It seems like every year October kicks of controversial. As Halloween rolls around the religious zealot war over costumes and candy begins. Secular people prepare for Halloween while churches wiggle around trying to figure out how to navigate these choppy waters without making someone mad. To some Halloween is a harmless night of fun and diabetic comas. Others view it as satanic ritual steeped in the wickedness of paganism. They preach candy festive abstinence because, even after being “Christianized” Halloween is built around demons, witchcraft, and death. Why do fundamentalists always take the fun out of everything? All kidding aside it’s important to understand how to be in the world without being of the world. The debate leads inevitably to this question: should Christians participate in Halloween?
Well-intentioned Christians run around telling everyone of how Halloween came into existence. Let’s be straight about it: Halloween is rooted in paganism. It’s origin and practices likely originate from the Celtic celebration of Samhain. Samhain is like April 20th for ghosts and fairies. It took place at the end of summer when farmers were preparing to bring in their harvest before winter. On Samhain the Celts celebrated “dead fest” where they honored their deceased ancestors. On the evening of October 31st they believed the spirits were like environmentalists after an oil spill. During this night they would often wear masks and costumes to ward off evil spirits. They carved turnips like we do pumpkins; they went door to door trick-or-treating. The parallels are striking.
Along comes the Catholic Church. They can’t really stop the celebration completely. So what do they do? They put a Christian spin on it. We’ll take your pagan celebration and turn it into a church celebration leading up to all saints day where the church honored the dead. The night became known as All Hallows Eve. The church knew they had to do something or people would just continue to practice their pagan festivals. Why not make the pagan festivals into Christian festivals? The fundamentalists who are anti-Halloween know the origin of the day. From that they have gathered that it is inappropriate for a Christian to participate in festivities that originated in paganism.
The really clever churches try to avoid the controversy completely. Instead they celebrate Trunk-or-Treat or Fall Festival or something else with a cute name as a Halloween alternative. Who are you trying to fool? A rose by any other name is still a rose. Avoiding issues doesn’t tend to make them go away. So the question remains: should Christians participate in Halloween?
After learning of its rich pagan heritage you might be inclined to say: “No way José.” But wait. Let me ask you this: what do you do for Christmas? Do you wear more reds and greens, decorate your house with lights, set up your evergreen tree, and do you tend to do it around December 25th? Pagans! That’s where those customs came from. Christmas is a mix of the Roman Saturnalia (which was a bit like the Purge in ancient Rome as it included murder, assault, and orgies), the German Yule, and the Church. Most of the ingredients in Christmas are rooted in paganism. Even the date is right in the middle of Saturnalia. Jesus was likely born in the spring. We don’t know exactly when so the church used His birth to turn a pagan holiday into a Christian one.
You know what else is pagan, the title “Christian”. The church was originally called followers of the way. Pagans called us Christians and now that’s what we call ourselves. So should we stop using it because pagans used it? The way we measure hours, days, and months is a pagan system developed by the Babylonians. Wedding rings are a pagan custom, nothing in the Bible about exchanging metal rings to get married. Wedding and funeral ceremonies are rooted in paganism. Symbols in worship are pagan. So if you are anti-Halloween be consistent: don’t celebrate Christmas, don’t call yourself a Christian, don’t wear jewelry with a cross on it or decorate your home with it, don’t wear wedding rings, and don’t have a funeral service.
Once you start shunning or boycotting things because of their origin you end up on a slippery slope. If Christians shouldn’t do it if it was in any way associated with paganism what about non-Christians? Where do we draw the line of association? The phone you use, probably wasn’t invented by a Christian, so should you stop using it? Non-Christians invented the fireworks that we use to celebrate our independence.
In 1 Corinthians 8:1 Paul is addressing a similar problem in the church. Can Christian eat meat sacrificed to idols? Here’s what he says:
1 Corinthians 8:1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so- called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
Paul’s answer is yes. Meat is meat. It doesn’t matter that it was sacrificed to an idol. There is no God but God. Christians do not have to fear the false gods of the world. There is nothing but God. If we have God everything we do is an act of worship to Him.
Romans 14 talks about passing judgment on our brother, those who don’t participate should not be judged, neither should those who do. We don’t judge each other. We love each other. Whichever side you are on, if you look at those on the other side with hostility you are wrong. The truth is we have freedom in Christ. We don’t have to live in fear of associating with pagan influences because we are children of God who belong to Him. We are free to celebrate and enjoy the life He has given us. That doesn’t mean we are free to engage in sin. If your practice for Halloween is Ouji boards and séances then yes, there is a problem. If your practice is to dress up like a super hero and go around asking for candy there is nothing wrong with that. The ones who avoid the Holiday should not judge the ones who don’t. We should all be convinced in our own minds.
There are two reasons to bring this up. First, Halloween is an opportunity. In a world that is becoming increasingly impersonal and disconnected this is a day where the community actually connects. They do things together. They go door to door. Excusing yourself from this Holiday removes you from relationship with the people Jesus loves. The truth is taking a stance against participation in this will be interpreted as an alienation. We are to be IN the world. The world is our mission. What if we stopped being so afraid of how things started? What if we learned, like the church of old, to take something bad and make something good out of it? Isn’t redemption the point of the Gospel?
Second, we have to be careful with the ultra conservative focus on “not being of the world”. It’s true but it can be a dangerous stance. We have a mission. That mission is not to ward off evil and destroy anything with a pagan affiliation. Our mission is to reach those who are far from God with the love of God so they can become children of God. You can’t do that from an ivory tower. The Gospel is carried on the shoulders of relationships. The more we separate ourselves from the things in the world the less we are actually a part of it. Relationships are built in part around shared cultural experience. If you alienate yourself from everything even remotely “worldly” then while you are not “of the world” you are no longer in the world. Don’t use righteous fundamentalism to excuse radical irrelevance. When our culture gives us an opportunity to connect and share the Gospel, why do scoff at it?
How you feel if someone who knew twenty years ago treated you today like you had never changed? If an old buddy from high school talked to you and about you like you were still an awkward teenager would that bother you? It’s frustrating when people don’t let you change. It’s pretty clear that a lot of the Holidays, even the ones rooted in paganism, have changed over the years. Why do we insist on only seeing their origin and not what they are today? Things change. People change. Holiday celebrations change. If all you can see is where things started then maybe you need to spend more time looking at forgiveness. If you remember, we didn’t start off that well either.
Here’s what it comes down to: were you not born in sin? Were you not an enemy of God? Were you not broken, wicked, and corrupt in desperate need of a savior? Why can a person be redeemed and made right before God but not a cultural celebration? Is your view of God’s redemptive power so small that you don’t think He can make something good out of something bad on a communal scale? If God can save us, rebellious black hearted sinners, and turn us into righteous children why can’t He make a pagan Holiday into a Christian one? If you were to carve a pumpkin are you thinking: “oh great father Satan, be honored by my pumpkin carving?” Or can you just carve a pumpkin to be scary and fun for a cultural event? God is in the business of redemption. Restoring dead to life is kind of His thing. Why do you think God can do that for you, but not for cultural events?