Halloween: trick or treat for Christians?

YouTube Preview ImageIn yet another case of liberal bias by GetReligion, tmatt screamed “Boooo!” the other day at a one-sided story praising Halloween evangelism.

I chimed in with a comment noting that in my Associated Press days I did a “hell house” story and included both sides — long before GR-style ghostbusting became a ghastly gleam in the Internet’s eye.

Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d highlight a couple of stories reporting on how some Christians deal with the holiday’s pagan roots. Before I do, I want to be sure to give a hat tip — pumpkin hat, that is — to Religion News Service for the above video, which RNS included in its daily e-mail today.

The first story was written by Taya Flores, a reporter for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Ind. Flores does a nice job of taking what could be a yawner of an annual story and making it interesting reading. The top of the story:

Heather Salemink of Lafayette has celebrated Halloween since childhood. She can recall dressing in costume and her dad decorating the house.

So even as a Christian, she never questioned whether her children would celebrate the holiday, too.

“Kids need opportunities to imagine themselves in different worlds,” said Salemink, 34. “It’s really kind of fun to watch them explore different parts of the world through their imagination. In Christianity, there is so much that requires belief in things that you can’t see.”

But not all religious groups approach Halloween with such ease and excitement. Controversy still surrounds the holiday, which has origins in ancient Celtic spiritualism.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of anecdotal ledes that start with someone who does not fit the theme of the story. In other words, if the story is about people who don’t approach Halloween with ease and excitement, begin the story with one of them, not with somebody who has no problem with Halloween.

Nonetheless, there’s much to like about this story. The writer provides historical background, quotes experts and pastors and even includes other faiths besides Christianity:

Other religions may shy away from the holiday as well. Traditionally, Muslims do not approve of Halloween either.

“Halloween, because it has pagan roots and traditions, is not something Islam will approve for its followers,” said Aurangzeb, president of the Purdue Muslim Student Association.

There’s variance among Jewish believers. Daniel Frank, director of the Jewish Studies Program and professor of philosophy at Purdue University, said from a traditional point of view, Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish festivals, whether it be pagan or Christian.

However, some conservative and reformed Jews may celebrate Halloween as a cultural holiday.

“Orthodox Jews as a typical rule don’t celebrate Halloween,” said Nora Rubel, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York. “Conservative and reformed Jews can, but it’s left to the individual family. It’s not just the pagan roots that bother Orthodox Jews but also the Christian roots.”

No pagans are quoted, however.

The other story was written by Tim Townsend, religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Townsend’s piece focuses on St. Louis-area churches using Halloween’s pagan roots to grow their flocks. The top of the story:

DES PERES — Jason and Stacey Leeker grew up going door to door on Halloween night, collecting candy in costumes. But after the couple dedicated their lives to their Christian faith, they decided they would shield their own children from Halloween’s pagan roots.

Last Saturday evening, the Leekers and their three children ventured out to Faith Des Peres Presbyterian Church’s trunk-or-treat party.

Trunk-or-treats — Halloween tailgating parties, with kids going from car trunk to car trunk — are an increasingly popular alternative for schools, churches and community groups to traditional doorbell trick-or-treating.

For the Leekers, the church atmosphere provided a safe Halloween outing where they could give their 5- and 3-year-old a taste of the holiday’s fun.

Like the Indiana story, the Post-Dispatch report provides historical context:

Jack Santino, a professor of folklore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has written that Halloween has its origins in a pastoral festival called Samhain (pronounced sah-ween). Throughout Europe, it was the biggest festival of the Celtic calendar, and a celebration of the end of harvest and the beginning of winter.

The Celtic people believed that during Samhain, the souls of those who had died during the year “traveled into the otherworld,” Santino wrote, and “their ghosts were able to mingle with the living.”

They lit bonfires to honor the dead, “to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living.” Early missionaries appropriated many pagan rituals and subtly transformed them into Christian rituals.

Like a trick-or-treat bag full of candy, Townsend’s story brims with specific details from trunk-or-treat events that he obviously visited firsthand.

