Halloween was never something I gave much thought to growing up, other than picking or making a costume. Candy, imagination, cartoonish decorations — what wouldn’t a kid love about it?
However, it has become increasingly controversial among certain groups of Christians, and that was most obvious to us when we moved overseas. I asked one colleague at the mission office how Halloween was perceived in South Africa and was told in no uncertain terms that it’s satanic and that no Christian should ever have anything to do with it. Another friend gave a softer answer but explained that it had never really been a part of their culture until recent years, that it has largely been the darker aspects that have taken hold there lately, and that even those who think it harmless are very much in the minority.
That was a few years ago, and that was a small sample; even adding in some public statements this year by other South Africans, by no means is that a sufficient for describing a country’s view on anything. I share it not as a comprehensive description of South Africa’s perspective on Halloween but as illustration that sincere, mature Christians from different cultural backgrounds can have significantly different understandings of the same topic.
Generally, the different groups of Christians don’t even seem to be talking about the same thing, even in America itself. There are those who point to its pagan origins and argue that it is inseparable from them and that anyone who participates is unavoidably worshipping Satan. This view is pretty well represented by an article at BibleInfo.com (https://www.bibleinfo.com/en/questions/it-wrong-celebrate-halloween) that I thought made some excellent points until this claim: “Over the course of history Halloween’s visible practices have changed with the culture of the day, but the purpose of honoring the dead, veiled in fun and festivities, has remained the same” (bold added for emphasis).
Respectfully, I disagree. That is not at all what mainstream America does for this essentially secular cultural holiday. Nobody is decorating their yards or dressing up or trick or treating for “the purpose of honoring the dead.” Arguably, that’s a LOT closer to what people do on Memorial Day, but nobody really seems to be thinking about their dead relatives or honoring the dead in general on Halloween. Today is Thursday, after all, and I’m not calling it that because I want to honor the Norse pagan god Thor, any more than I was thinking of his mythical boss Odin yesterday (Wednesday comes from Woden’s Day). Likewise, I know non-Christian friends (atheists, Hindus, etc.) who celebrate what we might call “American Secular Giftsmas” without paying any homage to Christ or any other religious aspect of the Christmas it’s based on. A thing’s origin does not always affect its use or perception.
That’s not to say there aren’t those who faithfully embrace what Christians perceive as evil, so to speak. There are indeed people who adhere to religions that embrace Satan or witchcraft or so forth (I respectfully acknowledge that they would not agree with Christians’ opinions of their beliefs) and people who get a little too gleeful and excited (some seemingly to the point of prurience) about grotesque, evil, ugly things such as monsters and slasher films and so forth. There are also many people who use Halloween as an excuse for all sorts of behaviors, from heavy drinking to sexual promiscuity to vandalism. I don’t really think there’s any need for debate about whether Christians seeking to live up to that label of “little Christs” should celebrate what we might call “Dark Halloween.”
But that isn’t the only way people in America celebrate Halloween, and I do think there is room for discussion, understanding and grace about participating in its more lighthearted elements. Too often, we in the church confuse issues of culture with issues of theology, and we wind up increasing division rather than loving the Lord together. I pray that someday we’ll stop being so uptight with each other and accusing each other of sin over cultural differences while excusing or even justifying our own sins. There’s a lot more to be concerned about in our treatment of others and our squandering of opportunities to show them Christ’s love than in the ways other people celebrate a holiday and what they may or may not think it means.
What I like about Halloween is that it is an opportunity for people of all ages to use their imagination, to imitate what they admire or wonder (even if just for a day) what else they might like to be. For every child dressing up as a ghoul or vampire, there is another dressing up as a nurse or pilot or some other hero. Our kids LOVE Jesus (and embraced moving overseas to live that out), and that hasn’t been harmed by dressing up as a princess, as Thomas the Train, as Spider-Man, as a doctor, or as a dozen other things that never had the slightest bit of darkness. It’s a chance to be playful, creative, and joyful. Kids need to experiment with their identity in safe, structured, temporary ways like dress-up games in the mirror at home or at grandma’s house, and they love to show their costumes off to their friends. Kids need this role play to express their creativity and consider the various roles they could fill someday (“last year, I was a nurse, but this year, I’m going to be a firefighter!”). Even the (mildly) scary costumes can give children an opportunity to encounter their fears about the world and de-fang them; dressing up as a scary monster makes the “monster in the closet” less scary, just like a book we used to read them called Go Away, Big Green Monster! (and don’t come back until I say so). It gives children an opportunity to feel empowered and thereby develop bravery in the face of their fears. Bravery is a form of faith, a trusting that even though we walk through that valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear any evil, for He is with us. Halloween’s playful make-believe actually helps develop that.
There was another article I read today, one that was published at the fittingly named website “Grace to You” (https://www.gty.org/library/articles/A123/christians-and-halloween). My thoughts were best summarized in this excerpt: “There’s another option open to Christians: limited, non-compromising participation in Halloween. There’s nothing inherently evil about candy, costumes, or trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. In fact, all of that can provide a unique gospel opportunity with neighbors. Even handing out candy to neighborhood children—provided you’re not stingy—can improve your reputation among the kids. As long as the costumes are innocent and the behavior does not dishonor Christ, trick-or-treating can be used to further gospel interests.”
Last year, as I was walking Billy and his friend through our village for trick or treating, we passed by three churches. Two were dark, completely missing the crowds wandering the streets. One was open and well-lit but had no one upstairs; those present were downstairs holding a community dinner. None embraced the opportunity to welcome their neighbors or other visitors; it seemed to this missionary such a squandered opportunity. Christianity is supposed to be a light on a hill, not a fortress keeping out the darkness (and preserving it by hiding its own light).
To my Christian brothers and sisters who decry Halloween entirely: if you truly believe that everyone walking around your community with a costume and a trick-or-treat bag is falling or running into Satan’s hands and a godless eternity, then why aren’t you taking this opportunity to reach out to them? Give them candy with a Bible verse, give them candy with a tract, or better yet, give them candy with a kind smile, a warm welcome, and a loving reminder of God’s love said from your eyes into theirs. They are literally willing to walk up to your door and take whatever you want to give them. How in Christ’s work of redeeming the lost does that NOT seem like a divinely provided opportunity to reach those whom you believe most need His love?
Turn your light on, and let it shine.