My wife and I always have a hard time when All Saint’s Eve rolls around. We have a real problem with even the ‘alternative’ celebrations provided by most churches. Until now I’d never really been able to put my finger on what the problem was. After last year’s ‘trunk-o-treat’ event at our church, I got a bit of clarity.
Let me start by saying what the problem is not.
The problem is not the idea of an alternative to a pagan/secular rite. When I was growing up, there was a couple in my church who refused to allow their children to participate in Easter celebrations ‘because the eggs were borrowed from pagan symbolism’. And eventually they even decided that because Christmas was celebrated on December 25th because of its proximity to the winter solstice, that they could no longer celebrate Christmas. Now in one sense, they were right. They were right about their facts. Eggs were adopted from pagan symbolism (More Info). Christmas was placed on the 25th of December to offer an alternative to solstice celebrations (More Info). However, my family didn’t have a problem with these celebrations, nor do I. Why then is Halloween different? It too originates in pagan rites and has been Christianized ( More Info). So why do I feel a twinge of guilt when I condone (by my attendance) even so much as a church-sponsored ‘trunk-o-treat’ event?
It’s not the implementation details, per se. Our trunk-o-treat event had the ‘Pumpkin Gospel’ and two puppet shows with evangelism moments while I was there. It was truly a blessing to be there and see kids from the surrounding community listening to the gospel message, hearing the great Christian music and seeing our church as more than that building that’s mostly empty six days of the week. I appreciated especially those who volunteered for the mostly thankless tasks of candy distributor and game supervisor, as well as the wonderful efforts of the youth band and the puppet team. Attending this event this year and feeling that twinge of concern yet being blessed nonetheless, and trying to sort it all out has led me to some conclusions. But before we get to them, I probably need to let everyone else in on the epiphany of sorts that I had regarding what was causing my twinge.
Let me begin with the minor issues. Let’s talk about the title: ‘trunk-o-treat’. What does it signify? What aspect of Christian history or life is emblematized in the name of our event? In the past its greatest cachet was that it offered a ‘safe’ and ‘Christian’ alternative for neighborhood kids. But to what is it an alternative? For the neighborhood kids, it is not an alternative to anything. When I was growing up and church events were held on the night of the 31st, that might have held, but not anymore. Sure they attend the ‘trunk-o-treat’ on Sunday, but they’ll be out trick-or-treating on Monday as well. It’s not an alternative; it’s just double the candy. Well then, it must be an alternative for the church kids, the Christians. Again, though, I must ask: alternative to what? Would we as Christians send our children out to celebrate the one if we didn’t have the other? If so, we could hardly call ourselves Christians. Could we only follow him if the way was easy and we still got the candy? What about our celebration differentiates us from the secular world? The only answer I can come up with is that in its basic inception, nothing does. Sure we tack on a bible story booth and puppet times (And those ministries may very well be life changing for some of the attendees. I’m not trying to suggest that no good comes out of the wonderful efforts that so many put in), but there is nothing intrinsic to our celebration that differentiates it. If a fellow office-worker asked me ‘So just what are you celebrating at your ‘trunk-o-treat’?” I wouldn’t have a good answer, and if I did come up with an answer I’d have no way to justify it. So much for ‘trunk-o-treat’. It may placate the candy hungry hearts of our children, but it isn’t in any real sense an alternative.
So if the ‘trunk-o-treat doesn’t hold up as an alternative. How does it fare on its own merit? If you followed the links earlier, you’re aware of the origins of Halloween or Samhain celebrations in pagan mythology and history. You’re also aware of how the Catholic church attempted to position All Saints Day so as to preempt the pagan celebration. Unlike with Christmas and Easter however, they were basically unsuccessful in changing the nature of the celebration or the attitudes of the participants. Further, protestant denominations when they broke with the Catholic Church quickly abandoned the celebration (probably because most no longer believed in the existence of Saints over and above the joint sainthood of all believers with Christ). And thus, the alternatives put on today in the protestant churches do not even have the veil of legitimacy that All Saint’s Day gives to the Catholic church festivities. Once again I am drawn back to my primary question: What are we celebrating?
