Making My Peace with Halloween

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I posted this a few years ago, and since there are new readers who have gathered in the Rabbit Room since, I thought I’d repost (and revise) it. I hope it’s helpful and edifying. 

A couple nights ago, as I was in the throes of carving our family’s final jack-o-lantern—feverishly cutting out the stripes of Charlie Brown’s shirt (we usually carve our pumpkins into Peanuts characters)—I caught my wife quietly laughing at me. “I love what you’re doing right now.”

“What?”

“I love how you’re really digging into that pumpkin.”

“Ha, what is it about that that you love?”

“Remember when we were first married?” she asked, and then brought our boys into the conversation. “When we were first married, you guys, your dad didn’t want us to have pumpkins, dress up, or even have candy to give out.”

“Really, Dad? How come?”

Taya continued, “As I recall, you didn’t even want us to have a Christmas tree that first year.” She said with a smile.

“Why?” one of the boys asked again.

I was having to put my elbows into it now, hollowing out the flesh of the pumpkin so the candle would better show through the carving. “Ahhhh, you guys…” I conceded.

“I grew up in a pretty legalistic environment where they believed Halloween was the devil’s holiday, and if you participated in it at all, you were guilty of devil worship. And then because of some obscure verse—in Jeremiah or Isaiah I think—about bringing a tree into your living room…well, because of that I was uncomfortable with the idea of a Christmas, too.” Then looking at Taya I said, “I’m sorry” with a smile of contrition. Returning to the work at hand I said, “I’m glad you hung in there with me.”

I guess you could say my convictions on these kinds of things have taken a different shape over the years. There are those from my legalistic past who might say I’ve gotten soft, but in fact it actually feels like my theology on these things has sharpened, helping me better divide between soul and spirit, “judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” For it’s in the heart that’s what’s really at stake comes to light in times such as this.

This post would take much too long to definitively state all that could be said about Halloween, and I doubt that I’m qualified to write a comprehensive manifesto. But I would like to offer a personal and, I hope, humble perspective that might make for enjoyable reading and maybe even contribute to a grace-full observance of a holiday that comes with some baggage and leaves some of us with mixed feelings (you know who you are).

And it’s not hard to see why, what with all the images of death and darkness that go along with the day. But in my case, most of my personal hang ups concerning Halloween came from the same place that all my legalistic instincts come from: fear. Fear always distorts the way I see the world and tempts me to be reactive—to circle the wagons and take a strident, defensive stance. Fear shrinks my world and can even make me doubt grace and it’s hold on me.

Fear that if I listen to secular music, my mind will be darkened and I’ll become a sex-crazed reprobate. Fear that if I have a sip of beer I’ll become an alcoholic. Fear that if I enjoy something it must be inherently bad. Fear that if I go trick or treating with my kids or put up a Christmas tree I’ll inadvertently cast us headlong into paganism.

And so on and so forth.

But fear is what love intends to cast out, because to act out of fear is very different than to act from love. If fear is reactive, maybe I’m learning to think of love as being pro-active—and this thought excites me.

One of the more humbling and awe-inspiring theological traditions is the idea that we are called to be co-creators with Christ. Of course we can’t create as God did, ex nihilo, out of nothing. But God has called us to be re-creative with what he’s already made—and there isn’t anything that exists that wasn’t made by him. Bent and broken as a thing may be, there is the possibility for its redemption, and we get to play a part in the unfolding beauty of this ongoing redemption and reclamation.

In this way, I believe that as co-creators with Christ we’re also given the privilege of being co-sanctifiers, or “little Christs” as C. S. Lewis might say—participating in the Kingdom Come, reclaiming what otherwise might be lost, bringing it into submission to the knowledge of Christ.

Do you remember the worship wars in the ’80s and ’90s when church people were debating over things like whether or not you could have drums in a sanctuary and everyone was arguing about which style of music was God’s favorite? Well, at some point we had to realize that music is more often than not what we make of it. Heavy metal or easy listening, both or neither can bring honor to God. It depends on the intention of the heart that is driving it. It was the human heart, after all, that lusted for the forbidden fruit, meaning that it was with our hearts more than our hands that we reached to take the fruit and fell. And it is still within the human heart where motives are determined and identities are revealed.

