Experts: Jesse Dominick
So yesterday was Halloween, that beloved American holiday. Perhaps you dressed up and took your kids out for candy, or perhaps you went to a party down at the local rec center or at the local school or at your church. Or, maybe, you did nothing. But however each of us personally celebrates or doesn’t celebrate, of course, we’re all inundated with Halloween all around us—there’s no escaping it.
And every year, without fail, my Facebook feed blows up with discussions (debates?) about the history of Halloween—is it Christian or pagan in origin? About how it’s most appropriate to celebrate it now, and especially—if it’s appropriate at all to celebrate it. Of course, these questions come most of all from well-meaning, sincere Christians, who see images of ghosts and witches and devils and slutty nurses and the like all around them, and thus have to wonder if there’s any redeeming value in this day.
The question often turns to the history of the day. Some will say it dates back to the Celtic festival of Samhain—a pagan festival, and others will vigorously debate this. Others will point out, rightly, that the word “Halloween” comes from “All Hallow’s Eve”—it’s the day before the Catholic feast of All Saints, with “hallow” meaning “saint” or “holy.”
Though I am an Orthodox Christian and I honor God’s saints, I want to say right out that, either way, the historical question is absolutely useless for the question before us, of whether to participate or not today.
Even if it has pagan origins, that doesn’t necessitate that today’s celebrations are pagan. Some people also try to say that Christmas is just a pagan holiday because it’s on the same date as the festival of the sun god. Well, besides the fact that this is historically illiterate, the content of a holiday is not determined solely by its date! If you’re not worshiping the sun god, then it simply isn’t a pagan holiday. Simple as that. Same here, with Halloween. What needs to be examined is how people are celebrating now, not what pagans might have done a millennium or two ago.
And the fact that All Hallow’s Eve is a Christian feast day is unhelpful here because we all know that when someone asks if it’s appropriate to celebrate Halloween they aren’t asking, “Is it appropriate for me to go to Vigil tonight and to Divine Liturgy/Mass tomorrow?” Obviously they are asking about events that aren’t explicitly Christian, and which on the surface can seem to be quite counter to Christianity.
Of course, anyone’s participation in Halloween can be completely innocent. What sin or problem is there in your daughter dressing up as a kitten and asking for candy? There is none, considering this in and of itself. But we have to ask ourselves, is it only my actions, my participation that matters? Surely we are influenced and affected by those around us.
Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. I love jamband music—a broad genre where improvisation is key. The granddaddies of this scene are the Grateful Dead, and since Jerry’s death, another band, Phish, has carried the torch. They’re ballin’ musicians, no doubt, and I used to go their concerts, and concerts by other such bands, fairly often. However, the last time I saw Phish a few years ago, I found myself feeling uncomfortable. They’re a hippie band—the crowd is full of drunk, stoned, and worse, people, who are often writhing about wildly in uninhibited dancing. Sure, I can go there and just enjoy the music—I don’t need to toke up or flail about, but then again, oh look!—that guy next to me just snorted some coke; oh, and that chick is baked out of her mind and acting more like an animal than a person.
Regardless of my participation, is that an atmosphere I should be in; are these things I should be exposing myself to? Such behavior is profoundly abnormal, but the more you’re around it, the more you become acclimated to it—the more it becomes normal for you. Obviously, interiorizing abnormality as normality is not useful for leading a productive life, and certainly not a productive spiritual life.
At this point, I think it would be helpful to recall the deeper, more ancient meaning of symbolism that I wrote about in a previous article: A symbol is not merely something that represents something else, but is moreso a visible reality that makes present an invisible reality. In that article we talked about how the unveiling of a Baphomet statue cannot be purely secular, no matter what the organizers of the event say, because they are invoking the demonic through demonic imagery.
And don’t forget—demons do not respect human free will! They’ll show up if they feel like it, whether we intend for them to or not. It would be absurd to expect demons to act otherwise.
And there is certainly plenty of demonic imagery on Halloween. Of course, much of the imagery can be harmless, but it can also veer into the more gory and evil. There is no shortage of devil costumes, grotesque monster costumes, and even blasphemous costumes like pregnant nuns. This year, I even saw on Facebook that one woman has decorated her yard with very realistic dummies of a child impaled on a stake and another hanging himself. These things happen only on Halloween. Is it just a fun coincidence?
Halloween is a night of increased mischief, and it’s certainly a night that satanic and pagan-wiccan groups capitalize upon. Even if they claim a basically secular, rather than literally satanic point of view, the fact is, they recognize that this day is the day for their activity. People who leave such movements often warn about Halloween. You never really hear people escaping from satanism and talking about how harmless Halloween is.
