All Candy, No Jesus: Halloween in America

Recently, a spate of articles appeared mocking Jesus Ween, an evangelical alternative to the “ungodly images and evil characters” we celebrate each year on October 31. Reading one, I felt a little bad for the Jesus Weeners. Even though I tend to poke fun, there are times when the super-earnest are snark objects and I feel a little bad on their behalf, since they’re as defenseless as newborn lambs. (I also felt sad for Harold Camping recently when his apocalypse didn’t go through.)

It got me thinking about the odd cultural bird that is Halloween—America’s number two holiday in terms of money spent—a holiday with deep “pagan” or “old religion” roots and the site of two Catholic feast days commemorating our dead friends and allies: All Souls’ Day on November 1, and All Saints’ Day on November 2. As a bonus, October 31 marks the kickoff of the Reformation, when Luther posted his theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, in large part to protest the Church’s sale of indulgences.

Halloween is a little troublesome to me as well—mostly because it’s just gotten so commercial. I like it as more of a handcrafted, neighborhoody children’s frolic, rather than an excuse to litter yards with icky vinyl inflatables and for adults to wear embarrassing, shoddy costumes. My aesthetic objections are not on a par with those who find the holiday objectionable on soul-threatening grounds, but still. I kinda get it.

So I recently turned to Dillon Burroughs, co-author of The Facts on Halloween, who pointed out that in fact church-sponsored alternative Halloween celebrations already exist: “Harvest Festivals” are prominent in the South, while “Trunk-or-Treats” (a.k.a. Halloween tailgating, which appeals to those who want a “safer” trick-or-treating experience for their children) involves a bunch of cars in a parking lot, sometimes with theme parties. Burroughs noted that:

Many of the old stereotypes regarding spiritism are typically removed with the exceptions of some ‘scary’ costumes and horror films (which most Christians still dislike). Even many Christian families see no problem with their children in costumes and walking door to door for candy. The concern has traditionally been with the celebration of evil or evil spirits. When these concerns are excluded, then there is typically less resistance.

Regarding Jesus Ween, he added:

I applaud the desire to make the day more about Jesus, but I don’t know if blending the name of Halloween with the name of Jesus or wearing white instead of another costume is really helping. However, their focus on Bible distribution and evangelism on Halloween is nothing new and certainly something Christians would generally encourage.

So where does one draw the line between “fun” and “evil?” Angie Schuller Wyatt, a third-generation pastor and granddaughter of Robert Schuller, said:

I was raised by a pastor, and my parents focused on dressing up, goodies, and family time. We weren’t allowed to be witches, warlocks, or the devil as these are not fictional characters. They are real characters who represent a religion contrary to Christianity. Halloween can be an opportunity to educate children about good and evil, without becoming fanatical.

Of Jesus Ween she pointed out that:

to pretend that Halloween is suddenly Christian is just silly. And, from a theological position it doesn’t make sense. For Christians, everything we do is Christian, because it’s our way of life. It’s who we are. If you’re a Christian, then exercise, work, and shopping are all Christian activities. So, people poke fun of Jesus Ween just as they would poke fun at Jesus Mall, or Jesus Gym.

When I asked one of those “not-fictional characters,” Eric Scott, self-identified “Alexandrian Wiccan who also practices Asatru, Taoism, and Thelemite Kaballah, depending on what’s clicking for me that day,” if he’s ever been mocked for his beliefs, he said that:

When I was in college and living in the dorms, we weren’t allowed to have knives—safety hazard. So I had a wooden athame that I bought from the St. Louis Hari-Krishna temple that I used instead. My roommates found no end of amusement in this; they kept stealing it to use as a letter opener. (They also didn’t seem to realize that the athame was a tool, not a god.) I don’t hold that against them, though; they were jackasses, but I knew that when I moved in with them.

He continued:

I had a boss once who, although he was a hard-drinkin’, threesome-havin’, warmongerin’ kind of guy, was also very, very Christian. When he found out I was pagan, he would give me trouble about it on occasion. At one point, he mentioned that he thought we were both in the wrong religions: “I mean, you’re a hippie treehugger pacifist, and I’m all for kicking some ass and drinking some mead. You ought to be worshiping Jesus, and I ought to be worshiping Thor.”

Why does Wiccan Eric think that the Jesus Weeners are getting so roundly mocked? “Jesus Ween isn’t about anything other than ‘uh, Jesus is cool, and Halloween is evil.’ Well, if you’re the kind of person who’s going to consider celebrating Jesus Ween in the first place, you already think Jesus is cool.” He added that since Halloween is “a day of taboo-breaking, even for those who are not pagan,” Jesus Weeners might be seen as fun-trouncers.

Miguel de la Torre, Professor of Social Ethics at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, relayed a story told to him by a Protestant pastor. This man was in Mexico doing missionary work and had, for many years, refused to participate in annual Day of the Dead celebrations. He complained about the money that the people spent on candles and lamented their engagement with what he saw as “evil.” However, the year his father died, he reluctantly went to the cemetery. As the night went on, the pastor “lit candles, told stories of his father, and saw that as a healing moment and began to develop relationships with the people.”

We Americans don’t like to talk about death or the dead, though, really. Our bodies are disappearing in clouds of ash and our oldish cemeteries crumble, untended. One of my aunts recently offered to send me some old letters and a picture of her parents if I wanted them, and I was thrilled. I told her I don’t actually have a picture of my grandparents. A Catholic brother, Jeffrey Gros, told me that since most English-speaking American Catholics no longer practice the old-world customs, and “since many Protestants have difficulty with Catholic practices around prayer to the saints and prayers for the dead, our practices around All Saints’ and All Souls’ days have drifted in very different directions, leaving more space for the secular, non-religious practices around these festivals: Halloween.”

Catholicism is certainly more death-oriented in general than Protestantism—witness the basic difference between the bloody Jesus of Rome and the bare cross of the Reformers. Perhaps the religious elements of Halloween have perished in America because thinking about the dead, and therefore our impending deaths, is something we don’t, as a country, like.

Brother Gros said: “I don’t know about Jesus Ween, or its critics, but [I] can imagine Christians finding it somewhat strange that other Christians don’t know the religious origins of Halloween, and try to compete with it rather than restore the religious meeting of All Saints’. It looks, to us, like trying to create an alternative to Christmas, rather than restoring the focus on Christ’s birth.”

He added that “all Christians honor the sainted living and dead and recall souls who have gone before, even when they ritualize that honor differently. Creating a competing commemoration just because it has been secularized seems odd, though understandable for communities that do not know their own history, or the theology of the wider Christian community.”

Would today’s Halloween-loving Charlie Brown, lamenting the commercialization of his favorite holiday, hold a tiny, solo celebration in a grim, unfruitful pumpkin patch, only to be surprised by the gang throwing a full-bore Dia de los Muertos fete? No. They’d probably just throw on their sheets and go trick-or-treating, only to find that most of the houses on their block have their lights off and won’t answer the door.