Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween or Harvest Day?

I was passing out candy to trick-or-treaters last night and up to my usual "pranks" -- trying to identify the kids I know under their costumes, complimenting the wee ones on their costumes, withholding treats until they said the "magic words" ("Trick or treat!") instead of "ain't you handing out candy, mister?", and similar nonsense. I always finish by saying "Have a happy Halloween and be safe tonight." One teenager corrected me with a shout of "No, it's Harvest Day!" as he ran off.

Oh, ... really?

Since I'm a Christian, I fully understand the reticence of many Christians to celebrate what they perceive to be a pagan holiday or pagan traditions. I understand and support that idea. Many churches now sponsor harvest festivals on October 31st, and many people throw harvest parties in their homes on that day or the nearest weekend. Wonderful! If you want to take a stand against the unwholesome practices some follow on Halloween, I'm all for it. Just be consistent!

This teenager stood on my porch in jeans and a black hoodie wearing a ghost-face mask from the Scream movies and cheerfully yelled "Trick or treat!" in order to induce me to give him a handful of candy. When did wearing the mask of a fictional mass-murderer and threatening people with tricks if they did not produce treats become a Christian "harvest festival" tradition? I must have nodded off for a moment when that one was announced in church! If you're taking a stand against Halloween, fine. Then don't go trick-or-treating, you hypocrite! Stand on my porch and tell me I shouldn't be handing out candy in support of a "pagan" tradition, if you have the courage, but don't take my candy, run away, and shout back over your shoulder that it's "Harvest Day", you sniveling coward!

And, just what is "Harvest Day", anyway? I visited a number of websites describing October 31 "Harvest Day" or "Harvest Festival" and they all agreed on three core matters: (1) it is an alternative to pagan harvest festivals, (2) it celebrates the end of summer and the final harvest of the year, and (3) it is an opportunity for Christian evangelism. Wait a minute! That's exactly what Halloween is supposed to be!

For longer than history has been able to record, people around the world have celebrated the end of summer and the collection of the final harvest, as well as the observance of the beginning of the "dead" period of the year when crops cannot be grown. In ancient Rome this was the festival of Pomona. In Celtic lands it was Samhain. In the Holy Land it was Sukkot. As Christianity spread across Europe people blended their new Christian beliefs into these formerly pagan festivals, so that by the end of the 7th century Hallowmas (aka All Saints Day) had become their Christian alternative. The November 1st feast day was established formally in the Catholic church by Pope Gregory III sometime between 731 and 741 AD. Social, cultural, and political shifts throughout the Middle Ages altered the ways in which Hallowmas was observed in different areas over the centuries, and the practice of playing various relatively harmless pranks on All Hallows Eve appears to have become widespread sometime in the 16th century. It is generally thought that this mischief symbolizes the sinful nature of man that dies at midnight on All Hallows Eve and is reborn as a forgiven Christian on All Saints Day.

I wouldn't disagree that the modern practices of Halloween -- the costumes, parties, and trick-or-treating -- have commercialized the holiday and stripped it of much of its religious symbolism and meaning. But the same is true of Easter and Christmas! Should Christians cease celebrating these holidays, as well?

Most major "Christian" holidays were, in effect, superimposed over pagan festivals. Our celebration of Christ's resurrection was superimposed onto Easter -- the pagan rites of spring. Our celebration of the birth of Christ (which more likely occurred in late summer) was superimposed over pagan winter festivals. And All Saints Day and All Hallows Eve were superimposed over pagan harvest festivals. So which is the best approach for Christians to take: to abandon those holidays completely to pagan and secular celebrations, or to celebrate them in a manner that is consistent with our faith -- as we have done for the past 2,000+ years -- as a means of sharing God's love with people in desperate need of it?

I don't claim to know the "right" answer yet. But it seems to me that to celebrate October 31st as just a "harvest day" is no different from celebrating Samhain, which was also just a harvest festival. And if we want to give thanks to God for the harvest, we already have a day for that: it's called Thanksgiving Day. I also think that if we abandon Halloween entirely to its commercial, secular, and pagan revelries and refuse to celebrate its Christian origins and symbolism then along with it we are abandoning its celebrants entirely to commercialism, secularism, and paganism, as well.

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