Saturday, October 25, 2014

About Halloween. . . .

I'll always remember the Halloweens when I was a kid.  Mom decorated the house with cutout witches and bats made with stencils and black or orange construction paper.  We would start planning our costumes, and what faces to put on our pumpkins, weeks in advance.

We lived high in the Rocky Mountains, and the houses in our little community were few and far between.  Every year one of the mothers would volunteer to drive all the kids (there were around ten of us) around to all the houses (about 20 of them). Usually it would be very cold, and often it would be snowing.  Everyone knew everyone else, and at every house we'd be invited in and asked to take off our coats to show off our costumes.  At some houses we'd be offered cocoa.  Often the treats would be homemade popcorn balls or caramel apples.

When I was a little older there was a scare about some people putting razor blades in Halloween treats.  We knew no one in our own neighborhood would do that, but it was a weird thought. According to Snopes there have been a few documented cases of this actually happening, but it's always been very rare.  We didn't worry too much about it.

The real problem with Halloween arose when I became a Christian in the early 1980s.  Committed Christians, I learned, didn't celebrate Halloween-- not if they were truly serious about Christ.  Halloween was an evil, Satanic holiday, a glorification of the occult.  The Christian group I was with in college generally had a prayer meeting on Halloween. With locked doors and lights low to discourage trick-or-treaters, we prayed fervently for God to prevent the devil and his demons from doing any real harm that night. Gullible people, we were told, by celebrating Halloween had "opened a door" in the spiritual realms for demonic forces to dominate during the holiday.  So we did "spiritual warfare" by praying against the powers of darkness, and drew a sigh of relief each year when it was all over.

By the time I had kids (the mid-1990s), attitudes were loosening up a little in our Christian circle. It was conceded that ordinary people who celebrated Halloween were not demonically influenced. The best thing to do was to either use the opportunity to spread the gospel to trick-or-treaters, or to hold our own alternative celebrations. These, instead of focusing on scary things, were designed to thank God for the harvest.  Harvest parties were organized at county fairgrounds and other locations, where church volunteers would lead a variety of games for youngsters.  The kids were even allowed to wear costumes-- as long as they didn't dress up as ghosts, witches, devils, vampires or other occult creatures.

It was nice that things had changed so that our kids didn't have to feel they were missing out. Harvest parties were certainly more entertaining than prayer meetings! I was glad we no longer had to hide in darkened rooms while our neighbors were out enjoying themselves. But I had to admit what the kids suspected-- that the harvest parties just weren't as fun as trick-or-treating.

The year our younger child was two, we gave up on harvest parties and went back to really celebrating Halloween.  It was a pleasure and a relief.  The new church we had recently begun attending, though it helped sponsor the local Christian harvest party every year, believed in letting its members make their own decisions about these things.  This was in fact one of the main reasons we had begun attending!

So the kids began trick-or-treating, both downtown at the local businesses during the afternoon and around the neighborhood in the evening.  They came home with a lot of candy, and we dumped it all out on the carpet and sorted and counted it with them.  We passed out candy to the trick-or-treaters who came to our door and didn't give them any religious tracts.  We relaxed and enjoyed the fun of creepy things, of scary things that never caused real fear because they weren't real.  And I began, finally, to begin to understand Halloween.

Not that my earlier Christian view of Halloween has died out. Sites like Born Again Christian Info still promote the idea that this is an evil, occult celebration that no real Christian would have anything to do with:
It is plain from its roots that Halloween has nothing to do with Christianity, but is simply Satan worship, derived from Babylonian practices. Christians should only ever get involved for one reason: to denounce, expose and destroy it by proclaiming Christ's Victory over all the works of the Devil. . . those who dare to indulge in the occult will not go to heaven. . . You may not be serious, but Satan is. You are being deceived and sucked down a slippery slope. . .  Ignore these warnings and you will lose your children to Satan.
The website cites a number of scriptures against witchcraft and divination.  It cites the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain as a form of sun-worship similar to ancient Babylonian practices, and traces Halloween back to these early pagan rituals.

I understand the religious devotion that gives rise to this viewpoint; after all, I once subscribed to it myself!  But I cannot sanction the practice of listing a set of proof-texts and claiming that they support the one and only clear Christian position on something like Halloween, implying that anyone who disagrees is simply being stupid and rebellious against God.  The modern celebration of Halloween really doesn't include any divination or witchcraft.  It has nothing to do with sun-worship; in fact, it's not about worship at all.

The LiveScience website offers a more objective and accurate overview of the origins of Halloween:
Because ancient records are sparse and fragmentary, the exact nature of Samhain is not fully understood, but it was an annual communal meeting at the end of the harvest year, a time to gather resources for the winter months and bring animals back from the pastures. . . 
[A]ccording to Nicholas Rogers, a history professor at York University in Toronto and author of "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night" (Oxford University Press, 2003), "there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship.

