Why Evangelical Christians Are Afraid of Halloween

We carved pumpkins again this year.

I still had to clean out the insides, but this time my daughter carved the triangle eyes. I had to help with the teeth. My son opted out of carving entirely, aside from helping keep our Whippet from eating the pumpkins. He claims he doesn’t like the icky feeling of touching pumpkin insides, but I think he was offended when his then 6-year-old sister secretly graded his carving skills. My husband and I laughed and laughed when we discovered the score card she had made.

Carving pumpkins isn’t our only family Halloween tradition. We also faithfully pin our skeleton storm trooper to our front door (yes, we are Star Wars fans too….), make Halloween treats (for the past two years it has been monster cookies), watch classic kid-friendly Halloween movies (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and the Disney Legend of Sleepy Hollow), and trick-or-treat, of course.

I do identify as an evangelical Christian–I grew up in Baptist churches and I serve with my husband, an ordained Baptist minister, at the local Baptist church he currently pastors. For the years my husband served as a pastor outside of Baptist circles, we were still safely evangelical as he was the youth pastor at an Evangelical Free Church. My evangelical pedigree, at least in regards to my church membership and service, is unimpeachable. But, in regards to Halloween, I seem out of sync with my evangelical peers.
Just last week, on October 24, 2018, Matt Chandler–Lead Pastor at the Village Church near Dallas , and president of the Acts 29 Network–posted a video addressing Halloween. The tag describes it this way: “Should Christians celebrate Halloween? Honestly, it’s up to you. But if you do choose to celebrate there are a few ways you can use the day to further the gospel.” Chandler did not condemn Halloween, stating that the holiday is more about candy and costumes than demons and witches, but neither did he embrace it. He cautiously described Halloween as a holiday with both pagan and Christian roots. If Christians are troubled by it, then don’t celebrate it, he said. But if Christians have a clear conscience, then use Halloween as an opportunity to practice hospitality and meet your neighbors. The most interesting part, I thought, was his caution to be appropriate with costumes (don’t dress too demonically or sexy) and to make sure that celebrating Halloween doesn’t distract your family from the “natural church calendar.” As he said, “We are getting into the season that the Christian calendar kicks up….I don’t want to celebrate Halloween in a way that pushes out the natural church calendar and our rhythms as a family as we celebrate.”

This immediately gave me pause. Despite his insistence that Halloween was probably harmless and had a Christian heritage, he still defined Halloween as outside the “natural church calendar” and something that could distract from Christianity.

Halloween may be harmless, his words implied, but it isn’t Christian.

Except that it is.

I argued in my 2015 post “Halloween: More Christian Than Pagan” and my 2016 post “The Modern Roots of Pagan Halloween” that Halloween is rooted far more deeply in Christian history than paganism. Yes, there might be similarities with the pagan celebration of Samhain. But historical similarity doesn’t equal historical sameness. Just because two things look alike doesn’t mean they are alike. Moreover, we know very little about what Samhain really looked like. As historian Ronald Hutton argues (and as I have quoted him before), we have “no idea” about what actually happened during the Celtic celebration of Samhain. “To hazard any guess about the ancient religious significance of Samhain and Calan Gaeaf, therfore, we are left completely dependent upon infernces projected backward from folklore collected in the last few centuries,” he writes in Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Hutton does agree that a major pagan festival was celebrated in early November that had supernatural overtones. But it had no connection to the dead and, consequently, little connection to Halloween. Likewise drawing from Hutton, Holly Scheer wrote in her 2016 Federalist article Move Over Druids: Halloween Is A Christian Holiday that there are no historically verifiable references to Halloween before the tenth century. If I can quote myself: It is the medieval Christian festivals of All Saints’ and All Souls’ that provide our firmest foundation for Halloween.

Halloween is a Christian holiday.

So why are evangelical Christians so afraid of it?

