The last day of this month, 31st October was the day in 1517 when the Reformer, Martin Luther, challenged the church to deal with the abuses and perversions that had crept into the church over many centuries. In three years’ time there are plans afoot already for a 500th anniversary celebration. Of course today that date is better known in our society as Halloween.
When people of my generation were growing up we were vaguely aware that Halloween was something that was practiced with ‘tricks and treats’ in the US of A. Here in Australia we thought of it as a something foreign that even had somewhat sinister overtones. However, the media, and the advertising and marketing machine have ensured that Halloween is now well and truly entrenched in some of the schools in our nation. Schools that now ban Christmas Pageants and Nativity Scenes due to political correctness have no trouble getting the kids to celebrate Halloween, despite the protests of some Christian parents.
I have no trouble with fiction and make-believe as such. Hans Christian Anderson wrote Fairy Tales that kept generations of children spellbound. But where do we draw the line? That’s an important question for Christians. Many parents struggle with that every Christmas: Do we encourage our children to believe in Santa Clause or not? The problem with Halloween is not just the ‘tricks and treats’ but that (in my opinion) it takes far too seriously the forces of darkness that Christians ought to have nothing to do with.
Some Christians have worked out some creative ways to deal with this issue. I know one mum who every year buys some stickers with a Christian message to give to local kids when they come knocking. The date is a still a few weeks away but I thought I’d write about it now so that you too might be able to do some creative planning since there is an increased likelihood that you too will have neighbouring kids coming to do the ‘trick or treat’ thing that some schools now encourage.
But why this superstitious practice of Halloween anyway? The term actually comes from “All Hallows’ Even”. In other words, it is the “Eve of All Saint’s Day” – and that brings us to a practice just as superstitious as Halloween. The idea developed in the church of the Middle Ages that every major saint must have their special holy day to celebrate and commemorate their life. But as the number of saints grew what about those who couldn’t be fitted into the calendar? So the first of November was declared All Saints Day. Eventually this day became a Christian holy day in which all the dead were honoured – All Soul’s Day.
What is particularly interesting is that the first day of November had previously been celebrated as a Celtic feast day in honour of Samhain, the Celtic lord of death. The celebrations on that day marked the beginning of the season of coldness, darkness and decay in the northern hemisphere. As such the event very naturally became associated with death just as Spring festivals and Easter came to be associated with life. So the church took over this pagan festival as an occasion to remember the dead. The problem was that amongst the ordinary people many of the pagan customs simply became part of this Christian so-called holy day.
It seems appropriate then that it was on the eve of All Saints Day (All Hallows’ E’en) that Martin Luther nailed his 95 challenges to the church onto the door of the church at Wittenberg. It was appropriate because Luther’s great concern was that superstition and pagan practices had effectively pushed the gospel out of the church. It was also appropriate because the next day being a holiday and with people flocking to church to pray for the dead many people would come to read his challenge for the church to return to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Halloween culture needs that same gospel message today.