Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Who's Going Out On Halloween

"All Hallow's Even" is upon us or, if you don't speak Olde English, Halloween. October 31 is a day kids love to celebrate, as do many grown-ups. After all, it involves dressing up in a costume and pretending to be someone, or something, else and, then there is candy - lots of candy.

The celebration of Halloween has long been woven into the fabric of our culture. Most Americans can remember selecting, or making, a Halloween costume and going trick-or-treating. Many of us still hold fond memories of bags full of candy being gathered as we ran door to door holding out our container to be filled with those delicious morsels - detesting that one person in the neighborhood who always insisted on giving out "healthy" treats - and at the end of the evening emptying all of it into a big pile to cull out our least favorite brands and then negotiate trades with our fellow trick-or-treaters.

As we got older there were parties to attend, perhaps accompanied by innocent prank or two. But, the reality is, Halloween is about much more than just costumes and candy and it is the other elements, along with its origin, that trouble some people. For example, some pranks/"tricks" were not so innocent and brought out a "dark-side" to Halloween. Particularly notable was during the late 1960s/early '70s when hazardous items began to show up in some of the treats given to children. Another concern that has been raised, particularly by some Christians, is the belief there is a spiritual danger that is inherent to Halloween.

Despite these deterrents, the evidence indicates Halloween continues to be a significant event in American culture. The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that Americans will spend 18 percent more on Halloween in 2010 than in 2009. And, this is in the midst of an economic turndown. The NRF estimates include Americans spending an average of $66.28 (Gallup found the average spent on Halloween in 2007 was $52) on Halloween related items.

Recently, I received an email from a national pet store chain offering 50% off "pet" Halloween costumes. If the fact that there is, apparently, a market for Halloween costumes for animals is not disturbing enough - this email offered the same discount on Halloween treats and toys for pets (I find myself conjuring up images of dogs and cats in clown suits and ballerina outfits going door to door with a little plastic pumpkin held in their mouth) and also offered matching costumes for owners, so you can dress like your pet (only in America).

Clearly, one thing Americans are not buying into, as it relates to Halloween, is the idea that one should not participate in it. When Gallup polled Americans in 2006, they found that 64% said they "usually" pass out Halloween treats to children (when you add those who "sometimes" pass out treats, this jumps to 83%); a percentage that has been consistent for several decades. For example, a 1999 poll, Gallup found 69 percent of Americans planned to give out Halloween treats - the exact same percentage found in a 1985 ABC/Washington Post poll.

From the amounts being spent on Halloween, it would appear that Americans have worked out any anxieties they may have had about hazardous materials being placed in the treats. But, what about the religious objections to Halloween - how strongly held are those?

When Gallup polled Americans about this in 2006, they found that only 11 percent objected to Halloween based on religious beliefs. Among those who regularly attend church services, including Evangelicals, 27% objected. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Christians, do not oppose the activities traditionally associated with Halloween.

As in the past, this year will find many, including Christians, who hold or attend Halloween parties and/or take their children trick-or-treating and many Churches will hold festivals/celebrations as an alternative for Halloween. However, while these will typically involve children in costumes and the distribution of candy -lots of candy - Churches tend not to place the "Halloween" label on them; preferring to give them more acceptable titles, such as, "Fall Festivals". However, the reality is, these events simply move the features most often associated with Halloween on to the Church property - "a rose by any other name", its detractors would claim..

Those who oppose Halloween as being inherently wicked and evil, naturally find any celebration of Halloween by a Christian as reprehensible. They would say, "The celebration is rooted in occultism, is a Pagan holiday celebrated by witches, and should be avoided by Christians".

Christians who participate in Halloween celebrations counter, "It is all just in fun and no spiritual connection is being made". Churches with "Fall Festivals" defend them as being an appropriate alternative and an opportunity to make a positive connection with those in their community who attend the event. "People are going to celebrate this day so why not try to capture it in a positive way", they might argue.

