When I was a child, I loved Halloween. All of my family participated enthusiastically, decorating our house with witches, devils, black cats, and ghosts. It was innocent fun, filled with imagination and creativity. Looking back, what made Halloween so great for this child was its contrast of silliness and fright, the supernatural and the known, the permitted and the forbidden, the secretive and the public. Halloween was unique; no other occasion was anything like it.
As an adult—and as a bishop—I still love Halloween. And I do mean HALLOWEEN, not a “Fall Festival” or the like. Every year, I carve two pumpkins—one playfully smiling and the other “very scary.” I love seeing the children’s costumes and making a big fuss over them. How sad now that Halloween is being spoiled and even taken away from us by the absolutely outrageous ideas that it is “satanic,” pagan, or of the occult. Such notions are poorly informed, terribly misguided, and absolutely untrue. There are many materials circulating these days, all pretending some sort of scholarly knowledge and/or religious authority, that strive to show that Halloween is “really” celebrating the powers of darkness. In response, I must be absolutely clear: pretenses of authority notwithstanding, these materials are at great odds with centuries of commonly accepted theology, not to mention scholarship with proven accreditation. The so-called “exposure” of Halloween is nothing more than a skewed, self-serving agenda from various churches that make up only a tiny minority of Christianity, indeed a minority within Protestantism.
Of course I am aware that satanists, Wiccans, and other occult groups are indeed active on October 31. It is also true that some pseudo-spiritualists and some plain ole’ nut-cases use Halloween as an excuse to act out. NONE OF THIS CHANGES WHAT HALLOWEEN ACTUALLY IS OR WHAT IT MEANS IN THE CHURCH’S LIFE AND WITNESS. Much of the occult association with the day arose long after the Church’s observances began in the mid 300s. Our answer to those Christians who bristle at the celebration of Halloween is that we will not allow occultists to steal it away from God’s Church. Moreover, several Christian observances have pre-Christian ancestry or pagan parallels (the date of Christmas, for example). Whatever the case, the fact is that the Christian truths proclaimed on such days are not affected.
A big part of the problem here comes from the people who do not understand the Liturgical Year because their churches do not follow it. It’s hard to keep a clear perspective on something so rooted in history and tradition if you belong to a church that has no such roots, or to one that rejects as irrelevant or “suspect” the ancient practices from the earliest Christian centuries.
The bottom line is Halloween’s relationship to All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), one of the Church’s seven “Principal Feasts.” The celebration of any Principal Feast may begin on the evening before—thus, Christmas Eve, Twelfth Night (before Epiphany), Easter Eve (the Great Vigil), etc. Halloween is simply the eve of All Saints’ Day, which is also a baptismal feast. The great truth behind Halloween’s revels is that which we declare at every baptism: “YOU ARE SEALED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT IN BAPTISM AND ARE MARKED AS CHRIST’S OWN FOREVER.”
The most important thing to remember is this: Halloween is the time when Christians proclaim and celebrate the fact that Satan and the occult have no power over us and cannot disrupt our relationship with our Lord and Redeemer, as long as we live faithfully to Christ. We show this by making fun of such pretenders, lampooning them in their face. This is why our costumes and decorations certainly should be witches, devils, and ghosts. In the victory of Christ, Christians are privileged to do this and we must not be timid about it!
Ours is not a fearful faith, cowering from the prospect of falling unawares into Satan’s grasp. In God’s grace and your faithfulness, you ARE Christ’s own forever. Nothing supersedes that fact. Halloween is therefore one of the boldest Christian witnesses, precisely because of its highly public, graphic, and lampooning nature. Personally, I suspect that those who cannot embrace this are living a fear-driven and even insecure faith. If so, they have bigger problems than the highjinks of Halloween.
The Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston is the 13th Bishop of Virginia.