Is Anything Wrong with Trick or Treat?

by Mark M. Mattison

Christians are divided over whether to celebrate certain holidays. The confluence of corrupted church history, ancient pagan practices, and modern commercialism all combine to present the contemporary Christian with a confused and enigmatic message. Is Christmas about the birth of Christ, the giving (and receiving) of gifts, or Santa Claus and Christmas trees? Is Jesus really "the reason for the season," or is Madison Avenue? Is Easter about the resurrection of Christ, fertility myths, or easter egg hunts? Or none of the above? That all depends on who one talks to.

If these knotty questions dog us during Christmas and Easter, they absolutely pounce on us during Halloween. Many Jolly gift-giving egg-hunting Christians stop abruptly in the middle of a "ho" when it comes to the haunted houses and the horror movies. In addition to the questions asked above, we are now faced with a holiday which lacks even a Christian veneer. Are we now being asked to celebrate death, the occult, and all that is opposed to our religion? Or are we just missing some good candy and a good party or two?

Just what is this thing we call "Halloween?"


Some History

According to a Church Father named Chrysostom (c. A.D. 344/354 - 407), All Saints Day, once known as "All hallows" and "Hallowmass," was celebrated by the Church to honor all saints, known and unknown. "Its origin probably lies in the common commemoration of martyrs who died in groups or whose names were unknown."Reference1 In the seventh and eighth centuries, the celebration was held in May in a Roman temple called the Pantheon which had been recaptured from the barbarians by Emperor Phocas and given to Pope Boniface IV. "No longer were Roman pagans gathering to pray to the goddess Cybelé for their dead," writes John W. Howe. "Now the Roman Catholics were gathering to pray to the goddess Mary for their dead. And they did so in the same temples."Reference2

In the ninth century "All Saints" was moved to November 1 to accommodate the ancient Druidic and pagan practices of the recently conquered Saxons and Scandinavians. "All-Hallow E'en," the evening before "All Saints Day," was also the eve of the Celtic new year, a time to celebrate death. "The Druids believed that on this particular night the souls of the dead returned to their former homes to be entertained by the living. If acceptable food and shelter were not provided these evil spirits would cast spells, cause havoc and terror, and haunt and torment the living. They demanded to be placated. Look closely. Here is the beginning of 'trick-or-treat.' Evil spirits demanding a 'treat.' If they didn't get it, you got a 'trick.'"Reference3


Some Christian Responses

With these facts in mind - or in some cases in spite of these facts - different Christians have chosen to respond to Halloween in many different ways. One obvious solution is to ignore it, refuse to acknowledge it. No trick-or-treating, no parties, no special events. But is it really possible to so completely insulate ourselves and our children from it? From paper skeletons on doors to pumpkin-shaped cookies, the holiday is all around us.

This leads us to the second solution: Embrace it. After all, none of us believes these little trick-or-treaters at our doors are evil spirits sent to torment us, and none of these little cowboys and princesses think they're disguising themselves as evil spirits to avoid detection by the real spirits. Celebrating pagan rituals and worshipping false gods is one thing; accepting cultural remnants of dead civilizations is another. After all, the planets in our solar system and the days of our week are named after pagan gods. If we're going to ban trick-or-treating and Halloween parties we should be consistent and start referring to Thursday as "the fifth day" instead of "Thor's day."

But is naming the day of the week comparable to parading around as dead people? Other Christians feel that they can neither ignore nor embrace Halloween. Thus they choose a third alternative: Replace it. Take back our Christian celebration from the pagans. Scrap the Halloween parties and hold All Saints parties instead. People can come dressed as famous Christians from the past. Services can be held to remember and commemorate good Christians, ancient and modern, who have died. But some will still object. Even before All Saints was merged with Celtic custom it was celebrated on the ashes of pagan Rome. Why observe a remnant of the Roman Catholic liturgical year?

Questions of liturgy and tradition aside, is this third alternative any more effective than the first? Perhaps a Christian party or service is a good supplement for a positive alternative, but will it help screen out the worldly Halloween experience for our children?

Is there not a fourth alternative? I believe that there is.


An Alternative

Each of the options listed above has considerable merit. That is what makes this question such a gruelling one for Christians. Which option one chooses is bound to be determined by the overriding convictions and principles a Christian has about Church structure and the Church's relationship to the world. But there is yet another principle to be considered.

I am talking about the fully Scriptural principal of conscience (cf. Rom. 14:5,6). I believe it is the responsibility of each Christian to break events like Halloween down into their constituent parts and judge each part on its own merit in light of the truths he or she has gleaned from Scripture. For me that means "Halloween in moderation."

Personally I have no religious scruples against eating someone's pumpkin-shaped cookies around October. And as I'm not opposed to the principle of dressing up in costumes, trick-or-treating is not out of the question in my book. On the other hand, I'm personally repulsed at the idea of children running around dressed like mass murderers, wielding fake swords drenched in fake blood and wearing hockey masks of "Friday the 13th" fame. But then again I'm a pacifist. Nor would I want my children dressing up as devils and the like. But if Barney the dinosaur is still around when I have children, I won't be opposed to letting Junior don the purple garb.

But there are other dangers to consider. The breakdown of community in our cities and towns has made this practice less safe. Planned routes, adult supervision, and close inspection of trick-or-treat goodies helps reduce unnecessary risk. Nasty pranks and malicious vandalism are other concerns (I'm assuming that Christians will not participate in these types of activities). All of these things, like other elements of Halloween, need to be weighed and judged on their own merits apart from theoretical questions of religious ritual. The day may come when violence and vandalism put a permanent end to one of America's favorite pastimes. One way or another, as Christians we have one responsibility: In all circumstances to do what glorifies God. "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17, NIV).



1The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition, s.v. "All Saints," p. 51.

2John W. Howe, "What is Happy about Halloween?" Christianity Today, October 21, 1977, p. 17.

3Ibid., p. 16.

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