually. Furthermore, while Christians may be tempted to abandon all material participation in Halloween (and in other holidays for that matter), we must remember that the spiritual does not exist outside of the material, but is embodied in it. Therefore, we shouldn’t strip our youngsters of pumpkins and, at the same time, expect them to comprehend the harvest. We shouldn’t shelter them from death and expect them comprehend the boundaries of the fallen world or the price that Jesus paid on the cross.

Finally, in approaching Halloween, Christians must be reflective, as they are with other holidays, celebrating those elements that are redeemable or, at least, neutral and abstaining from those that are detrimental. Personally, I think some of the worst aspects of Halloween have nothing to do with witch decorations, ghost costumes, and pumpkin carving, but with promiscuity and the glorification of gore and horror.

For Christians, the real issue is not How can we provide an alternative to this holiday? or How can we use this holiday to target non-Christians (ex: handing out ineffective tracts) but How are we to celebrate this Holiday? and hopefully, What can we learn from it?