By Gerald E. Bates
- All Saints is related to the veneration of saints dating from the second Christian century and observance as a general religious feast from the fourth and fifth centuries. It is presently one of the holy days of obligation in the Roman Catholic Church, to honor the saints, known and unknown, and is observed on November 1 with the vigil starting on the preceding eve of October 31. Roman Catholic teaching, along with revering the saints, is that the prayers of the saints who have gone on before can assist the prayers of the faithful who are still alive. In this way the church present and the church triumphant (those in heaven) are joined in common worship.
- Halloween is a constructed word coming from All Hallows Eve, related in name to the holy festival of All Saints but, in popular observance in our days far departed from its religious roots. In fact it seems more closely related (although unconsciously so for nearly all who do ghosts, goblins, skeletons, mock graveyards, etc.) to the ancient pagan Celtic seasonal eve of summer’s end, Samhain, which predates the arrival of Christianity in the British Isles. Children born on this date were considered to have the gift of second sight. When Christianity came to the Isles the old festival — with its harvest overtones, bonfires to drive away the dark, magic, and incantations against evil spirits, faeries abroad in the land — was rolled into the Christian observance of All Saints Day (All Hallows Eve or Halloween) followed by All Souls Day on November 2 with prayers for the departed dead waiting in Purgatory for entrance into heaven.
- Reformation Day honors the day Martin Luther is supposed to have nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517, often considered by Protestants as the beginning of the Reformation. This date was set by Elector John George II of Saxony. It is observed quite faithfully in several provinces in Germany, Slovenia, as well as by many churches in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions generally across Europe and America and, interestingly, in Chile since 2008. It is often actively regretted by Roman Catholic writers who consider it, not without reason, a competing observance to All Saints.
Now for the attitude: Western culture seems adept at taking most anything and making a commercial project of it. Its success is attested to by the fact that many households outdo themselves in decorating their homes and yards for Halloween with all kinds of outlandish (and mostly meaningless) symbols. In some cases, families decorate more than they do for Christmas (another holiday co-opted by marketing, along with Easter and its bunnies, eggs, etc.).
What are Christians to do? I would suggest first knowing at least the outline of history as given above. This could stop us from plunging into a celebration of things we do not accept. I like the idea of our churches recapturing at least a part of Halloween by having their own parties, showing that we know what it is to be happy, along with a Christian witness. Along with the fun things, our church has a prayer room at its Halloween ‘trunk or treat’ which, last year, was nearly overrun by community folks with all kinds of needs and problems seeking prayer. We can also discuss the history given above with our children so that they understand the backgrounds of these festivals to which our society pays so much attention.
One time in India, on a plane from Mumbai to Nagpur, a party was going on which involved virtually all the passengers. Two of us, Americans, were generously adopted into the celebration, given candy, slapped on the back, smiled at and made a part of the celebration. We were happy to join in what looked like a joyous cultural feast, assuming it was a wedding party or some other family affair. As we deplaned, however, I looked down into what appeared to be a baby basket being carefully tended at the front, and discovered an image of the elephant god. This told me instantly what the celebration was about. The lesson: Be aware of the party you are joining. We would not have been rude but we probably would have been a little less whole hearted if we had known. Our culture has a lot of parties going on and, according to the Apostle Paul, we need to experience a ‘renewing of our minds.”
Gerald Bates is bishop emeritus of the Free Methodist Church; he served from 1985-1999. He and his wife, Marlene, also served as missionaries to Burundi. They currently reside in Indianapolis.