A Pastoral Letter
Throughout the years, many have spoken to me about whether or in what way Christians should participate in Halloween. After all, we are called to be “in the world, but not of the world,” and Halloween is a huge part of the world modern American Christians live in. In fact, the only holiday on which Americans spend more money is Christmas. While some Christians believe Halloween is a harmless bit of fun requiring little intentional reflection, others believe Christians must absolutely abstain from the festivities around them, at best seeing them as glorifying death like the first-century Roman games or at worst as avenues for demonic influence.
As a parent, youth minister and pastor, while I sympathize with the desire to make the world a safer place both physically and spiritually, I believe both approaches avoid the profound Christian responsibility to be “in the world but not of the world,” to be “salt for the earth.” While it is a form of witness, if Christians simply absent themselves from so prominent a civic festivity, we leave the field clear for the winsome celebration of junk food, communities coming together (it was after all, the only time of year I spoke to nearly everyone in my neighborhood), and harmless pranks to become ever-more dark. Besides, it reinforces the stereotype of Christians as cranky, senseless stick-in-the-muds. Conversely, if we don’t reflect at all on the growing darkness in the way our culture is commemorating this holiday, we are likely to become influenced by that darkness, becoming nearly indistinguishable in the way we mark the holiday as Christ followers from those around us.
Some background on how we got the modern holiday of Halloween might be helpful. As fall begins and the hours of daylight seem to ever-more-rapidly dwindle, in eras past, entire communities would join together to gather in the harvest from the tawny fields. Whatever could not be stored for the long, barren winter ahead was eaten quickly, before it could rot. This is where the tradition of autumn feasting comes from.
Yet, as people filled the granaries, root cellars, and silos, they couldn’t help but notice that autumn was the time of year that all the natural world seemed to be dying. As the days grew shorter and what sunlight there was seemed unable to warm the earth, people’s thoughts were also turned to their own mortality, so autumn—the season when death seemed to rule the natural world—also became the season when thoughts about death dominated human culture. This is the likely source of pagan religious festivals like the Greek festival of Pomona and the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-whan). This may also be the reason why so many people experience the depression, which psychologists have dubbed seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.), that begins to set in at this time of year.
So, what transformed the incredibly serious business of thinking and praying about death into the silly orgy of practical jokes and candy-eating we know as Halloween? Jesus Christ. For those who know the gospel, the rhythm of the seasons is not a harbinger of our own inevitable decline and death, it is the promise that “this world is not our home” and a reminder that the One who went before us into death rose again triumphant and ascended to the Father to prepare for us a room in His Father’s eternal home. For those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, the jack-o-lanterns, skulls, and paper ghosts that adorn the stores and houses this season are nothing more than a reminder of an abandoned destiny, tokens of an inheritance that by the grace of God is no longer ours.
But it is not so for many around us. It is striking to this Christian that much of the death imagery that as a child I only saw in October in a limited way now dominates our culture’s t-shirts, bumper stickers, tattoos, and other art in an almost unlimited way. As our culture has lost its familiarity with and trust in the Christian message, they have lost the hope of life eternal, the hope of ultimate purpose, the hope that their life might mean something more than spending years at pointless work so that they might engage in pointless consumerism and equally pointless sex. Though all people try to avoid pain and experience pleasure, for many in our culture this is all that there is; there is nothing higher, nothing to provide context, depth, and ultimately, purpose for the pleasure they desire and the pain they seek to avoid.
For people living with such a worldview, the symbols of death are the logical iconography, for the always-present reality of death overshadows everything they do. Those without the hope of the gospel simply eat, drink, and try to be merry, try to keep themselves distracted—try to forget for a moment the fate that awaits them and all they love… whether today or when the universe ultimately collapses in upon itself again.
People without Jesus merely eat. They may become gluttons because of the need to constantly distract themselves with the pleasure of food or they may become “foodies,” tickling their taste buds with ever-more-eccentric cuisines as they carefully count calories, trying to make sure they look as young as possible for as long as possible, trying to pretend for a while that they are still a long way from death. Christians, on the other hand, feast, remembering the dead—all the saints lying in graves, waiting for the final resurrection of their bodies—remembering all those who entrusted themselves to Christ, who alone rose from the dead and over Whom death has no power. That is the historical reason why festivals like the Celtic festival of Samhain, which commemorated the universal fear of death, became the Christian feast of All Hallows’ Eve, which mocked the forces of evil that had lost their power over those who, though physically dead, were actually alive in Christ—the saints (or Hallowed Ones) whose lives they celebrated in turn the next day.
This why I believe that the way Christians should engage in Halloween is to be intentional, remembering that it is historically a Christian celebration of the triumph of Christ over death. Are the decorations around our house joyful and silly—mocking the power of death—or are they macabre and seemingly fascinated by it? Do we choose costumes that seem to align us with the forces of evil opposed to Our Lord, or do our costumes show that we belong to Him who is “the light of the world?” After all, there is a big difference between dressing up as Gandalf or a necromancer, a superhero or a seductress, a physician or a fiend.
Different Christians will make different decisions on whether and how to engage the phenomenon of Halloween, and we ought to be tolerant and even supportive of these differing approaches within the Christian family. What is important in my view is that, whatever our chosen approach, we be intentional, and more importantly, that we have great sympathy for all those without the hope that Christ alone can give. We should (to borrow language from our Evangelical brethren) “carry a burden for them.” Rather than being angry at what the late John Paul II aptly called “the culture of death,” we should recognize the hopelessness that gives rise to such a culture. We should feel so sorry for our ultimately hopeless neighbors that we share with them the hope we have. We should let the light of our Christ-inspired actions shine into the darkness of their worldly life, and when possible we should share with them the story of the only Son of God, who lived that we might learn how to live well, who died so that death might be “trampled down” by death, and who lives that we might have eternal life.
Every Wednesday night at vespers, we pray, “we have come to the setting of the sun, and we look to the evening Light.” The evening light, the light that illumines not only the darkness of night but the darkness of our world is the true light that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) As autumn light fades and the long darkness of winter descends upon us, let us look to the Evening Light, and let us be seen by others looking to Him. Let us by our actions and in our testimony say, in the words of a song I remember from my childhood, “Yes, there goes the sun… But here comes the SON…” and after all, “It’s alright.”