I was 30 years old the first time I dressed up for Halloween.
Halloween was not a part of my childhood in South Africa—only something we knew from seasonal episodes of sitcoms exported from the West. I remember my sisters and I pretending to trick-or-treat, singing the song we’d learned from The Cosby Show’s Rudy Huxtable: “Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.”
Where I grew up, no one really dressed up for Halloween; no one carved jack-o’-lanterns; and the streets were certainly not safe enough for trick-or-treating. Plus, the end of October was the end of spring in the Southern Hemisphere, hardly a time for harvest decorations and bonfires.
After moving to the United States, I found myself 30 years old, eight months pregnant, and planning my first Halloween costume. I was a soccer field, dressed in green with a black and white soccer ball painted on my rotund belly. That was also the first I heard of the Christian debate over Halloween, with a few partygoers muttering that I had no business honoring such wicked and pagan festivities with my outfit.
It’s a debate nearly all American Christians are familiar with, based on the common idea of Halloween being tied to the Celtic festival of Samhain, a “festival of the dead.” If the holiday comes from a pagan observance, it makes sense that faith communities would shun its observance.
But more Christians are questioning that understanding, some even insisting that Halloween is a Christian holiday. In her essay on the topic, Alicia Donathan posits that Halloween is an inversion holiday and asks: “What better way to celebrate…than to invert the world for a moment, laugh at the devil, make light of death for a moment, reasserting the fact that tomorrow all will be well, and all manner of things well?” It is a night when Christians look forward to the day when the victory secured at the resurrection will be seen in all its consummate outworking and, like the Lord in Psalm 2, we will look upon his enemies and laugh.
Theologically intriguing as I find this position, it seems a fairly nuanced cap to try and fit onto the cultural phenomenon Halloween has become. Not to mention being a mind-bendingly complex concept to try and explain to preschoolers who want to dress like princesses and pound the pavement for candy. The invitation to regard Halloween as a harmless opportunity to meet ones neighbors and build community for the sake of the gospel is refreshingly simple and appealing.
Either way, a move to a more contextualized understanding of Halloween—rather than a universal “right” or “wrong” way to celebrate it—reflects well on the long history of the holiday. After all, looking back at its history over the centuries, we find a festival highly dependent on place, community, and the church.
Halloween still retains a loose association with All Saints (or All Hallows) Day, which began in the 8th century to rightly remember the “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us in the Faith. In his essay “Halloween: Its Creation and Recreation,” Steven Wedgeworth tracks the holiday beginning in the Middle Ages, when some moderate celebration involved with All Saints Day began on the eve before—All Hallows Eve, shortened to Halloween. Practices of “souling” and “guising” developed, which included dressing up and going house to house, asking for treats (not unlike the tradition of Christmas caroling). In the later medieval period, the idea of using the date to ask for indulgences for the suffering souls in purgatory took root, introducing to Halloween an association with the dead.
And it was on this very day, Halloween in 1517, that Martin Luther famously hammered his 95 theses into a wooden Wittenberg door. Protestants adopted a new way to celebrate the date: henceforth it would be Reformation Day, with All Saints Day a distant memory. Meanwhile, in England, Halloween customs were both absorbed into and eclipsed by annual Guy Fawkes celebrations on November 5: with fire, intrigue, guising and general rowdiness more than compensating for a lesser festival earlier in the same week.
Then Halloween became reclaimed and reconstituted by Scottish and Irish immigrants to North America a little over 100 years ago. Weaving together fragments of remembered history and folklore, Halloween arose as a freshly reconstructed holiday socio-political identity and culture. Robert Burns’ poem Halloween gave the festivities the stamp of “tradition,” and by the early 20th century there were pamphlets in distribution instructing Americans on how to decorate and celebrate the occasion. The 1930s saw a radical increase in vandalism associated with Halloween, which was met by community efforts to organize activities, giving rise to modern trick-or-treating.
Halloween remained a predominantly kids holiday in North America until the 1970s, when Hollywood took it up and exploded its appeal – ballooning Halloween festivities to include adults in the celebrations, with festivities becoming accordingly more adult-themed in both sexuality and grotesqueness. Furthermore, Halloween could now reach the arms length of the silver screen’s influence: Asia, South America, and even our little television screen in Sub-Saharan Africa.
And what now? Halloween continues to mean different things in different places.
In our community in California, all the candy, costumes, and horror of commercial Halloween are mingled with the harvest festivals and trunk-and-treats of faith communities, while the local Hispanic community celebrates Dia de los Muertos. In some places, trick or treating has died out as neighborhoods age; in others, families skip the door-to-door for school events. The biggest celebration in the area may be all-out gore fest, or it may be a pumpkin patch.
Issues of community poverty or wealth, concerns about excess, personal safety, and moral questions of exposure to overt sexuality or horror are all factors to consider, as is a long Christian history in All Saints Day and Reformation Day, and it being the one day of the year when a Christian on a neighbors’ doorstep will be greeted with welcome.
What we do with Halloween, then, is an issue of conscience and wisdom rather than an issue of absolute right or wrong. Let’s pray that whatever context we find ourselves in, we make the most of every opportunity, for the days (not just this one) are evil (Eph. 5:15-16).
Bronwyn Lea is a South African-born writer-mama, raising kids in California and raising questions about faith, family and culture at bronlea.com. Her writing has appeared at RELEVANT, Momastery, Start Marriage Right, and Think Christian. Find her online on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter (@bronleatweets).
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