Friday, October 30, 2009

Paul Mathers on Hallowe'en

I wondered if I would ever really need to have this conversation. It is, on my end, a bit like having to explain to someone why I don't watch television. I simply cannot work up any care over it, so why would I want to then burn precious minutes of my life explaining said apathy. So hopefully I'm only going to have to do this once. There is any number of things I would think more important to talk about, but every stinking year we hear this sort of drivel.
This is the "yes, I am a Christian and no, I have no problem whatsoever with Hallowe'en" post. And then we can get on with our lives.

Much like my wife has written elsewhere, I hear this discussion every year and I am so sick and embarrassed of it. There are Christians (or at least church-attenders) who get very heated over this topic. More heated than they ever get over, say, doctrine or the Gospel. It strikes me that it isn't so much about the holiday as it's about feeling really good about getting really mean and self-righteously indignant on a subject. Really? We really need to talk about this? Because I'm still not sure we really even need to be talking about this. I shudder to think I'm actually about to address a topic generally only discussed by the sort who start conversations with "did you see that commercial where..."


Hallowe'en is everywhere in this country. Sales in decorations have surpassed those of Christmas decorations. It's a billion dollar a year industry in years when the global economy hasn't collapsed. Its history is long, verbose, not terribly exciting, meandering and long. It comes to us from a long history of time, different cultures, superstitions, wives' tales, genuine holy days, but mainly and above all from loads of advertising from Victorian times through today. It's a walking shadow, a poor player. It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing .

So often I hear Christians say "look at the history" and I do! I have! I know the history of the holiday pretty darn well. And what do I find? Muddled nonsense scraped together to reveal that the dad-blamed thing didn't really exist in any tangible way over 200 years ago. I find a folk tale here, a superstition there, and then a card company and candy company joining forces back before the American Dream was murdered. At this point let me point out that I am not talking about Samhain here. That is a holiday for some who I'm sure would agree with me at least on the point that what they are celebrating is not the same Hallowe'en that I am talking about here. I am talking about the thing you see when you walk into a drug store between now and Sunday morning. I am talking about an American tradition which has very little inherent meaning. Which means that, yes, one puts one's own meaning into Hallowe'en - just as we put our own meaning in December 25th when we borrowed the date from pagans to ease the transition into Christianity even though it's a 1 in 365 chance that Jesus was actually born on that particular day. These holidays did not exist without humans. We do make our own reality in this case. It's something we made up. Much like the likewise embarrassing "should we let our children read Harry Potter" discussion in Christian circles 1) it has jelly beans in it. If your faith is being shaken by it, you may want to look into the seriousness of your faith if your faith in a sovereign God and Christ's atonement for your sin can be shaken by something involving jelly beans and 2) it's really not all that good. If your faith is being shaken by a formulaic children's book series or a day to wear cheap plastic masks, you may want to look into how earnestly you delight in the things of the Lord.

I hear Christians say "you just say that to make excuses to do whatever you want." On this weekend I have carved a pumpkin and shall pass out candy to any child that comes to my door. And that is it. It's hardly a hill I would die on. Aside from the baked pumpkin seeds I doubt I would even miss it all that much were it no longer celebrated.

If Laurie and I had our hypothetical child, we would dress the child as an historical figure or literary figure and spend time learning about that particular figure (on Hallowe'en. And actually, upon reflection, probably throughout the year as well.) Then we would probably take the child in that costume out to a better neighborhood and let the residents shower candy upon our child. And then I would spend a week or two with the harsh temptation of eating my child's candy.

And, I know I'm lifting this aspect of my argument wholesale from Tim Challies, but what kind of a witness is it to be super-uptight about this? Who are you really going to have a productive ministry with if you're freaking out about these things? People have a lot more important things going on spiritually than Hallowe'en. Address those and don't blow your witness on the Vegas-era Elvis of holidays.

Now, what I do tend to wish to celebrate on the 31st and what I certainly celebrate in earnest on the Sunday nearest to it is Reformation Day. As you well know, I am a Reformed Baptist and as you also well know October 31st is the date in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, citing the abuses of power and doctrinal errors of the Roman church, thereby inciting (unawares at the time) The Reformation. I could make a pompous statement about a meaningless holiday of wearing masks versus a holiday celebrating the ripping off of masks to reveal corrupt institutions. In fact, in days gone by I probably would have made some pompous statement like that. Now I take the time to remember where Protestantism came from, compared to where it is, and especially to reflect on Luther's Solas which are:
-Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)
-Sola fide (by faith alone)
-Sola gratia (by grace alone)
-Solus Christus (through Christ alone)
-Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)
It was a significant day in Wittenberg because everyone was gathering for miles around in preparation for All Saints Day, the day when one honors the cloud of witness in the faith who have gone on before us (as you can see, a celebration of the dead is a bit of a perversion on this theme.) It was a Hallowed Eve that Luther chose to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the church. All Hallow's Eve was a high holy day in the Roman church at that time and earnest believers would have used it as a time of worship. I, for my part, look to the great cloud of witness who have run the race before me on this glorious weekend. Reformation Day is a holiday about truth whatever the cost and it is a holiday about glorifying God.

