Recently, I was invited to go to a Halloween party this coming weekend. I need your help. What do I dress up as for this party?
Now, I know that a lot of Christians are deeply suspicious of Halloween: Is it not connected, at least remotely, to some kind of Satanic practice?
Well, the question has a point to make. After all, the timing of Halloween goes back to an ancient pagan festival, some say that was originated in Ireland, marking the beginning of winter. Samhain, pronounced “SAW-in,” from what I have learned, also celebrated the end of the harvest season. Since Samhain is at the same time of year as the traditional date for Halloween, the overlap gives the impression that Halloween has a pagan connection…. And since anything that distracts the believer from whole hearted worship of Jesus Christ could be considered “Satanic,” it only makes sense to raise such suspicion.
All Saints Day was celebrated by early medieval Christians to remember those Christian martyrs and other exemplary Christians who had gone on before them. All Saints Day, though originally in May, was moved to November 1st, under Pope Gregory (731-741 A.D.). All Souls Day, a related Christian festival to remember the faithful departed, particularly deceased relatives, was set on November 2nd. During the Reformation, the All Souls Day fell out of favor. But All Saints Day was held on by the English Anglican Church. All Saints Day is otherwise known as “All Hallows Day,” (Hallows=Holy, or Saint), which is how we get “All Hallows Eve,” or “Halloween,” for the night before on October 31st.
All Saints Day still continues in liturgical traditions that still hold to ancient Christian calendars. Its success explains why, even for today’s pagans, it is difficult to even know for sure what Samhain was like before All Saints/Souls Days came into the mix.
Halloween today is basically secularized, as are most holidays now, but as the 21st century merges into what appears to be a “post-Christian” era in the West, the revival of pagan practices associated with the ancient Samhain festival have started to reappear, such as among contemporary Wiccans. But even most honest observers admit that neo-pagan spirituality is in a continued state of flux, morphing and changing quite a bit.
We can have endless debates about how “Satanic” all of this is. Or we can take a tip from this 3-minute video at John Piper’s desiringgod.org ministries. Do you see Halloween as something to be avoided, or do you see it as an opportunity to be a witness for the Gospel?
Here is my spin on that this year: If Christians really want to “take back Halloween,” then we might want to take a few lessons from church history. I suggested to my wife that instead of a ghost, or something like that, she can dress up as a Christian saint at the party, such as Saint Thecla. Early accounts are sketchy, with various elaborations, but Thecla was surely one of the Apostle Paul’s most well-known converts to the faith, first meeting Paul in what is now modern day Turkey. According to this Eastern Orthodox source, Thecla was forbidden by her mother to go out into the street to hear Paul preach. But she was able to listen outside of her bedroom window, where she heard the Gospel. So, if someone asks my wife, “Who are you supposed to be?,” well, then, she has an opportunity to talk about Thecla’s story as she heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and had her life set free from the fear of darkness and death.
As for me, I am still encouraged by what I wrote about last year, that identifies All Saints Day as the same day that a young, German theology professor named Martin Luther, first nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door. Maybe, I should try to dress up as Martin Luther? I would probably have to gain some weight though, in order to be convincing.
The point is this: perhaps one of the best ways to celebrate “All Hallows Eve” is to remember the examples of remarkable Christians who have died and gone before us. If you receive an invitation to a Halloween party, perhaps you can read up a bit on church history, dress up as some Christian figure from the past, and then use the opportunity to share the story of that person you came dressed as, with others at the party. Sure, it sounds a bit geeky, but it is a whole lot more interesting than dressing up as some “Superhero.”
For more on the origins of Halloween, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has some perceptive comments to share in 3 minutes. In the meantime, I need to figure who I should be… and find a costume!
UPDATE: November 3, 2015
I need to make correction to an earlier statement, which suggested that the original All Saints Day spring celebration was moved to November 1st, partly to counteract the Samhain fall festival. A recent post at the Anxious Bench blog, references a work by historian Nicholas Rogers, arguing that while the Irish world, where Samhain came from, originally celebrated a feast for saints in April, the Germanic world, that did not recognize the Irish Samhain, had a feast for saints in November. This undermines the idea that All Saints Day was placed in November in order to try to supplant the Samhain festival. I am glad to be corrected, and so I modified the rest of the blog post. The study of history reveals some interesting surprises and busts a lot of pious fiction.