Monday, October 18, 2010

Fear or Faith? A Christian Understanding of Halloween

Pentecost 23, Proper 26, October 31, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

Anthropological evidence suggests that the evergreen was a symbol of hope in the midst of the cold of winter for the ancient Germanic tribes from very long ago, from which we get the Christmas Tree. However, there is a more interesting story of its origin. St. Boniface was an Welsh missionary bishop to the Germans in the early 8th century. A story about Boniface tells us that a child was about to be sacrificed at the root of a large oak sacred to the Norse gods. The bishop cut down the tree to prevent the sacrifice and prove the power of Jesus Christ over the Norse gods. He noticed that a spruce tree sprang up among the roots of the felled oak. He used the tree as a teaching symbol to the Germans about the birth of hope. Thus, says the story, we get the Christmas Tree.

The two sources, Boniface and anthropology, are certainly not mutually exclusive. As with the Easter Egg and many other symbols we have lost, pre-Christian symbols were often "baptized" with Christian meanings in the missionary setting in order to help pre-Christian peoples understand the faith. The same thing goes on today. The men of the Tsachi people among whom I grew up used to die their hair with achiote die and Vaseline as a symbol of masculinity and dress. With contact from the outside the practice has died almost completely away...except for in the church where it has become a symbol of cultural pride that says, "As Christians we are confident enough to wear the achiote in spite of what the world may say about us because we know what God thinks of us."

Halloween from a Christian perspective has to do with love and faith vs. fear. Ancient Celtic peoples celebrated the fall equinox as the beginning of their new year. They called it "Samhain," and it was one of the four great feasts of the year coinciding with the equinoxes and the solstices. Feast days were understood by the ancient Celts to be a time when the veil between this life and the other life was thin. On the other side live the gods and the spirits, and also the souls of the dead. This one in particular was known to be prone to a mixing of the other world and this one. There existed the very real possibility that one could slip unawares into the other side, and this was uniformly a horrifying experience, but also the spirits and the souls of the dead would slip into our world and torment us. The only way to keep them at bay was to appease them with sweet things to eat. This was play-acted by people who would dress up as the dead and the spirits and go from house to house asking for treats, which is where we get trick-or-treating. But in the long run it was a day of solemnity and import, and also of great fear. There was fear one might be sucked into the horrific experience of the other side, and there was fear that if one did not appease the spirits that bad things would happen to them.

When Patrick and his friends began to preach the Gospel in Ireland they recognized several things right off the bat (being Celts themselves.) Samhain contained much error from the Christian standpoint, but also some truth. The truth is that the spirits of the faithful departed are not far away, the lie is in the motivation of fear. God has not given a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.

The early Christian missionaries to Ireland could have used the precedent set by our Lord with Zacchaeus. (Recently I asked what link people could make between Zacchaeus and Halloween, and prize for the most creative answer has to go to the one who suggested that Zacchaeus would make a good Halloween costume for short people…unless you wanted to be the tree as well, and then it would work for tall people!) But I submit the following as a tad more helpful: Zacchaeus was far from a good man. He had lived many years under the power of greed, which is the devil's work. He had cheated his fellow Jews and sold out on the hope of Israel. And yet there was something worth redeeming in Zacchaeus. It turned out that his greed was merely his generous heart bound by fear. When the fear was defeated the generosity of a large soul made its appearance, and the Kingdom of God came near that home that day.

And so Patrick and his followers did what Christians have done around the world. They worked to defeat the fear. They baptized the practice and infused it with Christian meaning. The spirits of the dead are not to be feared, for they are in the hand of God. The spirits of the other world are not to be feared, for Christ has conquered their kingdom as well. Now we are free to share sweet things with those who have gone before (and their present actors) as an act of Christian generosity and love rather than fear.

We believe that generosity is more than its own reward, as all virtue is. Not only is it right and therefore pleasing, it builds community—in this case community with all God's saints, living and dead. The basis of Christian community is faith, not fear. Hence we place the celebration of the feast of All Saints on this date. Halloween is an abbreviation of All Hallows' Eve, or, the night before All Saints'. It is a day when we celebrate the communion of saints, living and dead, with acts of generosity and love born of faith.

I have often heard from Christian sources that Halloween should not be celebrated by Christians because it is the devil's day. I believe that statement is riddled with hidden faithlessness and fear. The Church won the day for the Kingdom 1500 years ago, and it is perfectly fitting to celebrate it in a Christian way by Christians. To call it the devil's day is to give it back to the enemy after we won it in fair fight with the divine weapons of faith and love and grace! It would make just as much sense to sign a soul back over to the enemy after winning it for Christ. It gives in to the fear that the conquering of the day overcame. It's just cowardly. (To substitute a "Fall Festival" in the church is to dishonor those saints who labored so long to make it what it is. A Fall Festival is an entirely different event, and we celebrate that on Thanksgiving.)

Have faith, my brothers and sisters, do not give in to fear in this or any place in your life. Do not fear the economic system of our day. Do not fear those who oppose your position politically. Do not fear those whose religious beliefs drive them to horrific acts against humanity. Do not fear those who know your heart and could ruin you. Instead, be generous. Give to those who take. Believe in those you don't agree with. Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Believe in the Zacchaeus in your life, be the holy fool, shining with the light of God's grace, know that knowledge is limited, but love is infinite, and share the incredible, irrefutable, and inexhaustible love of God in the world.

3 comments:

Kes said...

The practice you mention is actually mentioned on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Achiote#Ethnomedical_uses That just amused me.

Andre V. Milteer, M.A. said...

(Fr) Paul,
Your writings are a Great Read! You gift of the Pen is only Overshadowed by your Oratory ability. Having said that, I am fundamentally opposed to observance of a Halloween tradition. The jury is still out on the whole Christmas thing as well. Again, Great read!

Paul said...

Andre, glad to know not everyone swallows what I dish out hook, line and sinker!