Audio length: 12:05 minutes
Transcript published: March 04, 2012
It is only September, but stores are already displaying their Halloween "goods." What are we to make of this holiday as Orthodox Christians?
Those who know me know that I am not much on Halloween. I never was much of a Halloween kid. It seemed a bit odd to me that perfectly normal devil-hating church folks would go all out once a year to root for the other side. I realize that Halloween is a good ways off yet, but as I popped into the grocery store the other day, I was reminded of my dislike. My eyes were accosted with the images of boogeyness and badness, goblins, the living dead, witches, spiderwebs and ghoulishness everywhere. Did I mention brightly wrapped massive amounts of chocolate?
Then, just before this podcast, I received an email from a young girl:
Dear Father Joseph. My parents don’t allow me to go to Halloween because they think I will be killed, or vampires might come out. My church doesn’t allow it at all, and my parents say it is all about Satan. What should I do?
I was tempted to reply, “Yes, Charlotte, there is a boogeyman.” Scary, isn’t it? The scary part is the amount of money Americans waste on this occasion, and even more so, the fact that in most public school districts, this religious feast, Halloween, is the only one sanctioned and celebrated.
Ah, but did you know that a few years ago there was a school in Seattle that actually canceled Halloween festivities? The district said Halloween celebrations and children dressed in Halloween costumes might be offensive to real witches. “Witches with pointy noses and things like that are not respectful symbols of the Wiccan religion, and we want to be respectful of that,” a school representative said.
On the district’s list of guidelines related to holidays and celebrations is an item that reads, “Use of derogatory stereotypes is prohibited, such as the traditional image of a witch, which is offensive to members of the Wiccan religion.” Hurray! I support that. How about not dissing the dead?
Growing up, I always participated in Halloween. I don’t remember hearing any anti-Halloween voices, even from Baptists, back then. In fact, our church (are you ready for this?) had a haunted house in the basement one year, complete with all the scary gags you can imagine—ghosts, vampires, the walking dead, blood, guts. They even had us gather and wait upstairs in the sanctuary until over the loudspeaker a spooky voice terrified us about what awaited us downstairs. Again, this was in a church, y’all.
I never liked Halloween. It was just something you did. Getting home late, I was only allowed to eat some of the candy. My dad, God bless him, would always pick over it, for my safety, of course, assuring that there was much less candy awaiting me in the morning. My mom has pictures of various outfits I wore through the years. I don’t really have any favorite Trick-Or-Treat memories, except there was a lady who lived on our street. Her house was a favorite stop, and to be honest, we all tried to go there more than once. She gave away dimes. She would come out with full bowel of change and allow you to reach in a grab as many dimes as one hand could manage.
By the time I was in college, I was pretty much anti-Halloween. I don’t know what spawned this stance, I just never felt right about it. Then, ladies and gentleman, I had children. I guess I now understood why perfectly normal God-fearing people allowed their children to participate in such (forgive me) damned nonsense. It’s cute! You look down at their cute little faces and you think, “Well, they won’t be young forever. Aw, they are having so much fun.” I confess, I’ve thought that.
The real kicker was when I was in seminary. Here we were, reading the lives of the saints and struggling toward an understanding of the resurrection, when bam! Halloween hit. There was a member of the staff who entered the Pagan feast with mad desire. Soon the trees around the campus were full of makeshift ghosts. Ghosts! I remember walking with one of my pals, also an anti-Halloween dude, and asking, “What are we teaching our kids about the resurrection with all those ghosts hanging around in the trees?”
Neither of us had kids of our own back then. Several of us grew to really hate the end of October. Years later, after I had become pretty well twisted about the whole thing, I was working at a Goodwill Store when I first converted to Orthodoxy. The season came and we were asked to decorate the store for Halloween. I begged off, giving religious reasons to my supervisor. Fine. I didn’t have to help. The store was all gussied up, nonetheless.
One of my co-workers came and asked me what I had against Halloween. I asked, “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” “Because of the birth of Christ,” she said. “How about Easter?” “Because of the resurrection,” she replied. I went on to ask about the 4th of July and Thanksgiving, but when I asked, “Why do we celebrate Halloween?” She had no answer. It was obvious that she had never even considered the question. She ended up by saying, “Because it’s fun.”
