Collin Garbarino wrote an article for reformation21.org on the subject of Halloween. In the article he argues that the history of Halloween is Christian rather than pagan/Celtic. Rooted in the memorialization of the martyrs and celebrating the victory over death by Jesus. His article has some helpful points but some areas that I would take exception with. I’ll begin with the areas of agreement.
The history of Halloween has proven to be difficult to nail down. I have tried to research it on the internet a few times over the years and would find evangelical leaders on both sides of the discussion. They would either approve or condemn the day, the dressing up, participation with neighbors, or all activities all together. Some would argue for a redeeming activity where the local church had a Trunk or Treat, Fall Festival, or some combination of both. Ultimately it was pretty pointless because I never could land on a position with great confidence and just went with what I thought was wise and honoring to God. We handed out candy, dressed as heroes or movie characters, and spent time with friends.
I’m not a historian and so I’ve never been eager to try to come down confidently on a side of the discussion. However, Garbarino is a professor of history so call me out for appealing to authority ahead of time, I’m ok with that. I’ll have to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is correct when he states historical events and their context.
Garbarino argues against the idea that Halloween stems from pagan/Celtic traditions. And shows how the view of death was different between the pagan/Celtic traditions and Christianity. Garbarino conclusively states, “Our secular Halloween traditions have little to do with paganism—Celtic or Roman – but they have much to do with Christianity.” It appears that the church used it as a time to remember the Church triumphant. Those Christians who had gone before us and especially those martyrs who were great pictures of faith in face of death for us to remember.
This is an opportunity to point out an overlooked benefit of being a Christian. Believers may be dead but did death separate them from Christ? No. In death their souls are with Christ and their bodies are with Christ. This may be an odd concept to some but Westminster Shorter Catechism 37 is helpful.
Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and doimmediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, dorest in their graves till the resurrection.
The bodies of the dead believers are still in united to Christ. Thus we bury and don’t burn our dead. Burning has historically been a sign of judgment and not a blessed way of burial. So it is important that we understand that the Christian view of death is different from the world. They may see the body as no longer needed. Christians look to the Resurrection of the dead.
Garbarino notes that Halloween was a time of feasting. It was a celebration that began in the evening with a vigil (All Hallow’s Eve is Halloween) though the reason for the date is unknown. It should be no surprise that some would take the celebration to an excess. Forgetting the honorable purpose of the day (altogether in some cases) as they pursued passions of the flesh. I am in complete agreement with memorial aspect of the day. A time to remember those who went before us is an honorable activity though it shouldn’t be one that is binding. We do well to remember the many ways that God has preserved the Church.
My disagreement with Halloween however is how we remember or celebrate. The first and perhaps simplest protest is towards costumes and activities that stir up the flesh. Sin is still sin on Halloween. Therefore promoting the passions of the flesh are not exempt simply because the intent of the day was honorable. Halloween is famous for becoming a time when men and women feel the only appropriate costume to wear is one that demeans and objectifies their bodies. These types of costumes and activities end up promoting sin and lasciviousness rather than holiness.
Secondly, I stay away from costumes that depict the evil or death. Garbarino says, “we can laugh as we dress our children in images of death because we know that death no longer has a hold on God’s people.” Here I disagree. He rightly points out that our grave yards are no longer part of the community but hidden away. Yet he stopped there and should have reminded us how they used to be around the buildings of churches. He should have told us how cemeteries are a somber reminder that our life has eternal consequences. When we attended funerals, it is a sobering reminder that life ends and that our bodies are mortal. It is a time of lament and lament is appropriate because it’s the reality we live in. If someone were to mock the death of a loved one at a funeral we might think they were simply in denial of the reality they’re in. The psalms are also full of laments. I don’t need to be long about the point because it’s self evident that much of life right now is suffering even though we have inherited the kingdom of God. To simply mock death without remembering the life around you is to put your head in the sand.
Death is a reminder to heed the word of the Lord while we can. Part of the cry of the Gospel from pulpits every week is to repent and trust Christ before death. There is no hope for those who die in their sin, there is only hope for those who die in Christ. In that union with Christ, that is forged by Spirit wrought faith, we have victory over Death. A victory that is ours because Christ has defeated Death in the Resurrection.
Therefore I think it is entirely appropriate to have a healthy respect and fear of death right now. Because death is real. And death hurts. On one hand we need to know that death is a wicked, ruthless, evil part of life. And on the other hand we need to know it is no longer master over us because of Christ. It is something we can enter into with confidence because our Head (Jesus Christ) has gone before us. Death is a somber reminder (at a minimum) of our mortality, our sin, the Fall, and the necessity of Christ as our atonement. There seems little to celebrate in Death. There is everything to celebrate in Christ. If we our looking to put our efforts into a celebration, celebrate Christ and give him the praise that is due. Tell the world that is quick to forget what he has done.
1 Corinthians 15 states:
“For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”” (1 Corinthians 15:53–55 ESV)
Paul mocks death at the end with a victory chant quoting various places in the Old Testament. But that moment is realized in the future. It is when the corruptible human nature, that is prone to decay, disease, and death becomes “imperishable”. It seems that death had the last laugh since Paul died. But in his death, Paul was removed from his body and placed with the risen Christ. One day Paul will be resurrected and when he is clothed in that imperishable body, we can be certain he will cry out with the rest of us “Death where is your victory?!”
Death is very real for us right now. Paul mocks death then why can’t we? We shout triumphantly the victory of Christ over death. So how does that look in life? Death is shown to be defeated when Christ is proclaimed risen and ascended. Death is shown to be defeated in the hope of the believer that isn’t snuffed out. Death is shown to be defeated because Christ is alive.
And rather than mock death with our children dressed as ghouls, goblins, zombies, and devils I find the honorable emphasis on the work of Jesus. My family participates in the festivities with the guidelines, “No skulls, bones, or scary guys.” We can remember the faithfulness of God and that he preserved the Church through the ages. We can celebrate and have fun, but I go in a different direction when it comes to mocking death we celebrate Christ.