An example from scripture: food sacrificed to idols is not necessarily evil when placed in the hands of the true worshipper of God. Purified and repurposed in the heart and conscience of the believer, it is restored to its original state of being simply food. If it’s the heart that defiles or purifies food (1 Cor. 8:7), I guess I’ve come to believe that it’s also the heart that defiles or purifies a certain day of the year. That means a day is what we make of it. So what kind of day will we make of it? My conviction is that if it’s God’s will for me to play a redemptive role in all of this, I want to start trying out for the most beautiful part available to me.

Much of my religious formation took place in a milieu of shame, fear, and guilt, leaving me at once affirmed in my self-righteousness, alone in my sin, and burnt out on the holiness-works-guilt treadmill as I tried to prove my devotion to God, to myself, and to those around me.

Into that milieu, God visited me with a grace-awakening many years ago through authors like Brennan Manning and Frederick Buechner as well as a renewed filter through which to read my Bible. Texts that once barked their austere demands at me slowly began to whisper and hum with secrets of a love so outlandish and scandalous that I could hardly take it in. Books like Galatians and of course the gospels came alive for me with colors and notes I’d never noticed before. And slowly, ever so slowly, the bondage of fear began to break and the world was given back to me. The difference between legitimate and contrived definitions of sin and devotion began to come into focus, too.

In the matter of Halloween, I began to see that my own reservations about the day had more to do with my own baggage than that of the holiday itself.

(What I suppose I should mention here is that I take evil and the occult very seriously. A part of my history that I don’t often speak about is the fact that for many years I lived with a stepfather who was involved in the occult. I could tell you stories, but this post is not about that. Suffice it to say that, in my experience, a lot of what gets passed off as “occultic” or satanic has very little to do with the real thing.)

Much is made of Halloween’s ties to the occult, though research reveals that a lot of its association with the holiday might be more a matter of hype, opportunism, and aesthetic than anything else. Do distasteful and evil things take place on Halloween night? Regrettably, I’m sure of it. Is it really the devil’s holiday? I don’t think so. It could be, if that’s what you want to make of it, but to say October 31st is inherently evil is maybe to give more power to a calendar day than is warranted.

Some of Halloween’s roots, as I understand it, come from the Celtic “Festival Of The Dead” – a day to mark the end of the harvest season as well as the months of extended light before heading into the darker months. It was also a time to remember and even honor the dead. It was believed by the superstitious to coincide with a time when the barrier between the physical and the spirit world was thinner, leading to all kinds of bizarre notions of dressing up in fearsome masks in order to scare away any evil spirits that might have broken through.

I’m reminded of the hulking statues of fierce warriors that I saw guarding the gates of the Buddhist temple in Asakusa in Tokyo who were posted there to scare away evil spirits that might want to crash the party and harass devout temple goers. This kind of stuff reveals misguided ideas of good and evil, but is relatively harmless, I suppose—except to the degree that it distracts us from the truth of how the world really works.

So it’s not my intent to diminish the reality of Satan and his work—I imagine the devil is pleased when we don’t believe he exists. But I’m sure he is even happier when we are distracted by distorted and misguided notions of who he is and what he’s doing.

I’m not convinced that Satan is as determined to recruit worshippers as much as he’s content to influence us to worship ourselves, which is the very thing we are most eager to do. The temptation in the Garden, if we remember, was that we would “be as gods”, that we would be central and in the driver’s seat. Are there those who devote their lives to actual devil worship? Yes, I’m sure. But let me suggest that whenever any of us serve ourselves—when we are self-centered—we serve Lucifer’s agenda and participate, intentionally or not, in the work of the devil. All the hurt, war, poverty, dissension, and deceit that are born of our selfishness has brought more hell on earth than the relatively small number of sincere Satanists, whose religious identity seems more or less driven by a desire to be counter-cultural and empowered, which in the end is more about self-service than genuine religious devotion anyway. Marilyn Manson’s behavior is less a devilish threat than it is a desperate kind of attention seeking.

In other words, it’s probable that my misguided attempts at taking a stand against Halloween, rooted in my own fear and self-righteousness, may have done more to distract myself and those around me from the more legitimate and potent works of the devil. One thing I do know for sure is that they didn’t do a thing to make the gospel look beautiful. They probably just made me and my faith look small, foolish, and full of judgment.