"According to the ancient sagas, Samhain was the time when tribal peoples paid tribute to their conquerors and when the sidh [ancient mounds] might reveal the magnificent palaces of the gods of the underworld," Rogers wrote. Samhain was less about death or evil than about the changing of seasons and preparing for the dormancy (and rebirth) of nature as summer turned to winter, he said. . . 
Some evangelical Christians have expressed concern that Halloween is somehow satanic because of its roots in pagan ritual. However, ancient Celts did not worship anything resembling the Christian devil and had no concept of it. In fact, the Samhain festival had long since vanished by the time the Catholic Church began persecuting witches in its search for satanic cabals.
In any event, the rejection of Halloween by Christians is a fairly recent development.  This archived 2009 post by the late Michael Spencer, the "Internet Monk" laments the change which occurred in the late 1970s and early '80s:
From the late sixties into the early seventies, the churches I attended and worked for–all fundamentalist Baptists– were all over Halloween like ants on jam. It was a major social activity time in every youth group I was part of from elementary school through high school graduation in 1974. 
We had haunted houses. Haunted hikes. Scary movies. (All the old Vincent Price duds.) As a youth minister in the mid to late seventies and early eighties, I created some haunted houses in church education buildings that would win stagecraft awards. 
The kids loved it. The parents loved it. The pastors approved. The church paid for it! . . .
It was fun. Simple, old-fashioned, fun. No one tried to fly a broom or talk to the dead. Everyone tried to have fun. Innocent play in the name of an American custom. 
And then, things changed. 
Mike Warnke convinced evangelicals that participating in Halloween was worshiping the devil. Later, when we learned that Warnke may have been one of the most skillful of evangelical con-artists, lying about his entire Satanic high priest schtick, the faithful still believed his stories.  
Evangelical media began to latch onto Halloween as some form of Satanism or witchcraft, and good Christians were warned that nothing made the other team happier than all those kids going door to door collecting M&Ms. 
Evangelical parents decided that their own harmless and fun Halloween experiences were a fluke, and if their kid dressed up as a vampire, he’d probably try to become one. If there was a pumpkin on the porch, you were inviting demons into your home, just like it says in Hezekiah.
Speaking of Mike Warnke, the website Swallowing the Camel, a fact-checking site similar to Snopes (if a bit snarkier), has archived research on the roots of the whole evangelical Halloween scare.  It's the story of Doreen Irvine, who published an autobiography in 1972:
She was the first of many born again Christians who claimed to be ex-witches and/or ex-Satanists, among them women who claimed to have been high priestesses in destructive Satanic cults, so her testimony provided a sort of blueprint.
Irvine's story of Satanism and Satanic ritual abuse was later determined to be false.  But by far the most popular of such claimants was Mike Warnke.  As a young Christian I listened to Warnke's record albums and read excerpts of his books in which, from his purported expertise as a Satanist high priest of the inner Illuminati, he denounced Halloween as the Satanist high holiday.  It turns out that he was actually capitalizing on Christian enthusiasm for stories like this in order to catapult himself to fame and fortune.

Quite frankly, the stories were lurid and shocking and utterly fascinating.  They showed us that we were not just ordinary people, but heroes in a larger-than-life romanticist saga of good and evil.  We wanted to believe these stories.  And so we did, until in the late 1980s Cornerstone Magazine launched an investigation into the claims of Warnke and others, and discovered that the known facts about their lives utterly contradicted their claims.  Warnke never was a Satanist high priest, but was an ordinary, clean-cut Christian college student during the years he was supposed to have been participating in Satanic ritual abuse.

Discovery of the falsehood of these stories put a real damper on evangelical enthusiasm for them, and probably contributed strongly to the loosening up of taboos that replaced those fearful prayer meetings with harvest festivals that were simply Halloween lite, complete with (friendly-faced) carved pumpkins, costumes and candy.  Evangelical thinktank Christian Research Institute's examination of the 1980's Satanism scare concludes:
There is still no substantial, compelling evidence that SRA [Satanic ritual abuse] stories and conspiracy theories are true. Alternate hypotheses more reasonably explain the social, professional, and personal dynamics reflected in this contemporary satanic panic. The tragedy of broken families, traumatized children, and emotionally incapacitated adults provoked by SRA charges is needless and destructive. Careful investigation of the stories, the alleged victims, and the proponents has given us every reason to reject the satanic conspiracy model in favor of an interpretation consistent with reason and truth.
So what is Halloween really about?

The LiveScience website cited above offers this insight, based on the research of folklorist John Santino:
Halloween provides a safe way to play with the concept of death. . . People dress up as the living dead, and fake gravestones adorn front lawns — activities that wouldn't be tolerated at other times of the year.
Facing our fears by laughing at them or playing with safe versions of them is a very human thing to do, and it seems to be a healthy coping mechanism.  Our English idiom "whistling in the dark" encapsulates the concept, which takes other forms such as jokes about death and dying. The 1970s dark comedic television series M.A.S.H., about a group of field doctors during the Korean War who use humor to deal with daily carnage and chaos, is another prime example.

