Skip to comments.Holiday Hysteria (a Christian defense of Halloween)
Posted on 10/31/2008 9:49:19 AM PDT by NYer
Today is Halloween and, as you may have noticed, many of our Evangelical friends now shun Americas October spook festival altogether. They tell their children that Halloween is the devils holiday and that trick-or-treating is little better than dabbling with a Ouija board or consulting an astrologer.
Contemplating the Idea of Death
Though such extremism might seem odd or funny to many of us, its really, in one sense, quite admirable. If I thought Halloween was what they think it is, Id keep my kids away from it, too no matter how odd it might seem to others. But Im afraid that if our separated brethren dont stop for a moment and listen to some good old-fashioned Catholic wisdom on this subject, theyll all be forced to become Jehovahs Witnesses before long. And that, I think youll agree, would be terrible. Lets try to spare them that fate, at least.
What exactly is Halloween all about?
Basically Halloween is our local manifestation of one of mankinds oldest and most basic impulses: the impulse to contemplate and even to celebrate the idea of death during the fall of the year.
After all, the natural world itself dies in the autumn, and that death (along with our sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection for it next spring) has always set human beings to contemplating their own impending date with mortality. The pre-Christian world was positively overflowing with these local death festivals. Whether it was the turning of the leaves along the Danube or the first frost on the haystacks of Burgundy, the pagans who lived in Europe before the coming of Christianity found something driving them to tell ghost stories around the end of October, to dress in creepy costumes, and to build bonfires against a new (and not entirely unpleasant) chill in the air. In some places, dances were held to drive away evil spirits; in others, it was believed that the shades of departed loved ones might take a holiday from Hades on this particular night, and could turn up at your doorstep for a spooky reunion.
Inculturation Is an Old Tradition
Before too long however, Catholic missionaries went to Europe from the East and preached the Gospel of Jesus to these cheery, superstitious heathens. Their fiery crusades against pagan idolatry are the stuff of legend: they inspired their converts to chop down the sacred groves, to smash their idols, and to turn instead to the worship of the one true God, Who created heaven and earth. But these missionaries had another quality as well, an attribute thats often glossed over in hostile secular accounts. That attribute was empathy.
These early missionaries actually liked the people they were converting. They liked their folkways, and their culture. They liked their music, their dances, and even their local death festivals or liked, at any rate, everything about them that could be liked without compromising the faith. Interestingly enough, we know from history that Pope Gregory sent his missionaries out with explicit instructions that anything in the local culture which was not actually incompatible with Christianity was to be left strictly alone. Today, we call this approach “missionary inculturation,” and most of us have realized that it isnt really necessary for a Bantu tribesman to put on a three-piece suit before we allow him to come to church. We may feel very enlightened when we take this approach today, but the truth is that the whole evangelization of Western Europe (325-1100 AD) was accomplished under this principle.
This is the real reason why many Christian holy days correspond to older festivals from the pre-existing pagan calendar. The Europeans, for example, had many cherished family traditions surrounding their winter solstice festivals, and so the Church allowed them to incorporate many of these customs (Christmas trees, etc.) into her nativity celebrations. Likewise, Easter was already a spring holy day for the pagans, devoted to the contemplation of rebirth, new life, and resurrection. It was only natural, then, that many of these ancient customs found themselves gaining new and deeper significance under the reign of Christ, the true God of springtime and fertility.
The pagan death festivals were superceded in just this way by two Christian holy days based on a similar theme All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). The pagans found it natural to remember their departed loved ones at this time of the year, and the Church wisely allowed them to maintain continuity with the old ways. To say, however, that the Church merely “Christianized” the existing paganism is to miss the point badly. As St. Paul dramatically points out in his Epistle to the Romans, paganism already had a good deal of inchoate truth in it already. What the Church actually did was to gather up some of these inchoate truths, sift out what was patently unusable, and then point the pagans to the final fulfillment of their ancient longings as revealed in the faith of Christ.
And yet Halloween isnt quite All Saints Day, is it? Or All Souls Day. What is it then?
You might say that Halloween is an echo-holiday. Halloween is to All Saints & All Souls Days as Mardi Gras is to Ash Wednesday sort of their outlaw second cousin. Halloween is that part of the ancient death festivals which couldnt quite be comfortably domesticated. Its the part that still wants to run wild on the autumn winds, to soap windows and overturn outhouses. And yes, like Mardi Gras, this urge is difficult decently to restrain at times; the sowing of wild oats often produces crops that have to be reaped by the whirlwind. But just because a thing is subject to abuse doesnt mean the thing itself is evil a principle that our Evangelical friends have sometimes forgotten when the subject was wine, and we ourselves have often needed to be reminded of when the subject was sex.