Matt Chandler’s suggestion that Halloween lies outside “the natural church calendar” gives us a clue. As a medieval historian, I know that in 837 Pope Gregory IV instituted the universal observance of All Saints Day on November 1, which subsequently made October 31 All Hallows Eve (the night before the vigil for the holy–hallowed–ones). And so it remains to this day on the Catholic and Anglican calendars.

In the aftermath of the Reformation, however, some fervent protestant groups (like the Puritans) regarded holy days with Catholic roots suspiciously and condemned them as “popish invention“. Even Christmas was cancelled. Tommy Kidd has written that the only “holiday” New England Puritans seemed able to agree on was November 5, the Gunpowder Plot. As he writes, “In New England, where almanac makers and many of their readers felt uncomfortable with any holidays associated with the Anglican church calendar, November 5 seemed a holiday that nearly everyone could enjoy, for it signified crushing defeats for Catholicism.”

A holy day like Halloween, which had no direct association with the life of Jesus, didn’t have a chance with radical reformers. It was just too Catholic. This is precisely what Ronald Hutton argues. As he writes, “To describe [Halloween] as fundamentally unchristian is therefore either ill-informed or disingenuous. Such an attitude could be most sympathetically portrayed as a logical development of radical Protestant hostility to the holy days of All Saints and All Souls.” Ironically, Hutton continues, it is because of the agenda of evangelical Protestants to “eradicate” papal traditions that holidays like Halloween now appear “divorced from Christianity.” By eliminating the doctrine of purgatory and the cult of the saints,” the Protestants “left nothing but a vague sense of Halloween as a time with creepy associations.” In other words, it was Protestant fear of Catholicism that made Halloween appear less Christian.

Isn’t that interesting? Do the roots of evangelical Protestant hostility to Halloween have less to do with Celtic paganism and more to do with anti-Catholicism?

I don’t think this is the whole story. But evidence suggests that, buried in Protestant anti-Halloween rhetoric, a fear of Catholicism endures.

Let me leave you with one clear, and rather disturbing, example.

In the 1960s, a fervent evangelical cartoonist named Jack Chick started a publishing company for Christian tracts. He hated Catholicism almost as much as he hated Halloween. In one of his tracts, the Prophet, he accused Catholicism of starting Islam for the purpose of undermining Christianity. He also accused the Vatican of masterminding the Holocaust through the inquisition and its alliance with Nazi Germany. This is such an awful and historically WRONG accusation, I am almost afraid to draw attention to it. But it does highlight well the anti-Catholicism of Jack Chick. In 1986 he published his first anti-Halloween tract, The Trick. Two things really interest me about this. First the tract declares that Halloween is a “holy day” designed by Satan. Since Jack Chick and probably many of his readers knew that Halloween had been declared a holy day by a Catholic pope, the tract seems to be making a clear connection between Satan and the pope.

Second, the witch coven that is killing children through tampering with Halloween candy (remember the razor blade and hypodermic needles in candy scare?) is organized suspiciously like the Catholic hierarchy–one of the witches is even named “Sister Charity” and “priestesses and priests” give assignments to the witches. Through his description of Halloween and the witches, Jack Chick’s anti-Catholic agenda (just go check out his comic books about the Jesuits…) connects to his anti-Halloween campaign, and I am not the first one to have noticed this. As Philip Jenkins once wrote about Jack Chick, his “tracts and comics continue to promulgate bizarre allegations of Catholic conspiracy and sexual hypocrisy.” Chick tracts claim to have printed over 800 million tracts during the past 50 years, which are available in over 100 languages…..

I don’t think most modern evangelicals would describe themselves as anti-Catholic. But, still, Matt Chandler described Halloween–a clearly Christian holiday with deep Catholic roots–as outside the “natural church calendar.” If Halloween isn’t Christian, then what does that make Catholicism?

I really like Philip Jenkins book title, The New Anti-Catholicsm: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. I think he is more right than most evangelical Christians realize…..especially when it comes to the roots of our fears about Halloween.

Why Evangelical Christians Are Afraid of Halloween

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