But that's just what I do.

I find I can work up a bit of railing on an aspect of Hallowe'en if I am called upon to do so. It's to the effect of something I think I've heard Laurie already say in a few conversations. Words to the effect of "no, we're not doing anything for Hallowe'en. We're grown ups."
Hey, look, no one who knows me is going to accuse me of being anti-fun. That's a large part of why I carved a Jack-o'-lantern. I don't even in concept have an ideological problem with adults who want to put on costumes. I will not, no matter how often I threaten to, dress as Martin Luther one of these years. It's a matter of taste (in snarky moments I might say that it's a matter of having some.) I don't even in concept have a problem with decorating one's yard for the little Trick Or Treaters (although I do take some issue with the "making light of death" themed decorations. First, as my wife also said elsewhere "It is the great enemy of man." Second, there's something kind of pathetic to me when people presume they can laugh in the face of death. They can't. Given enough time, death laughs last.)
Mainly it's that we live in a town whose population largely comprises college students but also with a thriving section of those who have chosen "substance abuser" as a career path. Tomorrow night I have every desire and intention of being in my home by nightfall. The whole culture of "cheap excuse to try once again to drink away the constant, maddening existential hum" and "dressing as a sexy something, doesn't really matter what" strikes me as kind of desperate, hollow and pathetic. I have no problem passing a sweeping judgment over that particular side of the holiday although I would also point out that the problem here has nothing whatsoever to do with Hallowe'en.

In short, I have no problem with Hallowe'en. As far as I can tell, it's a cultural, very American holiday (I know it's in Britain and Germany as well, but it's a very different beastie over there than it is over here. See below) that one cannot avoid without putting one's head in the sand. As usual, this does not mean it's good to blindly follow, but it also isn't necessarily evil in and of its self any more than, to risk wearing out an analogy, Twitter is vapid. The bulk of tweeters may be vapid, but it can also be a valuable tool and it is not the medium that produces the content. Yes, people may wear costumes of highly fictionalized versions of dark entities, but if a comical witch or devil is shaking you to your theological core, you may have a larger problem than Hallowe'en. You may want to turn to the Gospel instead of to the pointing, condemning finger and the fear. People love themselves some fear. In my experience, nothing makes people more angry than telling them that they don't need their precious fear.

I also have no great love for Hallowe'en. If it stopped happening this year I wouldn't miss it. As it stands it is a day when I will carve another pumpkin (or, rather, I am informed that I will scoop the innards out of Laurie's pumpkin so that she can carve hers without doing the grunt work); I will pass out cheap Trader Joe's chocolate bars. Going anywhere after 3pm will be a king sized pain; and I will go to bed early and enjoy an extra hour's sleep before church on Sunday.

And in conclusion and a weak attempt to diffuse the rising bile in the more legalistic readers of this blog (if any), here's British comics Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie telling the BBC audience how to properly treat Trick or Treaters.


  1. As you know, my childhood was not a happy one. I don't have a lot of memories untouched by sadness and regret. But there is one I can remember with delight. There was one Halloween when my mom planned ahead and payed a seamstress she knew to sew me a custom costume. I was in second grade. I was a pilgrim. I can still feel the stiffness of that "real" dress. I can still remember how it felt to have the crisp white apron tied around my middle, and the matching bonnet tied in a fat bow under my chin. I tried it on over and over. That year I was a pilgrim - a "real" pilgrim. My eyes well up thinking of the rare but sheer innocence of it.

    Of all the things I've done in my life, so many sad, sinful, and horrible things - of all the things I've had to repent of from my past - THAT was not one of them.

  2. I know I'm very late in commenting, but, well, whatever. Having a bit of a problem doing anything on a daily basis, not least staying up to date with my favorite blogs.

    There are *SO* many conversations in American Christianity with which I just want nothing to do. This is just one more.

    I have to admit, I have a love of the macabre and even somewhat of the morbid. Poe was one of my earliest favorites. Halloween is a loosely Disneyized (formerly known as "bowdlerized") version of the same. It's also a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm for Irish/Scottish/Welsh myths and folklore.

    I guess I'm at the point in my life where if anyone calling themselves a Christian wants to take exception to it and question my faith or propriety or whatever else, then have at it. Enjoy the sense of religious pride while it lasts, and more pity you, etc., etc.

    I'm tempted to dress up as Edward Mordrake but no one would get it. This year I accompanied my kids dressed up as a grungy out of work dad.

    Anyone up for a rousing chorus of "Bringing in the Sídhe"?

  3. Tuirgin,
    It was a very happy day for me when you found my blog.

  4. Hah! Well, I'm glad of that. Your posts are always a pleasure to read.