A brief theology of Halloween

Guest post today from the editors of the SALT Project, a lively and thoughtful resource for pastors and church folk. They have some thoughts about Halloween …

The name itself comes from “All Hallows’ Eve,” of course, a carnival-like inversion celebrating the shadow side of life – ghosts and ghouls and such – just before the great festival celebrating the saints. Its deep roots may well include folk traditions of honoring the dead, appeasing evil spirits, and marking the end of the summer harvest and the beginning (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least) of the darkest days of the year.

But whatever its origins, Halloween today is worth thinking about. It’s become one of the most popular holidays in North America (second only to Christmas), and at its best, it’s a magical, playful night of community-building and neighborhood-making. From this point of view, we might even call it a sacramental glimpse, if only for one night, of how the world is supposed to be: homes decked out in mischievous fun, doors opened to visitors of all ages, a spirit of wit and excitement in the air, and simple, sweet gifts given to children – all children, not just “our” children! – dressed up as heroes and villains alike.

It’s easy to grumble about “all that sugar,” “marauding teenagers,” “a waste of time” and so forth. But think of it: when else do we intentionally spend this kind of time together as a community? When else do we do something as a neighborhood that’s this intergenerational? This open to all? This playful, goofy and plain old fun? When else do our yards and doors open to so many? And when else are so many gifts given out – often by strangers, to strangers – just for the sake of delight?

And there’s an even deeper side to all of this, too: in many neighborhoods, lines of social division – segregated lines of race and class, for example – are often crossed on Halloween night. In such moments, Halloween can become an all-too-brief time of sharing experiences and resources, catching sight of a true “commonwealth” too often obscured from view on the other 364 nights of the year. And what’s more, there’s now some intriguing social science showing a strong correlation between a community’s health and the extent to which it celebrates Halloween.

At its best, then, Halloween amounts to a vivid portrait of what “neighborhood” actually looks like. That alone is worth celebrating. And after all, what better way to honor the dead, prepare to celebrate the saints, and enter together the darkest time of the year than to embody – with equal parts creativity and joy – the “loving our neighbors as ourselves” to which Jesus calls us every day?

Those mini peppermint patties never tasted so good!

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