If the story lacks anything, it’s a perspective on how mainstream Halloween has become in churches and whether many still resist the holiday. That’s a minor criticism, however, because I think the report’s strong focus on a specific phenomenon — trunk-or-treats — gives it a newsy, journalistic edge.

Your turn, GetReligion readers: Any insights on the stories mentioned? Any links to other Halloween-related religion stories that you’ve come across and your thoughts on them?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Dave

    What interests me, as both a Pagan and a newspaper reader, is the story behind the stories. When and why did some Christians start pulling their skirts away from Halloween? When I was a kid in the Forties and Fifties I never heard any adult, including my mother’s Methodist family and my father’s Jewish family, impute any theological meaning to Halloween. It was strictly a kid’s holiday and the biggest worry about trick-or-treat was kids getting hit by a car as they roamed the sidewalks after dark.

    At that time no adults (that I knew of) took Halloween seriously except as something for their kids. I’ve only heard Christians attach theological significance to the holiday since adult Pagans started taking it seriously as part of their religion. I can’t shake the feeling that one was in reaction to the other.

    I also would like more background on the Pagan roots of the holiday. It’s all very satisfying for us Pagans to say, “We had Samhain before you Christians morphed it into Halloween,” but is it true? Hallowe’en, after all, means “All Hallows’ [Saints'] Eve.” Which is the root and which is the graft?

    • Martha

      Very quick précis: the (0r at least, a) precursor to the Feast of All Saints was mentioned by the 4th century St. Ephrem the Syrian; in the 7th century Pope St. Boniface IV instituted a day for All Saints on May 13th – a date corresponding to the end of the pagan Roman festival of the Lemuria, the spirits of the wandering dead – as well as dedicating the pagan temple of the Pantheon to Mary and the Martyrs (and this is an actual building from Roman times still in continuous use since then as a church).

      In the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV moved the date from 13th May to 1st November and, as part of cutting a deal with the Holy Roman Emperor Louis, got him to proclaim the observance of All Saints’ Day celebrated on that new date throughout the Empire.

      Samhain, meanwhile, was a Celtic festival originating in the British Islands which was celebrated on the end of October. When Christianity came to Ireland and Britain, it was easy to merge the old pagan celebration marking the New Year and the intermingling of the Otherworld and mortal world with the established days of All Saints and All Souls on 1st and 2nd November. Samhain was a purely local occasion; All Saints and All Souls’ Days were the big festivals which reached maximum geographical exposure and popularity in Western Europe after the 12th century and were very much bound up with Purgatory and the cultus of the saints. In reaction, after the Reformation, these were precisely the reasons why they were suppressed and/or neglected and allowed to fall out of favour.

      Hallowe’en as we know it was the result of Irish and Scottish immigrants bringing their traditions to America and then, with the American hegemony over popular entertainment, the American version of Hallowe’en was exported back to Europe and to other parts of the world where Hallowe’en had been unknown.

  • Tim H

    Well, there aren’t any pagans quoted because there aren’t any pagans. There are modern neopagans who have revived a modified, syncretic form of Celtic paganism. But as for the paganism that celebrated Samhain before it became All Saints’ Eve, it isn’t around anymore.

  • Irenist

    The modern holiday of Hallowe’en began as a commercialized (and now sexualized) American outgrowth of nineteenth-century Irish Catholic immigrants’ take on a traditional holiday from their homeland. Halloween was a syncretic development of pagan Celtic (Samhain) and Christian (All Saint’s Day) sources by Irish Catholics, entirely analogous to the parallel syncretism of pagan Aztec and Christian traditions by Mexican Catholics that have given Mexicans and now the southwestern U.S. “Dia de los Muertos.”

    Thus, it is infuriatingly clueless for the U.S. media to annually run stories contrasting Wiccans’ and Evangelicals’ (always identified as “Christians,” of course, as if there were no other denomination even conceivable) take on what originated in its modern form as a Catholic, not pagan or Protestant, set of customs–however widely such customs has since been adopted beyond its Irish (or now Mexican) roots. Every year, we are treated to stories asking if “Christians” can celebrate All Hallows’ Eve! Idiotic: of course we can. It’s a Catholic custom. And memo to the media: Catholics are Christian.
    Today, Slate ran a piece about how clever they were for thinking that perhaps we ought to contemplate death at Halloween instead of just sex, and proposed visiting graveyards around this time of year as an entirely new idea–as if All Saints’ and All Souls’ days had never existed. Typical Beltway ignorance of any religious view other than secularism.

