Trick or Treat?

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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.

About the Author

Robert Evan VandePolder is a member of Bradenton (Fla.) Christian Reformed Church.

See comments (9)

Comments

A thoughtfully written article.

Trick or Treating was a blast in Oak Lawn IL circa 1963 with houses so close together your pillowcase would be full after going around the block once. The celebration at school was all Reformation Day with CSI wooden rulers. The disconnect was lost on this 5 year old. Both were fun.

Thanks for triggering good memories.

My family has struggled with this issue for years as well. Thank you for the article. Although it doesn't provide any "quick and easy solution", it provokes thought about relating Halloween customs with those of Christmas (ie., it's not BAD in the right context and understanding).

Thank you.

Since the origins of Halloween included Biblically questionable practices, it seems that replacing the superstition and occultism with celebrations of the reformation in our churches and homes, might best serve God's people. As we have been told repeatedly, 'come out from among them."

Thank you Jim, DH, and Jane for your responses. I have wondered what such passages as II Corinthians 6:11-18 say about doing things like Halloween. But, if we understand these scriptures to tell us to completely estrange ourselves from the world, and renounce its ways as being rotten to the core, then we will be like our Anabaptist brothers. Maybe it is Reformational to recognize, along with scripture(e.g. God often used His people within pagan cultures, e.g. Joseph, Moses, Daniel), that goodness can still be found in this fallen world, even where and when we do not expect it.

I am afraid that some of my better points did not make it into the final edition. I wanted to say that we should not totally condemn all scary stories, films, or activities; because fear is a part of life, and so we should explore it through our imaginations. I, however, detest "torture porn", such as the "Saw" series of movies.

I agree with Paula. Years ago I read a first hand account of baby sacrifices on Halloween. This is an evil holiday, and Christians have NO right taking part in it. God's blessings do not go there! God hates evil. We as Christians cannot pray for the dead. Death is death and their fate is sealed. How much better to pray for the living who are lost!
I know it seems cute and harmless to dress your little ones up in cute outfits and let them get candy, but you are setting them up for their teenage years, when the outfits aren't so cute anymore, and they'll ask you then, "What's wrong with this? We've always done it!" Have you seen the evil outfits out there? the sexy ones? Do you REALLY want this for your children? There are so many better ways to spend this evening, to bobbing for apples, scavenger hunts and playing games - as families and youth groups.
This article should not have been published.

It does not seem like the same as Christmas to be because of all the "evil" associated with Halloween.The witches/occult ect...Do you not think it better for Christian to take a loving quiet stand and just be ye seperate?!

This article holds no water when it comes to halloween, God specifically told his people not to become involved in worshiping other God because he is the only one. If you look at what halloween really is all about then you as a true believer that christ died to save us from the sin of this world, would have to agree that halloween is nothing more than a day to celebrate ALL that is evil. If you think it's not you wrong. The mere dressing in scary costumes is evil enough, but some take it that much further and do their houses and music. That is why it has been named devils night! If your participating in these events all your doing in opening the door to let the devil have a foot in your life, once he's in if your strong enough in the lord then he'll take you down an ugly path. The bible clearly states to stay away from things that are evil and if your saying it is ok to watch movies that are from the pits of hell, such as poltergist, paranormal activity, and hell, just to name a few. Then I have to believe that your not really inertested in what the bible so clearly states as bad and perhaps your not saved, perhaps you don't believe jesus died to save us from this. If there hadn't been the fall of Adem and Eve you see today there would been no Halloween. To answer your question 2 corinthians says not to get involved with the unbeleivers, it says"what does the light have in common with darkness and what does the righteousness have to do with wickedness. Seperate yourselves from them and touch NO UNCLEAN thing and I will recieve you." that does not mean you can't talk to the unbeliever, they would not get saved if you did not minister to them. But reather do not get invovled in their practices. I don't think this article should have been published, it will give people a false sense for what is right, although it may be your opinion and to that you are entitled, it's my opinion that far too many people will read this and may be influenced by it and it will send them down the wrong path. It say's that in the last day's many will be missled if they are not strong enough in the word of God. I pray you see the error in your thinking before it's too late.

When I was a child, we painted our face with lipstick and circled the blocks filling a pillowcase with candy. Today we don't. There was no redeeming value in it then, and there is none in it today. It is cultic, and celebrates the occult and the "dark" world, the darkness of the world.

Our kids go swimming, play games at church, and share candy, instead, without the demonizing costumes. Costumes tell a story, and we should not try to become part of the wrong story. We should be part of the right story, the true story.

REVP's comment that "... then we will become like our anabaptist brothers..." made me think of something. Perhaps our anabaptist brothers are more reformed than we are in this respect; perhaps they are more interested in changing the practices of the world, rather than simply adopting them. In my mind, doing almost anything different than celebrating halloween would be more reformed than participating in it.

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