As is often true when Christians disagree over cultural influences and practices, factions develop over whether or not one should be involved in those things associated with the celebration of Halloween. As is also true, in many cases, each side has valid points to offer.

Is there an occult, or pagan, dimension to the origins of Halloween? Certainly, there is. It is commonly agreed that, what we recognize as Halloween, has its roots in ancient Britain in the Celtic celebration of the Festival of Samhain, referring to the end of summer. The pagan Celts believed that each year at the time of Samhain the border between this world and the spirit world became thin enough that spirits could pass through and enter this world.

Celts would prepare a place in their homes to welcome deceased relatives whom they believed were good spirits and might visit them from the other side. Some, in order to keep evil spirits from also coming into their homes, appear to have adopted the custom of wearing of masks and costumes to confuse those that were evil.

Naturally, as with any good celebration, Samhain also included food, which is integral to modern-day Halloween. Through the years the other elements and traditions of Halloween that are practiced today, such as jack-o-lanterns; bobbing for apples, etc. would be added. Undeniably, many of them would also have their roots in Paganism, or the occult.

The Church has long recognized this. And, just as today, many in the Church sought alternatives, or tried to capture the day in a different way. Long before "Fall Festivals" the Church tried to give a more Christian emphasis to Halloween. In fact, the Church's influence can be found in the very name itself, a contraction of Hallow (Holy) E'en (Evening), which is what the day before All Saints Day - a time to remember faithful Christians of the past - was called. Protestants would later shift the emphasis from celebrating Halloween on October 31 to the celebration of Reformation Day, in recognition of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation on that same date.

While Halloween has always had some association with the supernatural - be it ghosts and goblins, or witches - it is especially true in modern times. There has been a growing interest in Wicca (witchcraft) in recent decades and those who practice Wicca generally embrace Halloween as one of their high, holy days. Some point to this as clear and undeniable evidence of a religious/spiritual dimension to Halloween.

The debate as to whether Christians should participate in Halloween, or not; the argument as to whether it is an inherently evil day, or simply a secular celebration, is nothing new. What does seem new is that it has become a much more embittered battle. All too often, which side one chooses seems to set the tone as to whether or not those of the opposing viewpoint will accept you as a true follower of Christ - something that is, unfortunately, true of many debates within the Church today. However, where one stands on this issue is not nearly as important as the effectiveness and humility with which we are able to discuss our position with those who disagree.

Whether we want it to be or not, there is no denying that Halloween is one of our nation's most popular celebrations. And despite the evidence of an association with the supernatural and it's identification with Wicca, it is clear that most Christians and non-Christians do not have a problem with it and view it as simply a celebration of the imagination. The overwhelming majority of Americans do not associate it with the supernatural; they do not celebrate it as a part of the practice of Wicca. That's reality. It seems to me that our goal should not be to convince them otherwise but to focus on creatively engaging them with the gospel.

I guess when it comes right down to it, I am Halloween-neutral. I can see good points in both sides of the argument. I think it is good to know the background of Halloween - it is certainly interesting. I agree that Christians should not involve themselves in occultism, or pagan ritual. But, if that is our message it is severely lacking. Unfortunately, this is becoming another case of the culture hearing more about what Christians are against, than what we are for.

No matter how you and I feel about Halloween, the culture is telling us they want candy. When they come to my door to trick-or-treat, I can lecture them on the ills of candy, or I can take care of their sweet tooth. In the same way, I can offer something much more satisfying and substantial, as well - the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ.

Whether you should gain this opportunity by giving candy at your door, inviting a friend to a Church fall festival, or convincing someone Halloween is pagan, is not my call. That's between you and the Lord. When it gets right down to it, perhaps the best thing I can do is to try and be more gracious and encouraging with fellow believers as they work through this issue and offer the hope of the gospel to those who do not know Christ.

We would do well to remember that, all too often, the ones who get lost in Christians debating methodologies are "the lost" - those who need to hear the gospel. Now, when that happens, it is indeed a sad trick.

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