Toward a Theology for Trick-or-Treating: One Christian’s Perspective (Part 1 of 2)

October 24, 2011

I first realized some Christians have a problem with Halloween when I wanted to go trick-or-treating dressed as the Devil.

I don’t remember exactly what year that was. It had to have been later than 1978. That year, in first grade, I proudly patrolled the neighborhood as a Star Wars stormtrooper, with a store-bought plastic mask but without the stupid plastic costume that came with it. Did the stormtroopers in the movie have the words “STAR WARS” printed on their chest? I think not! Thankfully, my way cool mom made me far superior stormtrooper armor out of white cloth and black tape. Looking at it now, I still think it’s awesome.

And my Devil year had to have been before 1983. By sixth grade, my friends had decided trick-or-treating was “uncool,” but I wasn’t quite ready to give up all those free peanut butter cups and pixie sticks. Besides, there was this really spectacular Frankenstein’s monster getup I wanted. Unfortunately, my still way cool but also way sensible mom decided that if I wanted to do it myself, that was one thing, but she wasn’t going to spend hours painting my face green and adhering bolts to my neck. This was a setback, since I knew I didn’t have talent or the patience to make myself up—but, hey, I’d improvise! The bottoms of paper bags are flat, right, just like the monster’s head? I’d just paint the thing green, glue some black yarn on top for hair, cut out some eyeholes, and be good to go! What I didn’t expect was how quickly my glasses would fog up under that paper bag, or how impossible wearing them over the bag would prove. I think I hit maybe four houses, tops, before deciding to go home and watch TV instead.

So it must have been about 1980 when I chose to masquerade as Mephistopheles. And I remember exactly why I wanted to: because I’d get to carry a plastic pitchfork. Add inflatable horns, my red winter pajamas, and cowboy boots (we lived in Texas; what can I say?), and I was set!

But, I did wrestle with a vague sense of guilt as I brandished that pitchfork and collected my goodies. At recess a week or so before the big night, my classmates and I had been comparing costume notes. When I announced my choice, one of my friends asked, his eyes wide and his mouth open in astonishment, “Do you think you should do that? Isn’t your dad a minister?!”

Well… yeah. What did that have to do with it?

“Aren’t you a Christian?!”

Well… yeah. I simply didn’t see the scandal my friend did. He just shook his head and said, in that sing-song voice every elementary school student has mastered, “You’re gonna get in trouble…” He did not mean with my father; he meant with Our Father Who Art In Heaven.

I have to confess, his warning rattled me. Not enough to make me choose another costume, but enough to make me feel slightly relieved when I got home and took the costume off (and not just because my red winter pajamas were really too tight). For the next few weeks, I ate my chocolate and candy corn with a slightly guilty conscience, as though they were somehow ill-gotten gain.

Maybe that’s why, on a Halloween shortly thereafter, I went trick-or-treating as an Indian chief. It was not a politically correct costume by today’s standards, perhaps, but it was also not one likely to provoke the wrath of God.

Not So Fast, “Super Pastor!”

As the years passed, though, I never gave possible Christian objections to Halloween much thought. I cringed when I heard about the “hell houses” some churches run to try and scare kids into salvation; and I dismissed as silly any worries that the holiday was some satanic scheme to ensnare innocent souls.

So, as a young pastor fresh out of seminary, I was caught off guard when a member of the congregation objected to a children’s sermon I delivered when Halloween fell on a Sunday. To make a point about the “costumes” we sometimes wear in life—the ways we try to make ourselves look better in our own and others’ eyes—I asked which kids were going trick-or-treating, and what they’d be dressing up as. Then, I dramatically ripped open my pulpit gown to reveal a Superman shirt.

“Does wearing this shirt mean I really have super powers?” I asked.

“No!” the kids shouted (although a couple of the youngest looked like they hoped I was about to do something impressive like bench press the communion table).

“Does it fool you into thinking I really have super powers?”

“No!”

“Does it fool God into thinking I really have super powers?”

No!

“No, of course not!” I agreed. “God sees the real us, and loves the real us, even though we aren’t perfect, and don’t always do the right thing, and definitely don’t have super powers.”

I thought it was a pretty good children’s sermon. But this parishioner did not. She never heard my point. She seemed not angry but genuinely troubled as she later asked me why I’d done what I did. She told me that she thought acknowledging Halloween in any way was opening a door to dark and demonic powers. “I know you love the Lord,” she said, “and I know you’d never do anything to show him disrespect or to hurt our church. So I just can’t understand why you would talk about Halloween in worship with the children.”

I didn’t have a ready answer for this kind, concerned woman. But I did have a flashback to that friend from elementary school: “Aren’t you a Christian?!” And I thought, uncomfortably, about the apostle Paul’s warning to early Christians in Corinth who took their spiritual freedom too far: “when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (1 Cor. 8.12). At the time, all I could do was apologize for having given offense.