    I wish Wiccans a happy Samhain, Halloween-phobic Protestants a Happy Reformation Day, the rest of us a Happy Halloween and the religion-beat journalists a trip to some sort of remedial education program.

    • Kristen inDallas

      THANK YOU!!! I was equally perturbed by the author here not bothering to explore the supposed “fact” that Halloween is pagan and “Christians” don’t like it. Get Religion authors generally do better than that and I was expecting a higher standard.
      Halloween here is a uniquely american mix of many religious and cultural artifacts. The Roman harvest festival of Pomona, The Celtic harvest festival Samhian – gives rise to turnip lanterns, Christian All hallows eve, the custom of “souling” the night before, praying for the departed in exchange for cakes, wearing costumes to avoid being seen by the less pleasant souls, Guy Faulks night custom of going door to door in masks…. When over 70% of the population celebrates a holiday, (http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/30/living/halloween-by-the-numbers/index.html) it’s an american holiday, and we facilitate diviseveness when we pretend it’s the sole property of one religious group.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Just noticed in the “You may also like…” links at the bottom of this post that I wrote a Halloween post last year, too. In that one, I critiqued a CNN story and remarked:

    Not mentioned are the thousands of churches — conservative and otherwise — nationwide that host “trunk-or-treat” events in their parking lots, fully embracing the Halloween holiday if not the pagan past. This certainly appears to be a growing trend that might add a fresh angle to the story.

    Hmmmmm. Wish I had remembered that earlier so I could have claimed credit for Townsend’s piece on that subject this year. :-)

    • Darren Blair

      Two of the three congregations that meet out of the church where I go to had trunk-or-treat events this year; one had it last Friday, while the other had it last Saturday. I was responsible for the music for one of them, in large part owing to my collection of Cast In Bronze CDs (I have five of the seven they’ve released so far).

  • Ted Seeber

    Actually, Trick-0r-Treat is a late Christian part of the celebration- the New England version of Guy Fawkes day, where children in Merry Old England would dress up in the now-infamous Guy Faux mask and beg for money, candy, and food.

    As it got imported to America, it was simply moved to the closest holiday- Halloween (Guy Fawkes Day, aka Firework Night and Gunpowder Plot Day, is November 5).

  • Julia

    November 1st is the feast of All Saints which is a Catholic feast so important that it is a holy day of obligation. I’m going to be singing at the Mass that evening. The night before – the eve- of All Saints Day (in England All Hallows) is known as All Souls Day to remind people to pray for the souls in purgatory. In Catholic grade school we did special prayers for the souls of all the faithful departed since we didn’t know whether they were yet in heaven like the Saints we honored the next day. This doesn’t have anything to do with witches and such.

    I grew up in a Catholic Irish parish where our pastor had come to the US as an adult from Ireland. But I never heard that our Halloween antics were connected to Irish folklore. I guess that makes sense, but it wasn’t pagan any more than the Mexican Day of the Dead on All Souls’ Day is pagan. Remember Hamlet’s deceased father who appears as a ghost to talk with Hamlet? This is from ancient Catholic belief that most of us end up as souls in purgatory who don’t go immediately to heaven, even if we aren’t condemned to hell. Catholics praying for the dead is one of the major objections the Anglicans had to Catholics. Such souls in purgatory are often depicted in folklore, but not Catholic teaching, as being restless and roaming around and wanting unfinished business on earth to be rectified , as in Hamlet I’ve always heard that was Catholic folklore thinking and not pagan – pagans don’t believe in Purgatory or heaven, anyway.

