Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, and (some thoughts on) Religious Syncretism

It’s Halloween!
Or All Hallow’s Eve!
Or Sahmain!
Or whatever.

“Happy Holidays.”

My earliest memories of Halloween are of me donning my older brother’s football uniform so I could do the absolute bare minimum for the school costume parade in the third grade.

When I was young, our family’s participation (or lack of participation) evolved over time but, in general, we did not celebrate Halloween. By the time I was in middle school, I sometimes went out looking for candy with my friends, but my mom had adopted a full-on boycott. No candy for visitors. Front porch lights out.

I didn’t quite understand it then. But it makes more and more sense to me now.

Most of us don’t think too seriously about the finer points of syncretism and how it manifests itself in culture and in our religious traditions. Either we take for granted that all our favorite traditions are purely ours or we take for granted that no tradition can be pure. And, either way, we don’t really care too much.

Whether we admit it or not, much of what we do in church (and in life) is influenced by our own culture and the world around us. And some of us fight this influence more strongly than others. In the context of Christian worship, some churches follow a Regulative Principle of worship that says “whatever is not explicitly commanded/affirmed in the Bible has no place in Christian worship,” but most of us are not in this camp. So most will admit that many traditions are a matter of cultural preference–like the difference between an organ and an acoustic guitar–and most of these preferences are really benign. They may have theological implications, but they are not theological prescriptions.

The farther back we go in church history or the more we develop “new” traditions, the more they tend toward two extremes–either the church develops it’s own symbols and traditions based on their distinct Christian-ness or it adopts symbols and traditions of other religions/cultures and “christianizes” them for their own use (aka syncretism).

In 2017 America, since we seem so far removed from First Century paganism and Eastern religions, most Christians don’t give two thoughts about where their traditions came from. It’s assumed that, at this point, the potentially worldly roots of our traditions don’t matter anymore. We are, after all, a culture primarily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions. And everyone else understand the Christian-ness of our symbols and traditions. Right? Well, maybe sorta. Or maybe not.

For most of America, today is Halloween. It’s an excuse to dress your kid up in funny or scary or ridiculously adorable costumes, visit with neighbors, and collect candy to get you through the long, cold nights until Thanksgiving (our next gluttonous holiday).

But for some people–primarily Catholics and some other Christians who fancy Catholicism–it’s All Hallow’s Eve. In some way or another, it’s a day to revel in the reign of Christ over evil and to mock the devil. (Some Catholics fast today in preparation for tomorrow’s Feast Day of All Saint’s Day so they save their candy for tomorrow. Bummer, right?)

 

 

People think I’m all kinds of crazy when I tell them we don’t celebrate Halloween. Apparently, it means I a) hate talking to my neighbors and giving them things; b) don’t want my kids to enjoy life; c) am just a stodgy old coot. In actuality, none of these things are true about me, I am a reasonable woman, and I have thought this through quite a bit.

Though my level of commitment to abstaining is still evolving–Will I hand out candy? Will we buy a pumpkin for the front stoop because it’s fall and pumpkins are cute? etc.–I am perfectly comfortable saying that, as a family, we don’t do Halloween. I believe this is a matter of personal conscience. It’s not something important enough for me to fight with friends over and it’s not something I’d draw a line about between myself and people I love. But it’s something I’m pretty committed to and I’m going to try and quickly explain my reasoning about the issue because, every year, someone seems surprised that I actually care enough to think about it.

So, here.
Reason with me now.

No one seems to agree about the exact origins of Halloween. Did the Catholic Church institute All Hallow’s Eve as a distinctly Christian holiday, or was it an attempt to christianize the ancient Celtic festival of Sahmain by slapping a Christian name on the same tradition? Were you there? Me neither. All you need is a quick Google search to prove that the jury is still out on this one. And this is true for many of our other holidays, too.

Young in our family life, we decided to try and focus on as many distinctly Christian traditions as possible and avoid pagan, secular, and Eastern traditions if we could. We downplayed Christmas (in the secular Santa sense) and embraced the season of Advent. We skipped the Easter Bunny entirely and focused on Resurrection Day. We tried to “purify” our family expressions of these great holidays as much as possible while admitting that it’s simply impossible to avoid all syncretism. The truth is that even our best intentions have left us with half-baked American traditions like Easter egg hunts and Christmas stockings. Whatever. Imperfect is better than nothing.

One of the biggest questions in my mind has always been about what, exactly, is the nature or intent of the thing we’re appropriating into our expression of our faith? Is this a purely cultural expression? Or is it a religious expression? Can the two every be truly separated?

