By Scott Dickison
My wife and I recently received a note from the church where our 1-year-old son is enrolled in a Mother’s Morning Out program encouraging parents not to dress the children in Halloween-themed attire.
Guess he will just be wearing the cute jack-o-lantern socks from his grandmother around the house.
Now, this struck us both as a bit much, but as a pastor I’m familiar with the sentiment behind it: the church’s ongoing dilemma over which cultural holidays it will abide or even celebrate, and which ones it should keep at arm’s length.
These conversations typically reach a fever pitch around patriotic holidays such as Memorial Day or Independence Day (will there be a flag in the sanctuary?), and then resurface to a lesser degree around Christmas and Easter, where the issue is more about appropriate ways to celebrate holidays we in the church know belong to us but have a life of their own in pop culture (how many Christmas hymns will we sing during Advent? Will there be an Easter egg hunt for the children?).
When it comes to Halloween, many churches are comfortable with some kind of costume-friendly “fall festival” for the kids, but there’s typically an aversion to actually invoking the “H” word.
The irony is that Halloween — or “All Hallow’s Eve” — is a holiday of the church, too.
It’s the night before “All Hallows’ Day,” which we know as “All Saints’ Day” (“hallow” coming from the Old English word for “saint). Within the greater tradition of the church, All Hallows’ Eve and All Hallows’/Saints’ Day are actually the first two days of “Allhallowtide,” with “All Souls’ Day” being the final holiday of this three-day “season.” Like elves and reindeer, this popular celebration typically has little to do with matters of faith — probably even less than Rudolph.
Maybe we should change that.
These three holidays have to do with death and all the myriad and sometimes contradictory ways we think about it, and as central as death is to the Christian message, or a death in particular, the church is not always very good at talking about it.
Part of me wonders if engaging more fully with this “season” of Allhallowtide might give us entry into these larger fears and questions about our own mortality and the Christian response to them. Many churches are already finding this to be true.
All Saints’ Day has seen a renaissance of sorts within Protestant churches in recent decades as part of a recovery of the Christian Year more broadly. Traditionally, All Saints’ Day was reserved for all those “known” saints and martyrs within the church, the ones, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “who have left a name, and whose stories we know something about,” whereas All Souls’ was intended for “the saints who are known to God alone, like our relatives and friends and the old woman across the street.” Nowadays, at least in Protestant churches, All Souls’ is rarely acknowledged and many congregations — especially those which are uneasy with the idea of official sainthood — remember all the saints, known and unknown, on All Saints’ Day.
Many churches have taken on traditions of remembering in worship those from the congregation who died in the past year. Some print the names, others read them aloud. Ours has adopted a practice of ringing of a bell after each. We often say that the church is a people of memory, and calling to mind this great cloud of witnesses in worship can be a moving testimony to the ties that bind, even across space and time.
But what about All Hallows’ Eve? Is there anything here for the church? I think so.
Where All Saint’s Day holds the deceased up in reverence and remembrance, Halloween invokes another important Christian approach to death: laughing at it.
We use costumes, candy, smoke-machines and fake blood to make a caricature of death. All this revelry gives us permission to think about our deepest fears of the grave by laughing at smaller, mostly cartoonish ones. It’s almost as if by dressing up as Death we’re able to look in the mirror and say with the Apostle Paul, “Where, O Death, is thy sting?”
Now, I’m not arguing for Halloween pageants for the kids or Sunday school class seances.
But a family night of looking through old photo albums and sharing stories and memories about generations passed?
Letting your children wear age-appropriate costumes, and encouraging them to talk about what scares them?
A trip to the church graveyard, the cemetery across town, or even — dare we — to a funeral home, to demystify death?
A time of silence in worship or the reading of names, followed by a thundering rendition of For All the Saints to symbolize the mystery of Christ’s triumph over the grave?
Now, certain popular celebrations will be outside the church’s understanding of this holiday. But that doesn’t mean we must cede all talk of death, mortality and our deepest fears to Halloween pop-up stores and two-for-one bags of candy.
We have a story that needs to be told. In fact, the popularity of Halloween may be proof we need to tell it more.
It’s a story of light shining in the darkness, of perfect love casting out fear and of life waiting behind death. And it may even be true that the church, more than anyone, can laugh at death because we know how the story ends.
And besides, little jack-o-lantern socks are adorable.