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Trick or Treat?

Our Halloween dilemma
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In 21st-century North America, you don’t need a calendar to tell what time of year it is—just look at the seasonal merchandise of any department store.

Equipment for cookouts or picnics indicates that summer is on its way; fireworks remind us that we’re approaching Canada Day or Independence Day. When notebooks, pens and pencils, backpacks, and padlocks become widely available, we know another school year will soon begin. And before back-to-school season ends—sometimes even before it starts!—stores bring out costumes, candy, and ghosts galore.

Halloween has become one of the biggest holidays in North America, now rivaling Christmas in the amount of related merchandise.

Isn’t God’s providence great enough to allow blessings to evolve from condemnable practices?

We all know about trick-or-treating: children dress as characters of their choice and go from house to house, receiving more candy than they get the entire rest of the year. Adults get in on the fun too, by tending their doors and proffering treats or by accompanying their children—sometimes in costume themselves. Homeowners decorate their houses and yards with jack-o-lanterns, spiderwebs, tombstones, and more.

The holiday seems to be a favorite of the mass entertainment industry as well. October is prime time for the release of horror movies. And since “haunted houses” have long been popular attractions, almost every theme park now hosts its own Halloween event, the ultimate probably being “Halloween Horror Nights” at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. These productions offer you the opportunity to face your worst nightmares.

What’s It All About?

Like other cultural phenomena, Halloween comprises many features: pageantry, fall festival, confectionary feast, and a celebration of all things scary and/or supernatural. And, like everything else in contemporary culture, it presents a question to Christians: do we participate or do we not?

We do know some things about the history of Halloween, but not as much as we may think. The name is derived from “All Hallow’s Eve,” the night before All Saints’ Day, or “Hallowmas” (Nov. 1), which is followed by All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2) in Western Christianit

The Roman Catholic Church declared that Christians were to intercede for the deceased in heaven on All Saints’ Day and intercede for the deceased in purgatory on All Souls’ Day. Popular belief held that the spirits of the dead returned on All Hallow’s Eve. As with all superstitions, people performed actions in the hopes of pleasing, appeasing, or warding off those spirits.

How trick-or-treating developed in this context is unclear, but it is believed to have derived from the practice of a town’s poor begging for treats (“Soul Cakes”) in exchange for prayers for the benefactors and their families. That practice combined with “mumming,” the production of costumed pageants.

Of course, Hallowmas was preceded by pagan occasions, most notably the Celtic Samhain. As Nicholas Rogers says in his book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, it is difficult to know what that festival was actually like, let alone whether is a root onto which the church grafted Hallowmas.

In any case, we clearly see occult beliefs and practices in conjunction with Halloween. For those celebrated it by praying to and for the dead, it lent itself to preserving superstitions about ghosts. As modernism progressed, those beliefs and practices acquired the allure of quaintness and/or excitement.

A Little Like Christmas

How do we approach this complicated issue? I suggest that Halloween is, in some ways, similar to Christmas.

We all know that the Christmas season includes a plethora of worthy and unworthy pursuits. It seems beyond question that we should celebrate Jesus’ birth, but the Bible gives us no command to do so. And we can never actually know whether the church’s designation of Dec. 25 as the date for celebrating the birth of Christ (calculated using spurious conclusions) was motivated by a belief that was in keeping with the gospel or by the church’s practice of retaining pagan traditions while giving them Christian meanings.

Many believe that the church’s institution of Christmas was an attempt to appropriate the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Many groups performed certain rites that time of year in celebration of the winter solstice, and one of those traditions has become almost essential to Christmas: the northern European Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree.

Some Christians, such as the Puritans, totally spurned Christmas. Today we still hear all kinds of complaints about Christmas. Most people would agree that many who affirm celebrating Christ’s birth don’t go beyond admiring the charming, whitewashed image of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus surrounded by livestock.

Even as we put up the tree, give gifts, and make merry with family and friends, we might all agree that the hassles associated with those customs are numerous. We recognize that many people go to unwarranted and destructive excesses.

Rather than a season for joy and celebration, Christmas can become a time of misery and frustration. Thoughtful Christians use discretion in selecting which practices to adopt and which to avoid.

I think we can take the same approach to Halloween.

Yes, there are aspects of Halloween that we should beware of and refrain from engaging in. We must avoid flirting with the devil—using Halloween as an occasion for séances, for example. (Some folks consider Halloween the “Satanic New Year.” Wiccans celebrate it as one of their most important holidays, but no doubt emphasize that what they do is radically and entirely different from trick-or-treating.).

Whether we’re trick-or-treating, hanging mistletoe, or reading Harry Potter, we must understand how the pagan worldview differs from the one Scripture teaches us, and we must strive to bring all that we do in accordance with the latter.

Following Halloween customs does not necessarily involve following the pagan beliefs and practices those customs evolved from—just as many people can sing “Silent Night” at Christmas yet remain indifferent to whether Jesus truly lived. Likewise, I think that we can enjoy many of Halloween’s exuberant activities while spurning the pagan practices associated with the holiday. Isn’t God’s providence great enough to allow blessings to evolve from condemnable practices?

I think Christians can affirm many things about Halloween. I have always enjoyed the costumes. They give us the chance to enjoy each other’s creativity, imagination, and presentation. And let’s not overlook the opportunity Halloween offers to practice Christian hospitality. Trick-or-treaters can be welcomed warmly. You can even purchase “Seed Corn” or other Halloween-related   evangelistic products to pass out.

I have expressed some of my own views on the holiday. Ultimately, though, the decision whether to celebrate Halloween lies with you.

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