Yet it isnt the puritanical aspect of Evangelicalism that causes me to worry about a possible descent towards the Jehovahs Witnesses. Its the knee-jerk response that Halloween is to be feared solely because it has pagan origins. The truth is that a good deal of what all of us do every day has pagan origins. The mathematics we use has pagan origins; our form of government has pagan origins; the very letters with which this sentence is written have pagan origins. In fact, most of the churches from which these anti-paganism sermons issue are, architecturally speaking, Greek revival temples in the neo-classical style. So pagan origins alone isnt quite enough to damn Halloween all by itself. As a matter of fact, its one of the great glories of Christianity that it does save and redeem and baptize pagan things ourselves included!
Jehovahs Witnesses, on the other hand, profess to despise everything associated with our pre-Christian past. They especially despise the practices of the Catholic Church that redeem various elements of that pre-Christian past. They teach their disciples to hate and fear all holy days and holidays alike, and will have nothing to do with either Christmas or Easter for precisely the same reasons that Evangelicals are now despising Halloween.
And this is the reason I have found it worthwhile to mount, from time to time, a Christian defense of Halloween. Because one day perhaps not too long from now my own friends and relatives are going to feel forced, by their own careless presuppositions, to drop the other shoe on all holidays, to spend December without Christmas, and springtime without Easter, to go to a ballgame and refuse to sing the National Anthem.
If you find, as I do, that such a prospect makes your skin crawl a little, I hope youll join me tonight in soaping a few windows or turning over an outhouse or two. For truths sake.
So, he's saying tha one cult's excess excuses another evil.
Great read, great points-Thanks!
There’s no excuse to not have fun on Halloween. If any children show up dressed with Hussein stickers we can redistribute their candy to someone else.
It’s just a holiday for children.
If you’re Christian and you choose not to celebrate Halloween that’s your business. They’re your kids. I can see both sides.
The Christianizers didn’t just base the new calendar around the pagan calendar because they like the pagans... I think more to the point was that they wouldn’t have been able to impose the change without fitting the new celebrations into the existing ones. It was a compromise.
Really good piece though. Thanks.
Merely being "of pagan origin" is not in and of itself evil. We were all pagan once, and therefore much of everyday life is pagan in origin.
The question is whether it is incompatible with Christianity. Paganism, in its better forms, had much in it that was good and true. That which was good and true was redeemed by Christ. That which was evil and wrong must be rejected. But you can't just reject it all out of hand on the grounds of 'paganism'. That leads to the cultish rejection of much that is good.
We have a long tradition of tales, about ghouls and goblins, around campfires and in front of fireplaces. I still remember “Bloody Bones” and share it with the younger generation on occasion. I think it was harmless, I don’t remember any mutilated animals, decapitated corpse (okay maybe one, read about it for days so it was highly unusual) nor people particularly deranged.
I think the most disturbing part of Halloween now is the danger to the children who engage in the practice. It is very sad that one has to discard unpackaged goodie, look for needle marks and check “goodies” with a metal detector. That is why a lot of celebrations are confined to supervised carnivals. Some are advocating an alternative to Halloween, similar to first night for New years, which is also a good idea. It is all in good fun and kids (mostly) love it.
I’m currently working on my Christian defense of pornography.
But you can’t just reject it all out of hand on the grounds of ‘paganism’. That leads to the cultish rejection of much that is good.
All the “good” things about Halloween are what...costumes and candy???
Contemplation of mortality, the tying in of the death and rebirth of Nature with the death and rebirth of Man in the person of Christ, honoring those who have died, confronting fears of death . . . . there's lots of worthwhile food for thought under the costumes and candy.
Our parish does a Hallowe'en party where the kids come as their favorite saint. It makes the underlying issues more obvious, but they are there, regardless.
Exactly! My reasons are many to abstain from H’ween but a key factor is this: Phil 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.
H’ween falls very short here. Im no cultist...thats all I have.
Of course the reality is those dangers while real are pretty rare. There’s always been some jerks out there (legends of poisoned/ trapped Halloween treats go back to the mid 60s) and there’s always going to be some jerks out there. But chances are you won’t encounter them. We’ve gotten pretty hyper paranoid, especially when it comes to kids, in the last few decades, but there really isn’t much evidence to back up that increased paranoia.
While there will be problems, there always are, on an individual kid basis they still have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting tampered Halloween treats.
My reasons are many to abstain from Hween but a key factor is this: Phil 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.
Hween falls very short here. Im no cultist...thats all I have.
It’s a shame Catholics haven’t been so historically broad-minded about the celebration of Jewish holidays as they have been the pagan ones.
But I think you're going to have to get Christmas in your sights next, if that is your criterion -- runaway commercialism, blatant greed, drunken holiday parties, spending beyond one's means, are not true, noble, right, pure, lovely, or admirable.
Don't mistake superficial human error and excess for the underlying message.
bump for later
Im not judging ANY of you who feel its ok to make this compromise...it is a matter of conscience for me to not do so. I dont believe that the Bible teaches this type of permissiveness.