Here comes Halloween
Well, in a couple of days Halloween will be here. I hear that many of those in the path of Hurricane Sandy are fretting that the holiday will be washed out; unless of course they are conservative Christians, in which case they see a potential washout as proof of God’s displeasure with that evil day.
I have to admit that being both Irish and evangelical I have a little guilt about this day. My Celtic ancestors are pretty much to blame for the whole thing. In their pre-Christian days they saw November 1st as the end of harvest and the start of the long, cold, frightening winter. Winter was tough back then, many didn’t make it through, and it was thought that appealing to their gods would help them survive. Hence was born Samhein (pronounced, oddly enough, sa-wen) a celebration to invoke the protection of the gods and ward off evil spirits.
The night before Samhein was seen as the border between light (summer) and dark (winter) where all bets were off and evil roamed in the land. Efforts to scare off these evil influences included carving scary faces into turnips. (It was the practical American influence that shifted from carving turnips to carving pumpkins. If you have ever tried to carve a face into a turnip you know why.) The whole thing would have probably died out except for the Romans who, when conquering Celtic lands, discovered the holiday and decided to export it. Oh well.
Halloween eventually drifted to America in colonial times, although the sturdy Puritans wanted little to do with it, but then again they didn’t like Christmas either. It really did not get rolling until the massive Irish immigration in the mid to late 1800s. From its inception Halloween has always been a sort of bipolar holiday. There was always a mixture of soft celebrations of harvest and community at the end of the season alongside elements of evil and occult. From the latter part of the 19th century until just after the start of the 20th there was a drifting toward the darker side of the celebrations.
By around 1910 to 1920 efforts were made to clean up the day. These were so successful that by the 1950s it had become a kid-centered day with a focus on fun. During this period evangelical churches across the land were all over Halloween like ants on sugar. The day was frequently a highlight of youth ministry in churches. I remember church sponsored haunted houses and scary movies.
All this changed in the 1970s when Mike Warnke, claiming to be a converted Satanist, began to convince evangelicals that celebrating Halloween was worshiping the devil. This spread rapidly and soon all sorts of anti-occult ministries began telling Christians that giving M&Ms to a three-year-old dressed as Tinkerbell or Spongebob was inviting Satan into your home; that putting out a pumpkin was declaring yourself as a Satan-worshipper.
As Christians abandoned the field at Halloween we have been seeing the celebration pendulum drifting yet again back more to the occult, giving those who opposed the day lots of reasons to cry “I told you so.” To this day I have good Christian friends who fear Halloween. They stay home, turn out the lights and refuse to open the door to Satan-worshiping toddlers looking for candy.
Because the day is wildly popular in our culture this puts Christian parents and churches in a bind. What do we say to or do for our kids when the rest of the world is out trick-or-treating? Some churches put on “Hell Houses” and use the day to warn of the horror of hell; others do celebrations so carefully scrubbed of all references to Halloween that I doubt kids even know why they are there. Many still think the hide-and-cower theory is best.
I can sense however a new attitude coming toward Halloween. More and more, missional Christians are taking on the day as they do much of our culture, seeing it as an opportunity for outreach and not a time to cower. These people are answering their doors with smiles, giving treats to little kids, having pleasant conversations with their adult chaperones whom they might otherwise never meet. They have no fear of accidentally worshipping Satan and take the day as it comes.
This seems to be a point in time where we Christians can express our love for a culture, even when we profoundly disagree with it; can show tolerance to fellow believers who see the day differently; and maybe even let our kids dress up in cute costumes without calling for an exorcist when they get home from trick-or-treating.