Which is Witch? Discerning Halloween

As Halloween comes around once again, it has inspired the usual debate over whether it is appropriate for Christians to take part in such a distinctly pagan festival.  Inasmuch as Halloween celebrates communion with dark powers, Christians are obviously obligated to avoid it.  But to what extent does it still do so?  Is it OK to take part in these non-Christian traditions around us?

As I’ve written before, most debates regarding tradition end up being dominated by two opposite points of view that are each too shallow to grasp the issue.  One side argues that symbols have an absolute meaning that one cannot simply wish away while the others insist symbols are meaningless in themselves–they carry only the meanings that we, as individuals, choose to place in them.  When applied to Halloween, it usually goes something like this:  A) Halloween is a pagan holiday and it is wrong for Christians to ever celebrate it vs.  B)  Pagan roots don’t matter because contemporary Halloween is utterly harmless fun.

Both points of view are far too narrow to really grapple with symbols.  Each side is right in a way and wrong in a way.  After all, the meanings of symbols are fluid, and can be given by human action.  However, the meaning is nevertheless real and is very rarely intentionally given by us as individuals.  Consider the cross.  Before 33 A.D., wearing a decorative cross around one’s neck would be like wearing an electric chair.  The gravity of Christ’s atoning death, however, filled the symbol with new meaning that radically alters the way we understand the old.  No Christian would use it as a symbol merely of torture and death, but of redemption and atonement.  Of consider the swastika.  It has a history far more ancient than Nazism, but the gravity of what happened in Germany completely overshadows anything it symbolized before.  No Westerner would use it for it’s old meaning, and no amount of pleading that “it means something different for me personally” by a white man would change its current meaning.  The traditionalists are clearly wrong about a symbol’s meaning being absolute, but the other side is just as clearly wrong about symbols being meaningless without individual consent–we inherit the meaning, we do not usually get to create it ourselves.

Bringing this back to Halloween, we see two things.  First, the meaning of the holiday can change from its pagan roots, whether by a profound event or simply by the slow grinding of the years in a nation where witchcraft has been far on the periphery.  Second, it doesn’t just mean costumes & candy simply because that’s all we want it to mean.  So what does the holiday mean now?  Unfortunately, there is no flowchart or scientific process to answer this question definitively.  We are left to observe and discern.  Furthermore, the answer may be different from place to place and time to time.  Just like a swastika will have a different meaning in Germany than in India, Halloween may be different in your town than mine, and might be different in another decade.  At the very least, though, we can lay down some points to guide our considerations.

How is the holiday being used in your area?  Does the local high school have a popular Wiccan teacher who uses the holiday as an opportunity to promote her religion?  When you think on the Halloweens of the past few years, do you primarily remember the vandalism?  Are mystic religions that incorporate Halloween into their own spirituality common in your community?  In such cases, Christians would be well advised to not take part in the festivities.  On the other hand, if the celebration is primarily about carving silly faces in pumpkins, soliciting treats from neighbors, and dressing up as Luigi rather than Lucifer, it’s probably ok.

Does the celebration itself involve wrongdoing?  Despite cultural differences in their expression, right and wrong do have absolute touchpoints that we return to for guidance.  For example, one of the most important moral obligations Christians need to consider for Halloween is chastity.  Like most aspects of our culture, its celebration is becoming increasingly sexualized.  While a man can go into a store and choose from costumes like “doctor,” “policeman,” or “monk,” women get to choose from “sexy nurse,” “sexy policewoman,” or “sexy nun.”  Obviously, the latter are unchaste.  This places a disproportionate burden on women when obtaining an acceptable costume, but those are simply the challenges given to us, no matter how unfair they may be.  Likewise, other forms of celebration that involve destruction, gluttony, or other harm to our neighbors must be avoided.  Furthermore, if these things have become the main point of Halloween in your community, it would be wise to avoid even the appearance of evil by participating in an otherwise innocent way.

Does it bring out morbid fascinations in you or your children?  As the old saying goes, he who studies evil is studied by evil.  Is your participation in Halloween spurring a dangerous interest in the occult?  Do you find yourself excited mainly by those costumes which celebrate blood, gore, and death?  These are not interests that should be indulged.  Are your kids scaring people by shoving fake guts in people’s faces or do they just yell “boo” or put a spider on a pillow instead?  Some of these are more innocent than others, and it is your responsibility to discern which is which.

The real dangers in situations like these come when Christians become either too rigid or too shallow to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider whether there is danger or not.  We risk stifling Christian freedom and creativity by simply assuming that Halloween’s roots make it forever off-limits.  On the other hand, we risk corrupting ourselves and our children by blithely assuming it’s all fun and games so long are there aren’t orgies and human sacrifices at your own party.  So choose wisely when you consider whether to celebrate Halloween, but be sure to actually choose.  If we let the choice be made for us, we might not like where we end up.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, The Modern Church, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Which is Witch? Discerning Halloween

  1. Sandra says:

    well I’ve ayalws thought that it was the nature of culture to transmit, propagate, recombine and cross pollinate we call this appropriation when we have (or think we have) a political point to make, but having a cultural life without appropriation is a bit like eating without chewing unless you live in such isolation that your assimilations are within one culture, between different part of it.I am Pagan (which is to say neopagan), and I get a little weary of claims of Christian appropriation, especially when in terms of modern Paganism it could be argued that it is on occasion the other way round in fact. Further more, the suggestion that folk lore is essentially Pagan is not really supportable. A lot of folk lore is Christian, and why shouldn’t it be? Folk lore is a popular culture, and Christian populations have popular and underground folk cultures too. There really isn’t much indication that Easter is named after the goddess Ostara (who I think was mentioned once by Bede, and that’s about it for our records of her). We assume that Easter was named after Ostara, and her name refers to the East and dawn. But there’s nothing to say that this is so, and it’s a simpler inference to assume that Christians used the common root referring to the East and dawn for their own festival. I have no doubt that Christians borrowed and adapted elements from outside the Judaic cultural stream, so of course there will be Pagan elements in Christianity. There’s only so much cultural language available at any one time. That didn’t make them anything other than Christian though. And if it turns out that there actually wasn’t a festival called Ostara at the Spring equinox involving a fertility goddess by that name, eggs and hares, will people stay true to their accusations and say hey, we took this from you dudes, we better give it all back now . I doubt it, and it wouldn’t be the point.Enjoy the cultural flux it’s probably the one thing about our religions that is genuinely old ;0)

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