Friday, October 23, 2009

Is Halloween A Witches' Brew? Or Have Christians Been Spooked Out Of Celebrating A Part Of Their Rich Tradition?

The contemporary Christian often finds Halloween an uncomfortable topic. It's a bit like walking past a graveyard and detecting among the tombstones a thoroughly raucous party in progress—a bizarre mixture of horrible screams and merriment—and wondering who might have called it. What is this mishmash of innocent fun, ugly pranks, and witches' taunts? And what indeed, might be "holy" about All Hallow's Eve?

Most of us know the holiday's name was Christianized centuries back. But we also realize the event must have a decidedly unsavory past, what with the ghouls, goblins, and ghosts decorating everything from K-Mart windows to school bulletin boards. The blending of seasonal, Christian, and pagan is remarkable.

For instance, the thoughtful believer might visit a spook house sponsored by a Christian group. Should he become entangled among the screaming and often genuinely terrified thrill seekers, he may wonder about the edifying value of butcher's gore depicting brutalized humans, or vampires and executioners reaching out for one's throat. At the other end of the spectrum, he hears of parents forbidding any festivities, including the use of costumes or creatures or imagination. Were he to quiz other Christians about Halloween, he'd find an awkward vagueness, or perhaps fulminations against wickedness, or simply appreciation for pumpkins, costumes, and mystery stories.

Are there thoroughly Christian ways in which to view Halloween?

More than a thousand years ago Christians confronted pagan rites appeasing the lord of death and evil spirits. Halloween's unsavory beginnings preceded Christ's birth when the druids, in what is now Britain and France, observed the end of summer with sacrifices to the gods. It was the beginning of the Celtic year, and they believed Samhain, the lord of death, sent evil spirits abroad to attack humans, who could escape only by assuming disguises and looking like evil spirits themselves. The waning of the sun and the approach of dark winter made the evil spirits rejoice and play nasty tricks. Most of our Halloween practices can be traced back to the old pagan rites and superstitions.

But the church from its earliest history has invited people to celebrate the season differently. Chrysostom tells us that as early as the fourth century, the Eastern church celebrated a festival in honor of all saints. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Christians celebrated "All Saints' Day" in May in the rededicated Pantheon. Eventually the All Saints' festival was moved to November 1. Called All Hallows Day, it became the custom to call the evening before "All-Hallow E'en."

Some people question the whole idea of co-opting pagan festivals and injecting them with biblical values. Did moving the celebration to November to coincide with the druidic practices of the recently conquered Scandinavians simply lay a thin Christian veneer over a pagan celebration? Have we really succeeded in co-opting Christmas and Easter, or have neopagans taken them back with Easter bunnies and reindeer? In a sense, it's always been the same debate: do we ignore a pagan romp, merge with it, attack it, or cover it up with seasonal fun?

History would indicate that there has been much value in the church's Christianizing the calendar, introducing rich traditions of celebration and spiritual disciplines. Its success could be debated, but when the neighbors are fearfully sacrificing to a lord of death and dodging witches' tricks, it would seem an apt time to celebrate the Lord of life and resurrection. The ancient Christians, after all, had thought out their strategy quite well: the idea behind All Saints' Day is the precise opposite of chains, moaning ghosts, and evil spirits.