John Santino was interviewed on the TheoFantastique blog in October 2007, and he shared these further insights:
The study of ritual, festival, and celebration offers concepts for understanding large public events such as Halloween. The idea that there are certain periods when the everyday rules are meant to be broken is one. Also, the idea that during times of transition (in the life cycle or seasonal), all bets are off–the dead can mingle with the living; children are allowed to demand treats from adults, people dress in special costumes; things are turned upside-down and inside-out. These ideas help us to see Halloween for its importance. It is a time when we face our taboos (death being a major one) and playfully accept them as part of life.
I understand people’s objection to Halloween insofar as they believe strongly in the existence of a literal Devil who is engaged in an effort to steal our souls. But I was raised in a religious atmosphere where that simply was not a problem with the celebration. I tend to view it as a healthy occasion for the parading and confronting of aspects of life — symbolically — that we usually pretend don’t exist. Also, Halloween is tied closely to harvest imagery, and I think the lesson is that, as the natural world faces death as a part of ongoing life, so must we. Halloween is many things. It allows us to mock our fears, and to celebrate life. There is room for parody and topical satire in the costumes and displays. But it also deals with deeply important issues involving life and death, nature and culture.
I would go one step further than Santino and say that even Christians who believe Satan is a real being, need not have a problem with this holiday.  Halloween is not about worshiping Satan, and it isn't about glorifying or celebrating evil.  Halloween is about facing our fears through the joint vehicles of pretend and partying.  It's about recognizing that while we live on this earth we are part of the cycles of this earth, and that "seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease (Gen. 8:22)."  To celebrate the harvest is also to accept the dying of the year. Halloween is about both. Christ has taken the sting of death; why not let Halloween help take some of its still-remaining fear?

And I like how Santino points out the way this holiday upends our rules and usual patterns.  The kingdom of God is like that too: the child is the first to enter, the greatest shall be the servant, we save our lives by losing them.  Halloween is the day when we open our doors to whoever knocks and give of our substance to "the least of these" who is standing there with an open bag.  Isn't this a picture of the kingdom?  Why, then, shouldn't we let it teach us its simple lesson?

So this year we'll carve pumpkins again, and we'll pass out candy, and we may even watch a scary old movie about the Wolfman or Frankenstein.  And we will have fun.

I hope you will have some fun too.

7 comments:

heather said...

My feelings exactly! I loved trick or treating as a child, before the'satanic scare' took over... Thanks for this

L.Lawrence said...

I apologize for the randomness of this comment, but I would really like to know the name and location of the rock in your picture.

I visited Oregon once, many years ago, and I remember taking pictures of that rock! That's actually why I clicked on your blog to begin with, but I have been reading and enjoying it, too. :)

Curious Thinker said...

Great post and well said. I also enjoyed Halloween as child going trick-treating, I recall attending a Halloween party at church that had a haunted house and me and friends would enter it most of the night. I also read upon the origins of Halloween and agree with you it has nothing to do with the Devil or glorifying evil. To me, Halloween is about kids getting to dress up in costumes(even spooky ones) go trick-or teating, telling scary and ghost stories, watching scaring movies, and enjoying being scared just for the night as it is fun. I have also recently reserched about All Hallow's Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls day both after Halloween which many Christians can also celebrate. I myself plan on also hononing these two holidays this month.

Kristen said...

Thanks, everyone! I write this blog largely to help people like me who have been bound by rigid rules and taboos, learn to relax and enjoy life in freedom. I'm glad if this helps!

L. Lawrence, I know rocks can look an awful lot alike. That rock wasn't taken in Oregon at all, but on the beach in Washington State, near the town of Clallam Bay. It's what you see when you finish the boardwalk between Lake Ozette and the sea.

JBsptfn said...

When I was in college 20 years ago, the person that that was speaking that week at BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ) was preaching about Halloween and the dangers of it.

I remember sitting through that knowing that I was going to go to a party the next night. However, I just said to myself that, since I am not dressing up in a costume, that it doesn't matter.

I am not surprised that they spoke against it, though, because that was a fundy organization. They were the same ones that had a local pastor come in a few years later talking about how you should avoid dating.

perfectnumber628 said...

I have vague memories from when I was 3 or 4 years old of one night when people kept coming to our door, and I had no idea why, and it was just that one night- didn't happen again. Odd, right? :)

I didn't know anything about Halloween at that age because my parents weren't sure whether or not they should participate. Until I started going to school at 5 years old and the school was having Halloween parties, and my mom decided if Christians are going to stand out and be different from the world, it should be over issues that are actually important, not silly things like costumes and candy. Plus if I didn't participate, it would make me isolated from the other kids, and I was already shy and awkward.

So my family always did normal Halloween things, and I'm glad for that. :)

Carradee said...

A thought I've had (and will probably post on FB this year):

All Hallow's Eve: costumes, candy, and focus on the supernatural
Reformation day: costumes, candy, and focus on the material

How is one of these more innately Christian than the other?