Pews or no pews, kneeling on Sunday, headcoverings. You think these cause consternation and discord among our “Little T” debates? Try raising the issue of Halloween among 10 Orthodox Christians and you’ll get 10 different opinions, each centered around the question of ‘what commonly observed, secular American activities are appropriate for an Orthodox Christian to take part in?
In this past Sunday’s church bulletin, I went back and forth about what exactly to put in concerning Halloween. Knowing the range of opinions, I did not want to print anything that was too dogmatic or based upon my own beliefs, but was a more general treatment of the Christian holiday associated with the season and which was in line with our priest’s judgment, which is pretty neutral about Halloween. On the other hand, very strong injunctions against the practice of Halloween have been preached in recent years, and not so recently. You’d be surprised to know that St. John of Maximovitch, who I myself revere, dealt with Halloween in his own way back in his earliest days in San Francisco. This is not an issue the Church has considered on a level in the way abortion or same sex marriage attack key doctrinal positions. This is a pastoral issue and as such is subject to the various interpretations of clergy.
So in order to balance these competing pastoral opinions, I found the following explanation from the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Belief, concerning the history of All Hallow’s Eve and its connections with the modern celebration of Halloween. Make of it what you will, but it presents a more moderate counter-balance to the usual explanation of Halloween as a strictly Celtic, pagan influenced observance, and the gateway holiday that leads a Christian straight into Satanism and damnation. (A few minor grammar edits are mine to adapt it for length and for use in an Orthodox publication.)
The Feast of All Saints is a holy day of the Church honoring all saints, known and unknown. This is much like the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, where many people are honored on one day. Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century AD. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this reality:
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.
Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location, and many times local churches honored local saints. Gradually, however, feast days became more universal. The first reference to a general feast celebrating all saints occurs in Saint Ephrem the Syrian (†AD 373). Saint John Chrysostom (†AD 407) assigned a day to the feast, the first Sunday after Pentecost, where in the Eastern Churches the feast is celebrated to this day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13th. The current observance, November 1st, originates from the time of Pope Gregory III (†AD 741), and was likely first observed on that date in Germany. This fact makes the connection of the All Saints Feast with the pagan festival Samhain less likely, since Samhain was an Irish pagan feast, rather than German.
The vigil of the Feast (the eve) has grown up in the English-speaking countries as a festival in itself, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. While many consider Halloween pagan, as far as the [Western] Church is concerned the date is simply the eve of the feast of All Saints. Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigils we mock evil, because as Christians, it has no real power over us. However, for some Halloween is used for evil purposes, in which many Christians dabble unknowingly.
Various customs have developed related to Halloween. In the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.” The custom of masks and costumes developed to mock evil and perhaps confuse the evil spirits by dressing as one of their own. Some Christians visit cemeteries on Halloween, not to practice evil, but to commemorate departed relatives and friends, with picnics and the last flowers of the year. The day after All Saints day is called All Soul’s Day, a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of all of the faithful departed.
As so often happens in our “internet as fact” culture, blog readers often visit a variety of blogs to know what to think and believe. They can pick and chose from millions of bloggers who use their electronic soapboxes to display a clever use of words and out-of-context sources, and to broadcast their “authoritative” opinions to the world. I say this to dissuade anyone from using my post to argue “for” or “against” Halloween. Opinions I have – but not the ability to make these spiritual decisions for you and your family. That said, my own family practice has been to celebrate Halloween as a fun, silly night of dress-up, child-friendly scariness and block party revelry. I have had many talks with the kids about the various origins of Halloween customs and some of the evils that have been improperly attached to Halloween (i.e. Satanism or animal sacrifice) and what is appropriate behavior for an Orthodox Christian. My kids being kids, always list Halloween as one of their favorite “holidays”, right up there with Christmas and Pascha. It makes for good segway talks into the difference between having fun and celebrating the life of our Lord and Savior, and what is truly important as a Christian. In other words, fun in moderation and with a clear understanding of boundaries.
Is this what I think everyone should do? Heavens no! My opinion about Halloween may be based on my own poor discernment and failure to give all areas of my life over to the Gospel. On the other hand, as another priest friend remarked once, “Why should the devil have all the fun?”