Article by Jon Bryars
Halloween has passed and a frequent question that is raised both inside and outside the church community is, should churches celebrate Halloween?
When I arrived in Canada from the UK in September 2017, I experienced the inevitable mild culture shock. Much of Vancouver was familiar (the rain, the language) but there were subtle differences. One such difference was the Vancouver church’s approach to Halloween. One of the first conversations I had with a fellow Regent student was a heated debate over the church’s participation in the holiday; he argued that it was completely fine for churches to celebrate Halloween, I vehemently disagreed.
5 years later and the church that I attend and work for had a Halloween Neighbourhood Party earlier this week. So, what happened? Either:
- I’ve been convinced of my friend’s position (I have not)
- I still hold my position but I’m living a duplicitous life (I hope I am not)
- My position on Halloween is consistent with hosting a Halloween Neighbourhood Party (I believe it is)
A brief history of Halloween
A prominent feature of the first few centuries of Christianity was martyrdom, those who were killed because of their allegiance to Jesus. In the 4th Century, Christianity experienced both peace and prominence in the Roman Empire but in various ways it continued to remember and honour the saints who had died. All Saints Day emerges from this practice and eventually lands on November 1st in the 8th Century under Pope Gregory III. The night before All Saints Day (October 31st) came to be known as All Hallows Eve (Hallows derives from “holy”, from where we get the word saint). The day after All Saints Day is All Souls Day, and the three days combined make up what was known as Allhallowtide. So, it turns out Halloween is Christian… get your costume, we’re going to get candy.
While that might be the etymological root of the word ‘Halloween’, it’s probably not the origin of the festival. Much earlier than Pope Gregory III and All Saints Day, the Celts (from my part of the world) celebrated the festival of Samhain on October 31st marking the end of the harvest season*. On this evening it was thought that the spirits of dead would return to earth and there were all sorts of pagan practices associated with it. Halloween, or at least much of what is wrapped up in it, turns out to have a lot of pagan influence… burn the costumes and turn the lights off.
Here’s the rub: Halloween has enough connection to Christianity for those who want to justify participation in it and enough connection with paganism for those who want to renounce it. The twists and turns of history leave us in a bit of a tangle. It’s either a Christian holiday that has been paganized or a pagan holiday that has been Christianized. Either way, Halloween as we know it, doesn’t look anything like its namesake in 8th century Rome or its supposed predecessor in 1st century Ireland. What we need to wrestle with is the Halloween of 21st century Vancouver.
So, what is Halloween here and now, and how should we engage with it?
A very simple, but helpful, rubric for how we navigate any cultural practice or artifact in our city is to either receive, redeem, or reject it. To receive is to recognize an inherent beauty, truth or goodness in a cultural practice/artifact that is evidence of God’s common grace to Vancouver. To redeem is to recognize the potential for a cultural practice/artifact to be transformed by the gospel and enjoyed by Christians. To reject is to recognize the inherent ugliness, falsehood or evil in a cultural practice/artifact.
Halloween in Vancouver (having lived here for 5 years now) seems to have 3 key features:
Community: We should receive this aspect of Halloween with gratitude.
Halloween is a unique opportunity to engage with our neighbourhood because it’s a rare moment of community in a culture that is isolated, atomized and polarized. The neighbourhood opens its doors, invites others in, and gives generously (candy). The obscure practice of “trick or treating” has long lost its nefarious connotations and has become a moment for hospitality. As such, the church who serves a generous, hospitable God should lead the way – lights on in the darkness, a warm place from the cold, outrageously generous with candy, hot chocolate, and games.
Costumes: We should redeem this aspect of Halloween with wisdom.
Dressing up is fun and creative. Part of the attraction and joy of the holiday is seeing everyone in their funny costumes. It does, however, come with a measure of caution. The way we dress (not just on October 31st!) is a signal to others. It says something about who we are, what we value and what we want to communicate to others. Halloween costumes have the potential to surprise and delight; they also have the potential to terrify and tempt. Dressing your child as Mr. Incredible (which I did this year) is innocuous and fun. Dressing your child as an axe murderer, or “sexy vampire”*** is not just foolish, it’s wicked. It may sound obvious, but how we dress, how we dress our children, should not be determined by a spiritually pernicious, sexually perverted, and commercially motivated secular culture. If we are not discerning, if we don’t swim against that tide, we’ll get dragged along with it. I’m not suggesting you dress your kids as angels (in fact, I think that’s a terrible idea). I am, however, saying that dressing up as a family can be a redeemable activity, done to the glory of God and the delight of your neighbours – but we need to do so with our eyes wide open.
Occult: We should reject this aspect of Halloween with holy indignation.
In many places outside of Canada, the occult is the central feature of Halloween – hence the disagreement with my Regent friend. If Halloween is witches, ghosts, ghouls, evil spirits, seances, ouiji boards, pagan sacrifices, incantations, spells etc… then we would be foolish to receive it and naïve to believe that it could be redeemed. Such things are antithetical to Christianity. The bible is clear, from front to back, that occult practices are abominable to God (Deut. 18) and that when people become Christians such practices are to be renounced entirely (Acts 19).
Brothers and sisters: We should have no participation in these things. We should protect our children from them. We should warn our friends about them. We should pray for those who are embroiled in them to receive freedom in Christ. The light has nothing to do with the dark.
So, should Christ City celebrate Halloween? NO. At Christ City, we celebrate Jesus.
But should we have a Neighbourhood Party on Halloween? YES, I’m convinced we should. BUT, we should do so with spiritual maturity.
On Halloween, you’ll have seen homes decorated with fear-inducing demonic effigies and people dressed as terrifying characters from horror movies but you won’t find that at 5887 Prince Edward Street. We’re intentional about what we reject, and we call our community to be intentional about that too. But you will still find us open on Halloween, hosting a Neighbourhood party because, we are a church on mission to share the light of Christ to the world. The opportunity is too great and with appropriate wisdom we can navigate the holiday with a clear conscience.
For those of us who have an instinctive rejection of Halloween because of the occultic associations (this is me), my challenge is to consider what aspects can be received or redeemed for the Kingdom of God? How might we use what is considered the darkest night of the year as a moment to shine the light of Christ?
For those of us who have bought into Halloween wholesale, my appeal would be to consider what you are participating in? What you wear, the costumes you buy for your children, the way you decorate your home – Does it honour Jesus or should it be rejected as an abomination to a Holy God and a danger to your soul?
Christmas is coming.
Christmas is another holiday with intertwining Christian and pagan roots, with a modern, commercialised Canadian expression. It’s another season for us to ask ourselves the question of cultural practices and artifacts: Should I receive this, redeem it, or reject it?
*Calling a Halloween event a “Harvest Festival” is more pagan than calling it Halloween!
**I couldn’t think of another C word
***A parent of teenage girls showed me the type of costume that is marketed at 8-10 year olds = Layers of wrong.