But considering that imagery and symbolism has a deeper meaning than we usually think, a way to redeem the night would be to take up good, inspiring, soul-profiting imagery. There are churches that have alternative Halloween parties or gatherings, where the children are inspired to dress up as their favorite Bible characters or saints from Church history. In this way, children are not banned altogether from having the fun their friends are having out there, but they are gaining something real at the same time. There is little doubt that such God-pleasing imagery will bring God’s grace with it.
In fact, this is what the Orthodox believe about iconography—that Christ and His saints are truly present to us in some way via the images of them.
That about rounds out my simple thoughts on Halloween, but I would like to end this piece by bringing forth the words of some spiritual guides who are far more qualified than me to speak on the matter.
Fr. John Whiteford, an Orthodox priest in Spring, Texas writes of the innocent Halloween celebrations of his childhood, when kids would dress up as cartoon characters, super heroes, and the like. But he adds:
However, since then, there certainly has been a paganization of Halloween, resulting in a much darker focus. And so I have never had my children participate in it, and have never encouraged participation in it, but I also hesitate to say that if someone wanted to celebrate it in the more innocent way that was once so common that this is strictly forbidden. I just would say that I think it is not wise to do so, given how things have developed in the culture.
And Bishop Irinei Steenberg, an Orthodox hierarch of Western Europe, wrote in a letter to an Orthodox couple several years ago:
My dear N— and A—, you are Orthodox parents raising Orthodox children in the loving embrace of the Church, and you have asked an important question relating to the cultural “celebrations” surrounding what has come to be known as “Halloween”. Let us start by saying, then, that you must put out of your mind these thoughts about “going with the culture” and permitting your children to take part in such customs “so that they won’t feel out of place with their friends.” Where secular people may feel they have the option to divorce the spiritual realm from the physical and do one thing with their bodies while believing another in their minds, we Christian people do not. We know that the actions of our bodies, and the things we do with our lives, affect our hearts and are directly connected to spiritual realms of which we are, on account of our weakness, not always immediately aware. Can you honestly think—you who gaze at and touch the holy icons in your home and in our temples, and know that the saints are present with you, and that you are drawn into their holy lives—that to be willingly surrounded by images of the demons (however childish and infantile their representation) will not also affect your heart, and your children’s hearts, and draw them closer to powers that none would call holy? And not just to gaze upon such images, but to fashion them into clothes and costumes and wear them on one’s body?
Some will say, “Ah, but it is only a bit of fun, these days. It’s just fancy dress. No one believes in these things!” But tell me, do you think the devil is so foolish that he does not see the opportunity that comes from something being perceived as “just fun and games”? Do you believe he does not understand that such circumstances cause us to let down our guard, to tease and toy with the very ideas of demons and spiritual darkness? That he does not rejoice precisely because such images become things of play, and therefore things that we do not guard against when the play is done? Yet others will say, “But it is not all macabre: children trick-or-treat in costumes of angels, of cartoon characters, of animals.” But this is to fail to see the point, that it is the very admixture of these two things—the playful and the demonic—that does such damage to the soul. The Scriptures say, What concord hath Christ with Belial? (2 Cor. 6.15), and yet modern man feels perfectly comfortable to join the demons to teddy-bears and unicorns; to mix the sinister with the trivial. This is because he has lost the sense of how powerfully our idle “play” affects the inner disposition of the heart. We think that if we don’t take something “seriously”, it cannot seriously affect us—but look how much woe and despair there is in the world, as the result of this delusion!
No, it is time to stand fast against this ridiculous trend. God has given you children; and now, in this very dilemma you are feeling in your heart, He is asking you how you will look after them. Will you, for the sake of “social norms”, start them at so precious and tender an age down the path of considering the spiritual world a realm of partying and jest, toying with images of evil as if they were of no consequence? Or will you spend this night teaching them of the joy of the spiritual life as it really is? “Halloween” coincides with the eve of the feast day of our beloved pastor and illumined Father in the faith, St John of Kronstadt; and it is also the feast day of the pious virgin St. Frideswide of Oxford. Look, how God has planted for you two spiritual trees that can bear fruit in your family’s life on this very night. Take your children to the Divine Services; encourage them precisely in the fact of doing something that others are neglecting—that while the world outside plays about in the frivolities of delusion and mixes demons with daydreams, you will enter into the Holy Temple where the God of all spirits dwells, to receive the Holy Spirit and be joined into a life that turned a parish priest into a clairvoyant miracle worker and a meek young woman into a wonder-working healer! And teach your children that He longs to do the same for them, that He desires to make of them great saints whom the whole world will know, if only they, and you, will let Him.
May God give you strength to stand steadfast with joy amidst these worldly trials! May He bless you, and bless your children.