(Mark Shea is a writer/editor for Catholic Exchange and Catholic Scripture Study. You may visit his new website at www.mark-shea.com.)
Evangelicals & Halloween
When I became an Evangelical, I was warned each year about the dangers of Halloween. Evangelicalism is an extremely diverse phenomenon ranging from Fundamentalist expressions to rather liberal ones, and the reactions to Halloween, like the reactions to a lot of other things, reflected this spectrum of opinion.
On the Fundamentalist end of the spectrum were the normal worries and polemics about paganism, Romanism (if there was any difference) and the acute spiritual danger of “opening yourself to demonic influence” by having anything to do with Halloween. At that end of the spectrum, opinion largely tended toward the Pharisaic model of “quarantining evil” by simply avoiding anything and everything to do with Halloween or things associated with the holiday. The reason was that since Halloween coincided with the ancient pagan feast of Samhain then it was evil and occultic, pure and simple. Favorite texts were ones like “What has Christ to do with Belial?” Folks who held this view often went on to say that any Christian feast was an empty ritual that was both evil and pagan (a “shadow” and not the reality that is in Christ). For them, even a jolly time like Christmas equaled the worship of Saturn since the Feast of the Nativity was a “Romish” holiday that “disguised” the Saturnalia festival of antiquity just as Halloween “disguised” Samhain. These were the sorts of people who saw any traces of pagan culture or practice in the Catholic Church as proof positive it was a demonic corruption of the Pure Gospel.
I was never willing to really buy the anti-Christmas rhetoric. It always seemed pretty obvious to me that if Christmas was satanic then the devil doesn't know his job very well. After all, a holiday that routinely presents Jesus Christ for our contemplation and vastly increases the amount of gratuitous charity, love and good cheer in the world just doesn't look like something they'd really go for in the infernal regions. But even more, I was troubled by the curious double standard I saw concerning the idea of sacramentality in discussions of things like Halloween.
Halloween? Sacramental? What do I mean?
I mean that it seemed to be taken for granted that the devil could use certain created things (i.e. Ouija boards, books of magic spells, stuff consecrated to Beelzebub, holidays etc.) and that mere contact with such things could be dangerous to our spiritual health. But the Catholic notion that God (who is, after all, the Creator of everything and its rightful owner) could work through things like water, bread, wine and oil was routinely ridiculed by Fundamentalists. Satan could, they said, use Ouija boards to manifest his power, but God cannot use holy water or the Eucharist to manifest his. The devil could allegedly take October 31 and make it a day full of sinister meaning and power, but God cannot take any day and do the same since all Catholic holy days were merely empty rituals devoid of meaning or power. The problem, after a while, began to look very much as though time, matter and energy were somehow regarded as being sinister and unclean and that God was not allowed to dirty his hands by working through them while the devil had free rein with them. But that couldn't be right, I realized, because Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, had taken on a body of matter and energy in time and on earth and raised it to glory. That thought stayed with me.
A Spiritual Harvest
Meanwhile my less Fundamentalist and somewhat more liberal Evangelical congregation was still puzzling. The brute fact that lots of kids were having fun on Halloween and our kids weren't loomed large. What to do? Well, we decided, instead of celebrating a dark holiday like “Halloween” why not do something fun with the kids in the church but give it a more positive spin? At length, we decided on having a “Harvest Party.” You could still play dress up, but the theme would be much cheerier. People came as princesses or frogs or other silliness and there was a lot of yummy food and games. It was all jolly and we had a great time.
But, as somebody noted, it was not very Christian. It was mostly just a secular version of Halloween with no real gospel message attached. It was sort of like taking Christmas vacation and calling it “Winter Break” or denaturing Easter till it was called “Spring Holiday.” Why leave it neutral? After all, Jesus warned about “houses swept clean and empty” but not filled with something good. The devil returns to such houses with his buddies. So why not, somebody said, make the “Harvest Party” be about the spiritual harvest of the gospel and make it a specifically Christian gathering? We could talk about how Jesus saved sinners and gave those who trust in him eternal life that even conquers death itself! Why not?
“Why not indeed?” I thought. But as soon as I thought it I realized, “This wheel was invented before.” The celebration of the spiritual harvest of the gospel is called the “Feast of All Saints” by the Catholic Church. The vigil mass for that feast is known as “All Hallow's Eve” or “Halloween.” It was a good idea when we thought of it. It was also a good idea when Catholics thought of it a long time ago. And it shows that not every attempt to redeem or purify a pagan idea means the Catholic Church is somehow sinister. It just meant that Catholics, like we Evangelicals, were faced with a culture that needed to be evangelized on its terms and that they had taken cultural categories and filled them with Christian content. It's still a good idea now.
So don't be afraid: celebrate the Great Harvest on All Hallow's Eve.