But I was left wondering: what, if anything, does the Gospel have to do with Halloween?

And is there any theological justification for celebrating it?

I’ll offer some answers to those questions in Part 2. Until then–what do you think?

All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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14 comments on “Toward a Theology for Trick-or-Treating: One Christian’s Perspective (Part 1 of 2)

  1. I come from the school of thought that everything is permissible unless it goes directly against Scripture. Of course, the Holy Spirit is there to guide us through the more difficult things that may be in our culture but not mentioned in the Scripture. If I have a clear conscience to celebrate Halloween and don’t have a reason to avoid it because of Scripture, I’ll have fun with it with discretion.

    I won’t dress up as Satan personally. I don’t think he is given glory for it or is “worshiped” in any sense by someone dressing up as him. But as our enemy, I wouldn’t want to have a reminder of him or to view him in a light-hearted way. Not even the archangel MIchael would speak a bad word towards the Devil (Jude 1:9), so why should I?

    I used to be really legalistic about these things, but as I grew up, I learned more about liberty and true worship. It seems that many well-meaning believers are almost superstitious about holidays.

    • Michael Oct 25, 2011

      Brady, I like your balance of fun and discretion — very sensible (and, as you point out, the Scripture principle at work!) The verse from Jude is an interesting one to add to the mix; I’ll be curious, in light of it, to hear your reactions to part 2 (how’s that for a tease?!) Thanks for your comments!

  2. I was raised in a home where Halloween was something that was tolerated, rather than embraced. The costumes and trick-or-treat excursions were limited to my immediate neighborhood and only to those neighbors we knew, for safety reasons. No evil costumes were allowed. I was a hobo, a clown, Chewbacca, etc. Even my mom even got involved one year by dressing up as Wonder Woman, since she used to bear a striking resemblance to Linda Carter (which still gives me nightmares, by the way). But we NEVER did the “Hell House” thing, or decorated our homes. It was evil for Christians.

    Just this morning, my wife and I got in a heated discussion regarding Halloween. She’s against carving pumpkins, trick-or-treats, costumes, decorating, candy, and just about everything else Halloween related. I’m not as offended or concerned about these actions inviting Satan into my home, as I believe that God can and does redeem our actions when we ask. A simple face on a pumpkin doesn’t represent a belief that we are warding off demonic powers from our home. It represents an opportunity for our family to creatively express ourselves on the outside of a vegetable.

    But there is a balance, since perception is reality! We take scriptures like 1 Cor 9:22 to mean that we are to fully immerse ourselves in the culture in order to represent Christ to those within the culture. However, if our culture sees our participation in Halloween as embracing Satanic/demonic activity, then we shouldn’t allow or Christian freedom to permit us to participate. Certainly the concerned woman who approached you after church held those beliefs. If there are/were others that shared the same conviction, it would be smart to introspectively decide if it was appropriate.

    By the way…I’m totally stealing your children’s sermon illustration for this weekend’s message. It’s not only “permissible” in my church, but also appropriate. Looking forward to part 2 to the article!

    • Well stated, sir. Very balanced. And it sounds like your mom kicks butt.

    • Michael Oct 25, 2011

      Skip, you bring a great spirit to the issue. I think you’re right: intentions do matter. God knows (literally) we are not inviting Satan into our homes and lives if we, as Christians, celebrate Halloween, so that doesn’t seem like much of a danger to me, either. But at the same time, absolutely, we have to exercise our freedom in Christ in love toward others (more on that in part 2, coming soon!). Thanks for the comments.

      I want to hear how the Superman children’s sermon flies (ha, no pun intended!) in your congregation! For added effect, you can even hum a few bars of the John Williams score at the moment of the big reveal!

  3. sure it is based on sanheim (sp?), but a) I am not superstitous b) I am not Catholic (no offense catholics) and therefore did not incorporated this pagan holiday into my theology c) the holiday as celebrated today has little resembalence to the original “offending” pagan holiday. d) I like to wear costumes e) I like to give and receive free candy.

    • Palindrome Oct 25, 2011

      As a protestants my church often had Reformation Day parties on halloween, but halloweened themed. Though one year we did play pin the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church.

      My parents never let us go trick-or-treating because they thought it was rude to go around to strangers’ doors asking them for candy, we always gave out candy anyway.

      • I love your parent’s take on Trick or Treating! Ha!

        • Michael Oct 25, 2011

          Me too, Palindrome! I have heard of but have never been to Reformation Day parties, as well as All Saints celebrations where one is encouraged to dress up as one’s favorite saint and/or martyr… That might be a fun way to teach kids (and not a few grown-ups) some church history! Thank you for the comment!