Finally I think I understand the distaste that I’ve always felt for ‘Fall Festivals’ ‘Great Alternatives’ ‘trunk-o-treats’ and the like. It boils down to this. If we celebrate in the way the world celebrates and at the time the world celebrates, and we aren’t clear about what we are celebrating, then we tacitly acknowledge that the world has won—that Satan has won—that we have nothing better to offer. In short we abandon our religion (that is to say our beliefs and methods of worship) to join the world in the worship of things which don’t deserve it–apostasy.
Is there another way, a way more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas and Easter? I think that there is.
The idea came when I was reading my church bulletin after last year’s event and I saw the announcement for the annual Missions Sunday pot-luck. Included was the suggestion, ‘Dress internationally if you can.’ I thought to myself. They’re a week too late; this is dress up week. And then I thought, seeing how it’s missions’ week, why limit it to international regalia? Why not dress up as famous missionaries and/or converts as well.
You walk in wearing a trenchcoat, the brim of a fedora hiding your eyes. Flashing open your coat, you reveal 14 pockets filled with your contraband merchandise—Bibles! You’re Brother Andrew, God’s Smuggler. (Exercise for the reader: Figure out how to include an ‘iron curtain’ in the costume)
Don a priest’s collar. Add some bling-bling in the form of a gold cross, talk about getting the vulture (or monkey) off of people’s backs and carry a ‘switchblade’. You’re David Wilkerson (of The Cross and the Switchblade).
Insert head through large square of cardboard with sheet draped around the edges to look like a table. Use silver spray paint to produce a ‘platter’ around the opening. Add lots of fake blood. Eat locusts and honey. You’re John the Baptist (arguably the first missionary?).
Wear prison stripes, dirty wig, and support your skeleton thin sister in the same. You’re Corrie Ten Boom, Tramp for the Lord.
Gather to celebrate the great commission, those who have given their lives in its fulfillment, the current work, the lives being changed. There is something worthy of celebration! But do it a week earlier so that it coincides, as it were by chance, with a certain pagan/secular holiday.
Here are a few more details of how one might implement such a program though they are not intended to be definitive suggestions, merely examples.
Give the children treats, but not just for the sake of having treats. Instead, establish booths for various missionary efforts/organizations/families. Have a different kind of treat (possibly with international origins) at each.
Have several (costumed or not) ‘missionaries’ and/or ‘converts’ (real or made-up) who tell the children their stories and share the gospel message both the evening of the ‘main’ event and at several events (Sunday School, Bible Battalion, Etc.) leading up to it (generate a buzz). Each missionary might endow all the children listening with a small baggie/handful of treats (establishing a pattern similar to that of Father Christmas).
Advertise in the community by publishing a leaflet/flyer with several ‘scary’ Halloween stories—namely stories about martyred missionaries/believers.
Establish traditions rather than just emulating (borrow what works of course). Encourage the establishment of special home and church decorations that symbolize the nature of the celebration; use these rather than pumpkins, apples, scarecrows, or black cats (or where possible invest the old symbols with new meaning). Make those symbols such that they might easily be adopted all unknowing by the secular community (like the Christmas tree, the Easter Egg, etc.)–or don’t and avoid the commercialization…?
Ensure that the primary celebration leaves no room for double dipping (Why not have a pot luck on a Monday? Why confine church to Sundays?). Celebrate on the evening of the 31st of October, no matter what weekday it falls on.
Share the vision with other churches. Encourage them to implement similar celebrations; invite them to participate in cross-congregational activities.
Plan November or December short-term missions trips and have sign-ups on the 31st.
This is the mere beginning of a proposal for a true Holy Day (holiday) which really means something to replace the current emptiness (at least for me) that is the modern church Halloween celebration.
Some of these suggestions may be inappropriate. Some may be impractical or mutually exclusive. I am posting here at least partially in the hopes of encouraging the generation of other ideas. How can we be proactive about Halloween? How can we take the fight to the devil instead of retreating behind our bunkers? I look forward to hearing what others think.