And this brings me back to the matter of carving jack-o-lanterns. When I was first married, I was reticent about such pagan practices in our home, assuming there to be something inherently sinister about carving a face in the flesh of a pumpkin. When kids would come to our door that first year, I’d awkwardly explain that we didn’t have candy because we didn’t participate in Halloween (until I couldn’t stomach it anymore and just stopped answering the door). And though it pains me greatly to admit this, I will confess in the interest of truth-telling that I may have even handed out some gospel tracts to trick-or-treaters that year.

Yep. I was that guy.

I’m sure the kids really appreciated that! I’m sure they couldn’t wait to find out more about this stingy Jesus who doesn’t let his followers hand out candy to kids. Score one against Ol’ Scratch, right?

A lot has changed since then, and these days my guiding conviction is that my job as a co-sanctifier with Christ is to take what is broken and do my part in reclaiming it, perhaps even making it beautiful, by God’s grace. My earlier attempts of disavowing Halloween were neither redemptive nor beautiful. At best they might have been neutral, but I suspect they did more damage than good.

And all the while my wife suffered from my misguided religious zeal! That is, until we had kids. And then she put her foot down.

My resolve was beginning to crack by that time anyway, and my first venture back into the world of trick or treating was timid (though I had loved it as a kid). Our twins were two and we dressed them up as Charlie Brown and Linus (it was awesome!) and went to the Barnes & Noble Halloween party where they toddled around asking workers for candy. It was fun, and I even made it through the experience unscathed by legalistic guilt!

After that, Halloween become a favorite holiday in the Gray household. I would try to avoid “the appearance of evil” by avoiding costumes that strike me as “dark” or otherwise distasteful, choosing instead to hit the streets as a whoopee cushion, bottle of ketchup, or a ninja warrior, walking the two blocks of our neighborhood freezing in the late October chill.

When the twins were little and their hands would get cold, they’d each slip them into my gloved hand to warm them up as we’d walk door to door. It’s one of my most cherished memories of being their dad. Then I’d stand back as they would timidly take the steps of a neighbor’s house, knock, and with little voices say “trick or treat” and then “thank you.” My wife would stay back at our house to greet trick or treaters, handing out copious amounts of candy (everyone knew us as the “gospel singing family” and she wanted to build a reputation of generosity for us. Perhaps she was also making up for the years lost to my legalism) Over time it grew into a Halloween party where we invited friends over and made cookies in the shapes of fingers and eyeballs, and we laughed and enjoyed each other greatly. You see, these days I’m more interested in reclaiming things and repurposing them than I am protesting.

All this to say: I get excited about Halloween every year now.

I’m excited to have friends and family to our house to laugh with and enjoy.

I’m excited to spend time in my community with my neighbors.

I’m excited to don our homemade robot costumes.

I’m excited to hold my little boy’s hand in the warmth of my glove when his gets cold.

I’ve even come to value the way the spookier accouterments of Halloween gives us the opportunity to face our deep rooted fears of mortality and to even poke a little fun at death. It could be that hidden beneath the ragged clothes and garish make-up of our zombie costumes is the universal hope that death doesn’t really have the final say.

And I’d be lying if I didn’t also say that I’m excited about finger and eyeball cookies.

Of course Paul reminds us that all things are permissible, though not everything is beneficial, and it’s true there is hardly a thing under the sun that we aren’t able to justify if we put our minds to it. Whether Halloween is permissible or even beneficial for you is ultimately a matter to be worked out in your own heart.

But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord as best we know how, imperfectly, with humility, and with friends and family and costumes and candy on October 31st.


4 Comments

  1. Nathaniel Miller

    @nmiller

    Thank you Jason for the repost. I liked it the first time, and I like it now. I came from a similar background. Now I look forward to it, and this article was one part of helping me see through my own fears.

    PS – I’m pretty sure the soundtrack to Stranger Things has laid claim to perfect sounds of Halloween.

  2. Matthew Cyr

    @matthewcyr

    @jasongray  This story sounds so familiar. I too was that guy, handing out tracts instead of candy. I try not to remember it. Sounds like your wife was as patient and understanding as mine.

  3. Lightmotif

    @lightmotif

    Thanks so much for that article.  I have been working through a lot of these thoughts myself lately.  It was encouraging to hear your perspective, and see how deep-thinking Christians can still come to the conclusion that it’s ok – and maybe even good – to celebrate Halloween.

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