    Many, many Catholic grade schools use Halloween as a time to dress as a particular saint and then tell the class all about the person they represent. Nobody dresses as witches or ghosts.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewcz

      Um, Julie, just a bit of a correction: Oct 31 is All Hallow’s Eve (the Eve of All Saints), Nov 1 is All Saints Day and Nov 2 is All Souls Day.

  • Julia

    Guy Fawkes Day in England is celebrated by burning an effigy of the Pope. That’s the focus of the event.
    And little boys run around causing trouble .
    Why would that have anything to do with All Souls Day?
    From Wikipedia:
    In Britain, 5 November has variously been called Guy Fawkes Night, Guy Fawkes Day, Plot Night[60] and Bonfire Night; the latter can be traced directly back to the original celebration of 5 November 1605.[61] Bonfires were accompanied by fireworks from the 1650s onwards, and it became the custom to burn an effigy (usually the pope) after 1673, when the heir presumptive, James, Duke of York, made his conversion to Catholicism public.[3] Effigies of other notable figures who have become targets for the public’s ire, such as Paul Kruger and Margaret Thatcher, have also found their way onto the bonfires,[62] although most modern effigies are of Fawkes.[58] The “guy” is normally created by children, from old clothes, newspapers, and a mask.[58] During the 19th century, “guy” came to mean an oddly dressed person, but in American English it lost any pejorative connotation, and was used to refer to any male person.[58][63]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes#Legacy

  • Julia

    Thomas: You are right. I was typing faster than I was thinking.
    As a child, all three days fit together because of dealing with the dead.

  • sari

    reformed Jews? Is this a new denomination? The word is Reform; either the reporter got the quote wrong or the professor is an idjit. Reform Judaism is not an obscure offshoot but THE major denomination at the present. Someone needed to do his or her homework.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Good catch.

      The Reform Judaism vs. Reformed Judaism issue was one covered in the AP Stylebook post we did a couple weeks ago.

      I also noticed in the Indiana story that the “E” in “evangelical” was capitalized in a quote, which is not typically how it’s used. It could be someone new to a religion story, although again, I was impressed with the enterprise in quoting a number of diverse voices.

      • sari

        A common mistake and one that leapt out at me. Now, having read the article, I’d add that both Reform and Conservative are always capitalized; the way they were written, it sounded like a reference to the Jewish equivalent of conservative Christians, which is definitely not the case.

        It has become common in Jewish circles to equate Purim, the Festival of Lots, with Halloween, usually in an attempt to persuade Jewish children that they have a fun holiday, too, and don’t need to participate in this other non-Jewish holiday. My kids’ Reform preschools forbade any Halloween or Valentine’s Day activities, for instance.

        That said, I think the reporter missed or maybe oversimplified what she was told. Children do dress up; so do adults. But the emphasis is on life, not death, and these costumes are worn to religious services where Megillat (the scroll of) Esther is read in its entirety. This is true regardless of denomination. We are also required to give charity to at least two needy people (or organizations that service them), to make a festive meal, and to give gifts of food. Costumes are the only thing these two holidays have in common.

  • http://www.thecatholicbeat.com Gail Finke

    I too am taken by the assumption that the roots of Halloween are pagan. They are not, and I am so tired of hearing it!!!! The pagan origin for Halloween was made up in this century as a romantic past for people who want to believe what they call paganism and Wicca is not wholly invented, but is based in historical reality — aided and abetted (although not on purpose) by Jack Chick, who invented an evil pagan past for pretty much everything. There was a Celtic holiday called Samhain, but so what? It was long gone by the time All Saints Day was moved from its spring date (it was celebrated in spring for hundreds of years and is still celebrated in spring by Eastern Catholic and the Orthodox churches), so it obviously had nothing to do with fall celebrations like Samhain or the Feast of Pomona or whatever. People believe this silly stuff because they don’t bother to say to themselves, “Self, is it reasonable to assume that a pagan holiday would be celebrated unchanged and in secret — or better yet, UNKNOWINGLY — for 1600 years or more beyond when the last pagan celebrated it?” Halloween customs in America are based on a number of different European fall holiday customs all rolled into one and have changed quite a bit in our country’s history.


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