    • Michael Oct 25, 2011

      I’m with you, Budd — who doesn’t love the candy? Well, dentists, maybe… did you hear about the dentist who is sponsoring a buy-back program for his pediatric patients on November 1? http://www.newsnet5.com/dpp/news/local_news/oh_lake/mentor-dentist-wants-to-buy-back-your-halloween-candy-to-send-to-us-troops. Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Julia Oct 25, 2011

    My family celebrated Halloween, Santa, Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy (which my dad now says he is sure is really a Tooth Mouse, because he has seen a mouse, but never a fairy). It was fun for us when we were children. We never even discussed it being a possibility that any of these activities were un-Christian, or were a form of worshiping Evil in any way. When I was old enough to discover the truth (looked it up in the Encyclopedia at the age of 8, because Dad always told me that if I wanted to know about something, I should look it up), we still celebrated every year, and had a blast doing it as a family.

    Today, my husband and I celebrate these holidays with our children and totally have fun watching them “believe” and “wonder about their belief” as they grow older. When they ask me for the Truth, I will tell them the Truth. When their little friend said, “We don’t celebrate Halloween (or Mardi Gras, Santa Claus, etc.) because we are CHRISTIAN”, I told her, “Our family is Christian also, but we do have family fun with these holidays, and we are not worshiping Satan or doing Evil when we watch a parade or receive a gift from Santa or dress up and make believe once in a while.” Different families believe differently, and I respect this friend and her family for their beliefs. However, I did ask her mother to respect our beliefs and to ask her daughter not to spoil our fun by implying that we are not Christians when we do fun things together as a family around various holidays. She was not offended, and she has talked with her children to make sure they don’t offend us during these times.

    When my 3 year old did not want to say prayers to God because, as she asked, “Why would God send [Katrina] to destroy all those people’s houses and make them have to go to a new school?”, we explained to her that God did not send the hurricane to destroy our home, or the homes of our friends. Yes, God creates the weather, and he allows bad weather to happen, and yes, that weather took away our house, our friends, our way of life. But, God was there in our friends and family (and insurance agent) to help us find a new place to live while we rebuilt our flooded house, a way for all of us to stay together as a family until the day we could return to our new, (higher and safer) house and school and friends. My children know Santa as a human (he is in the encyclopedia), but they know God Almighty as ruler over heaven and earth. And we are okay with that, and with having fun playing make-believe around the holidays.

    • Michael Oct 25, 2011

      Julia, thank you not only for the comment but also for sharing your post-Katrina experience with us. I think you answered your 3-year-old’s question in just the right way. A very present help in time of need, indeed. And I applaud the gracious but firm way you dealt with your child’s “little friend” and their mother.

      It’s funny: I realized, reading your thoughts, that I may have more issues with Santa than I do with Halloween! Maybe it’s because Christmas is a Christian holiday where Halloween is not. (And, granted, Christmas is in part a “baptized” pagan winter holiday; but “baptized” by the Church all the same.) Maybe a topic to hash out here at the SFC when December comes…? Thanks again for adding your voice to the conversation!

  5. Joshua Oct 25, 2011

    I would almost say that Halloween is important to children; not necessary, mind you, but it allows an exploration of the fantastic. My son this year is going to dress up as a Jedi, my elder daughter Rapunzel, and my younger daughter a pumpkin (hey, she’s too young to choose). Last year my son wanted to be Darth Vader, the personification of evil in the Star Wars universe (and then he decided to be Godzilla the day before Halloween). I don’t think it makes me a bad person because I would let my son portray an “evil” character.

    Is an actor a bad person because in a film he portrayed Satan? Is a little girl a bad person because she pretends to be a witch when playing with her friends? Michael, you had no reason to be upset or regretful for portraying Satan on Halloween. He’s the universe’s biggest loser, and being the son of a pastor, I’m sure you knew that no matter how bad he is, he’s still going to be on the losing end of things.

    Understanding is the key, and as long as our children know the truth behind what they are doing, I think God will understand. He did dress up as a burning bush once, and that’s almost as scary as a zombie.

    • Michael Oct 25, 2011

      “Important but not necessary” — I like that formulation, Joshua.

      I’m afraid you give me far too much credit for having thought through my childhood costume choice — as I say, I just really thought that pitchfork looked cool! But, for sure, I would agree with your assessment as Satan and his minions as All-Time Losers (more on this in part 2!).

      Your comment about the burning bush gave me a hearty laugh! Although the sight may not necessarily have been a scary one: when I recently read that story in a Bible storybook to my 4-year-old daughter, and got to the part about “the bush was on fire but the leaves were still green,” her immediate reaction was, “That’s cool!”

      Thanks for the comments!

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