Take for example Indian culture and the practice of yoga.
A few months ago, I asked my friends on Facebook whether they believed the practice of yoga was a) inherently spiritual, b) imputed with spirituality by those participating in it, or c) purely secular. Responses were mixed. But it has always seemed clear to me that a practice created specifically as a spiritual practice for another religion cannot be stripped of its spiritual element and simply secularized or christianized by another user. We are not dualists; nothing done with our spiritual bodies is purely biological.

But, wait! I eat Indian food! Isn’t some Indian food somewhere prepared by Hindus (potentially) offered to a Hindu god? Well, sure. And if someone came to my table and offered a prayer to Vishnu over my food, I could still eat it (Biblically speaking), but it might make me feel a little weird about it. But knowing someone next door in the YMCA may be doing yoga isn’t the same as actually doing yoga myself, is it? So I see eating Indian food as less like doing yoga and more like wearing yoga pants. Which might be wrong, but for different reasons. (That was a joke. Maybe.)

So, back to Halloween.

Some of my friends seem to think that the only people still celebrating pagan Celtic festivals like Samhain are the 12 Druids living on a commune in New Hampshire. But I can tell you for a fact that pagan Druid spirituality (along with Wicca and actual Satanism) are real. They exist in 21st Century America. And if I had not once stood in a room of a few hundred totally normal American citizens worshiping the planet Earth, I probably wouldn’t believe it either. (Ask me and I’ll tell you the story sometime.)

And this is not even to mention the absurd world of horror movies and haunted houses that capitalize on the scary sentiment of Halloween just to scare the crap out of you and your children. And I won’t even talk about actual spiritual warfare. Ugh.

Okay.
So you’ve decided that Halloween is still no big deal because you want to meet some neighbors and your kid looks really cute as Elsa from Frozen (you returned the Moana costume because it’s culturally insensitive).

Well, my Halloween loving friends, you’re not alone. And I don’t think you’re a terrible person or a devil worshiper. I just think you need to ask yourself some questions about how you’ll celebrate the holiday well.

First: if you are going to use the “All Hallow’s Eve” excuse/clause, you have to ask whether your observance of Halloween really resembles the Christian tradition at all. If you want to know the truth about your family traditions, ask your kids. What do they believe they are celebrating? What do the symbols mean to them?

If I ask your kids can say to me “Oh! We’re mocking the devil because Jesus is King!” I might say, “Well, heck. Right on!”

Second: are you neglecting some of the distinctly Christian traditions in place of the more “fun” ones? If you are a Protestant, did you even tell your kids about Reformation Day today? If you are a Catholic, did you take the opportunity to throw eggs at my car? (Joking again.)

And how should you celebrate? Well, consider how much your family and children miss out on the Christmas story when the entire Advent season is not observed. The same goes for the season of Lent and Easter. If you really believe Halloween is a Christian tradition, then express it as one and go all out. Slip some Testamints into those candy buckets. (Joking. Don’t do that. They taste gross.)

But, here’s the thing about celebrating Halloween: you might think that it’s totally cool and in good fun for Christians to go around the neighborhood merrily mocking the devil by wearing cute superhero costumes, but your neighbors are probably not in on the joke. They might be watching a movie about serial killers to commemorate the occasion or could be waiting in a bloody clown costume to scare the crap out of your kid when she rings the doorbell or could be standing around a tree in the woods chanting about their sacred mother.

Or maybe they’re all in superhero costumes, too, and it’s really no big deal. I’m willing to admit that kids in superhero costumes are really cute.

The short story is this: participating in Halloween just seems really confusing to me–less like wearing yoga pants and more like sniffing the yoga mat. (Gross, I know. Sorry about that picture.) And if I’m not going to do yoga, I’m not gonna sniff the mat. (Most you probably do yoga, so you just realized I wasted all your time.)

Okay, so that was a lot to say about something that, at the end of the day, isn’t really a big deal. Like I said, it’s not a line in the sand for me.

But I do kind of take Halloween seriously. At least seriously enough to think more about it than just what candy I’ll buy.

For the record, I bought kit-kats and fruit snacks. Because we don’t celebrate but we also don’t ever turn away a stranger who knocks on our door, no matter how they’re dressed.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, and (some thoughts on) Religious Syncretism

  1. My current go-to explanation of why we don’t celebrate Halloween: it (the holiday not all people participating) celebrates darkness and evil and our family doesn’t want to do that. Or, as Natalie told her friend, “my mom doesn’t like it.” We don’t get trick or treaters at our house so it is easy to opt out. But being a public school kid who didn’t celebrate Halloween was good life prep for me in standing out due to your beliefs.

  2. Great thoughts Liz. A great question to ask (about any rhythmic family practice) is what does this teach my children (or me)?

    What does rushing around from chaotic activity to activity team them vs living a simple quiet life?

    PS Your jokes are great. Please keep them up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s