Halloween has become a major commercial holiday in this country, second in potential profit making only to the Christmas/Channukah/Kwaanza/Winter Solstice season. The average American family now spends well over $100 each year in tricks, treats, and scary decorations. This pagan day of the dead now marks the beginning of America’s shop ‘til you drop end of the year buy-a-thon.
What do we Christians do with Halloween? Is it innocent fun or something to avoid? I get this question every year. Before I attempt an answer, permit me a short history lesson.
Halloween is short for All Hallows Eve, that is, the evening before All Saints Day, a Christian holy day on which Christians honored the saints (the “hallowed” ones), the heroes and martyrs of the faith. For Lutherans, All Hallows Eve is also Reformation Day, the day Martin Luther posted his 95 theses for debate on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg.
October 31st happens to be the last day of the Celtic year. On that day, the Celts celebrated their festival for the dead. Other cultures have similar celebrations.
In the Middle Ages, people had a profound sense of the demonic. Just think of Luther’s Reformation hymn, A Mighty Fortress – “though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us….” People believed that the demons were especially active on the eve of All Hallows. People carved gourds with ugly faces and set them out to guard their homes. This was similar to the practice of carving grotesque gargoyles on the drain spouts of cathedrals to ward off devils. People paraded in the streets dressed up in costumes and masks to confuse the demons and confound their schemes. All Hallows Eve became a night of practical jokes and pranks, not to mention bribery (“trick or treat”). After all, you could always blame the devil!
The holy day of All Saints has all but died out, especially in protestant Christianity, which barely recognizes the saints let alone honors them. Popular culture has latched on to All Hallows Eve and turned it into another money-making gimmick. Much of the fun is innocent, albeit bad for the teeth. Children dress up as Power Rangers, ballerinas, and SpongeBob SquarePants and gorge themselves with candy begged from the neighbors under special dispensation from parents and dentists. Some houses may wind up decorated with toilet paper by midnight marauders, but it’s usually all in good, clean fun.
There is a darker, more sinister side to Halloween, however. Satanic and pagan groups have made Halloween their own special “high holy day.” Animal shelters warn owners of black cats to keep them indoors so they are not harmed. A night that was once a confrontation with the devil has become a celebration of all things devilish. The old nature always prefers the darkness to the Light.
Ought Christians participate? The easy answer would be a flat out fundy “no.” But every road has two ditches, and Halloween is no exception.
On the one side, there is the danger of taking death and the devil too lightly. Make no mistake. The devil is real. He isn’t some red guy with a pointy tail and a pitchfork. He is a liar, the father of lies, and a murderer. He masquerades as an angel of light, appearing to be very religious in order to deceive people and draw their focus away from Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 11:14). St. Michael and the angels fought a vigorous battle in heaven against the devil and his demons (Rev. 12:7-12). The Bible says that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. He can be resisted only by standing firm in the faith of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:8).
A baptized believer belongs entirely to the Lord and has no fellowship with the devil and his demons. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
“Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:14-18)
When Christians take part in the darker side of Halloween, they may create the false impression that death and the devil are not serious business, or that it’s OK for Christians to dine with the devil once and a while, as long as your spoon is long enough. No faithful Christian who takes sin, death, and devil seriously would want anything to do with that.
On the other side of the road there is the danger of taking the devil too seriously. Contrary to what some impressionable types seem to believe, the devil is not all-powerful, all-knowing, almighty, or present everywhere. He is a fallen angel, a creature of God turned against his Creator. He stands chained and defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is a liar and a loser, and his only hope with the short time that he has left is to convince the world that Jesus’ death on the cross isn’t enough to save us.
Jesus Christ has conquered death once for all people, once for all time. He has defeated the devil by His death on the cross. There is nothing in all creation, including death and the devil, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). We can live in confidence, free from fear of death and the devil, knowing that God is at peace with us in the death of Jesus, that Jesus is risen from the dead and that we too will rise. Christ has conquered. The devil is defeated. “He’s judged, the deed is done.”
That brings us to the middle of the road. It never hurt to poke a little fun at the losers. Jesus didn’t hang on a cross so that His Christians could go around with a dour look on their faces judging everyone around them. When Christians become overly critical of Halloween, they may create the false impression that Jesus does not reign now over all things including the devil, that He has not conquered death by His dying and rising, or that the devil is to be feared more than God.
“Do not fear the one who can destroy the body, but cannot harm the soul. Rather fear the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
Sour pietism on the part of Christians confirms the world’s mistaken notion that Christianity is nothing more that a religion of rules ruled by moral nannies who want to suck the fun out of everything. Martin Luther reminded us that we need to spite the devil every chance we get. Luther sure did, often in rather colorful ways. Halloween certainly affords the opportunity to sass the “old, evil foe.”
Having defined the ditches, let’s get back to the question that started this whole discussion. Ought Christians participate in Halloween? It all depends. Of course, I don’t expect baptized believers in Jesus Christ to be dancing naked in the woods around bonfires while chanting pagan prayers to the mother goddess or sacrificing black cats, ecumenical liberalism notwithstanding. On the other hand, the devil’s chief work is to draw us away from Christ’s death and resurrection and have us focus on our works,
prayers, and piety. He seems to be doing a pretty decent job of that in mega-Christianity. Generally speaking, the cultural silliness associated with Halloween has about as much to do with the devil as Christmas has to do with the incarnation of the Son of God.
Love of neighbor and concern for his or her salvation will give us pause for a few questions. What will your neighbor, your family, your children, your brother or sister in Christ think of your Halloween celebration? Will it help or hinder their faith in Jesus? Does your Halloween fun witness to the victory and freedom of Jesus’ death and resurrection, or does it lift up the powers of darkness and death? Does it draw undo attention to the dark and demonic or does it poke fun at those things that already stand defeated? Are you able to talk frankly about the reality of death and the devil with your children and tell them of the victory of Jesus?
Freedom in Christ is always tempered by love for your neighbor. You are completely free in Jesus to serve your neighbor in love (Romans 14:1-23)
In the end, you must decide for yourself how and to what extent you and your family will participate in Halloween festivities. Context is important. Local mileage may vary. The best advice I can give is have fun, spite the devil, honor Christ, and wipe that sour look off your face. Remember who you are in Holy Baptism: a baptized priest in Christ’s holy priesthood “that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
The Rev. William M. Cwirla
All Hallows Eve, 1999, revised 2006