Because it’s fun. That’s the reason most seemingly God-fearing folks go in for such a godless festival. If you think about it, that’s the scariest part of all. For what it’s worth, in my more reactionary days of yore, here is a letter that I used to provide for the children of our parish:
Dear School Official: The Orthodox Christian Church firmly holds that Halloween is a Pagan, indeed a Satanic, festival, which, in essence, glorifies evil, and for this reason, strongly discourages its members from participating in any and all of its manifestations. We take great pains to protect our children and ourselves from disease and harm. We teach them good nutrition, hygiene and personal safety. We discourage them from engaging in fornication, substance abuse, and other immoral and dangerous acts. Why would we allow them to dabble in darkness? Even if Halloween was good, clean, innocent fun, to what benefit—spiritual, intellectual, or otherwise—is this for a Christian? Let’s teach our children to surround themselves with what is good, and to “walk as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).” I respectfully ask that you excuse the bearer of this letter from school activities pertaining to Halloween on such and such a date. Sincerely.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to fantasy games, dress-up and such, and if you promise not to tell anyone, I have read Stephen King. Harry Potter—I used to be against it. Now, I’ve read all the books. I’m just not interested in celebrating Halloween. Much has changed since I was a jitterbug. Most people, many people, more people, or more kooky, I have no idea what my own kids (who have never been Trick-Or-Treating by the way) will do when they grow up.
A couple of years ago I overheard my son explaining to his younger sister, “Helen, we don’t celebrate Halloween, but when you get to be a grownup, you can if you want to. Right dad?” “(Sigh…..) Right son.” These days 70% of American households open their doors and offer candy to strangers, most of them children. 50% of Americans will make photographs of family and friends in costume, and the nation as a whole will spend more than 6 billion dollars. In terms of dollars spent, Halloween is the second most popular holiday of the church year, in this country, after Christmas.
For the Celtic people of northeastern Europe, November 1st was New Year’s Day, and October 31st was the last night of the year. Celts believed that it was the night that spirits, ghosts, fairies and goblins freely walked the earth. It was Pope Gregory III in the 8th century who tried to turn Halloween into a Christian holiday. Christians had been celebrating All Saints Day on May 13th in the West. Pope Gregory III decided to move the holiday to November 1st to divert northern Europeans from celebrating an old Pagan ritual. Instead of providing food and drink to the spirits, Christians were encouraged to provide food and drink to the poor. And instead of dressing up like animals and ghosts, Christians were encouraged to dress up like their favorite saints.
In the United States, Puritans tried to outlaw Halloween, partly because of its association with Catholicism. It was the Irish Catholics who brought Halloween to this country when they immigrated here in great numbers after the potato famine in the 1840s. By the late 1800s, Victorian women’s magazines began to offer suggestions for celebrating Halloween in wholesome ways, with barn dancing and apple bobbing. And by the early 20th century, it became a holiday for children more than adults.
In 1920, Ladies Home Journal made the first known reference to children going door-to-door for candy, and by the 1950s it was a universal practice in this country. By the end of the 20th century, 92% of America’s children were Trick-Or-Treating. I stole those facts from the Writer’s Almanac.
But then there is this, from a Neo-Pagan web page, and I quote:
Halloween is an ancient Celtic holy day which many Neo-Pagans, especially Wiccans, Druids, and Celtic reconstructionists, celebrate as a spiritual beginning of a new year. Halloween is a time to confront our personal and cultural attitudes toward death and those who have passed before us. Halloween is a time to lift the veil between the many material and spiritual worlds in divination so as to gain spiritual insight about the past and the future. Halloween is a time to deepen our connection to the cycles of the seasons, to the generations that have come before us, and to those that will follow, and to the gods and goddesses we worship. Halloween is a time to let our inner children out to play, to pass on our childhood traditions to our children, and to share the fun with our friends and neighbors of many other faiths.
Y’all, I don’t know about you, but that’s enough reason for me to still believe that an Orthodox Christian “has no dawg in this haunt.” Besides, according to Orthodox Wiki, for Orthodox Christians, the Sunday following Pentecost is dedicated to All Saints, both those who are known to us, and those known only to God. There have been saints in all times. They have come from every corner of the earth. There are apostles, martyrs, prophets, hierarchs, monastics and righteous, yet all are perfected by the same Holy Spirit. The descent of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to rise above our fallen state and to attain sainthood, thereby fulfilling God’s directive to be holy, “For I am holy.” Therefore it is fitting to commemorate All Saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
Finally, to the little girl who wrote that her parents won’t let her celebrate Halloween. What to do? For now, just do what your parents say. They are not pulling a trick on you. And trust me, when you are on the opposite end of the equation, it is a treat, indeed.
Oh, and if you do go Trick-Or-Treating, you might want to help your dad sort through that candy. You know, “just to be safe.”