31 Days of Halloween with Slay — Day 22, Guest Post — The Forbidden Holiday

Many of our readers are familiar with Liz BR from her fabulous “The Myth of Modesty” series Persephone ran a few months ago. She offered to contribute to my Halloween series as someone who wasn’t allowed to celebrate the holiday when she was growing up and I knew I wanted to include her perspective.  – Slay

When I was a kid, I was not allowed to celebrate Halloween.

I was 18 years old before I carved a pumpkin for the first time, and even then it felt a little bit like rebellion. When my mom, who runs a small hospital gift shop, stocks Halloween decor, I ask myself, “Is this really the same person who made us change the channel whenever a children’s show did a Halloween-themed episode?” When it’s time to pick out my two-year-old daughter’s costume (this year, she’s going as a butterfly named Benji), I am reminded that such an activity was strictly forbidden when I was her age.

There are three ways to address the forbiddance of Halloween in my childhood. I can look at it from a scholarly perspective, I can approach it with false melancholic regret, or I can fully embrace it. The problem: none of those options are satisfactory.

The scholarly approach requires me to look at the moral and religious reasons that many evangelical churches discourage or even prohibit the celebration of Halloween among their congregants. The movement to ban Halloween, which launched a thousand “Harvest Festivals,” was probably at its height when I was a child in the 1980s. Much of it traces back to evangelist Mike Warnke, who wrote extensively of his past as a “high priest of Satanism.” In the 1970s and ’80s, Warnke terrified parents with his stories connecting Satan worship and “the Devil’s holiday.” It wasn’t until the ’90s that his memoir Satan Seller was completely debunked by Cornerstone magazine, a periodical published by a bunch of Christian hippies called the “Jesus People.”  But by then, Warnke’s crusade against Halloween had taken root. He had appeared on Oprah and Larry King, and to most evangelicals, he represented the very specific dangers of celebrating Halloween.

By the time Warnke lost his credibility, churches were no longer putting haunted houses or sending their kids out to trick-or-treat in neighborhoods. There are still echoes of the anti-Halloween movement online and in some churches that continue to mark the holiday as satanic. The best example I’ve seen of literature that explains the religious beliefs of my church from when I was a kid is this introduction to the history of Halloween from Chick Tracts. It says the holiday traces back to Celtic priests in the earliest post-Christ centuries. These Druids celebrated their new year on November 1 and, according to the Chick article and everything I was told in Sunday School, celebrated the night before by making human sacrifices and going door to door to dressed as demons to demand feasts and gifts. Celebrating Halloween means celebrating this darkness. My own church saw it not just as a holiday with a frightening past, but as a dangerous glorification of fear, darkness, and spiritual oppression. From that perspective, how could anyone allow their children to participate?

But what about the fact that Halloween as it is celebrated today has so little in common with those roots, even if they are accurate? I can paint a pretty pathetic picture of the emotional fallout of banning Halloween if I want to. Imagine the scene: I am eight years old. I sit in the school library with my little sister and two other friends whose families attend our church. For the Halloween parade, all of the children dress up in their costumes and dance around the school in a sort of conga-line, led by our typically-dour principal. The library is open concept in the center of the school, so the four of us sit and watch as our friends laugh and skip down the hallway. I love all matters of dressing up, so I feel an intense pang of jealousy as I watch them. My friend Greg and I have been making our way to this library together every October since the first grade. We know the routine. How the librarian in charge of supervising us must pity us as we draw faces on notebook paper and turn them into “masks” that we press against our faces in what feels a lot like rule-breaking.

Here’s the thing: I don’t actually feel sad when I bring up those memories. Like any writer who remembers the emotional chaos that is childhood, I can get sad about a lot of little moments in my past. The memory of sitting in the school library while my classmates have fun without me, though? I don’t feel even the slightest twinge of negative emotion. It’s probably because some of the best memories of my childhood are associated with the Hallelujah Party, our yearly “Halloween alternative.”

Four young girls dressed in religious costumes
Me (in the middle) with my little sister and friends at a Hallelujah Party in the early ’90s.

The Hallelujah Party was the biggest night of the year to those of us in Children’s Church. We got to dress up as Bible characters and try to “Stump the Pastor.” We got huge bags of candy that the church had stockpiled in the weeks leading up to the event – I always scored far more than my trick-or-treating friends. Our Sunday School classrooms were transformed into magical spaces where we could decorate cookies with endless piles of sugar icing or color on the paper-covered walls with highlighters that shone under blacklights. One year, the entire church basement was transformed into a whale to re-tell the story of Jonah, and it was almost identical to a child’s haunted house: dark rooms as the belly of the whale, water sprayed on us to make us feel like we were getting drenched with whale saliva, our hands reached into cooked spaghetti and peeled grapes to represent what else might have been floating around with Jonah. There was a cardboard box maze that had to be crawled through in order to escape, unscathed, from the monster. It. Was. Awesome.

I didn’t suffer from a lack of great costumes, either. One year, Mom dyed my hair gray and bought me a fake beard. I was Boaz while my best friend was his wife, Ruth. Another year, I wore the same beard and pulled behind me a wagon of stuffed animals – I was Noah. The best costume I ever wore was a one-sleeved satin dress that Mom sewed for me. My friends and I went as Egyptian princesses who rescued baby Moses from the river. While the other girls at church went repeatedly as Queen Esther, I scoured the Bible for interesting characters, male or female, to portray. By far the most irreverent costume I donned was that of Jezebel. I put on a fancy dress and jewelry and my friends accompanied me as dogs – yes, my costume at a party that was supposed to glorify God instead of the devil was of a woman whose body was eventually eaten by dogs.

The Hallelujah Party was the definitive church experience of my youth. Paying attention all year in Sunday School to find the perfect Bible character undoubtedly solidified those stories in my mind. Running wild through the church halls with my friends, covering those papered walls with highlighters and markers, stuffing myself with overloaded sugar cookies, sorting and trading my candy stash with my siblings at the kitchen table – the memories are all associated with sheer joy.

Yet, I can’t fully accept those memories as perfect because they are predicated upon a religious belief that I think is, well, fairly ridiculous. (If you want to abandon a religion based on its pagan history, you might want to look at the roots of most of our Christmas traditions.) I can’t create the same experiences for my daughter, no matter how hard I try, because they were so subconsciously linked to the fact that we all knew that this party made us different from our friends. We knew and understood that this world – the world of the Hallelujah Party and Bible character costumes and way more candy than any of our classmates got – was just ours. I don’t want to create a world for my daughter where she feels a distinct separation between the church and the world. I want her to know that there is no real difference between the sacred and the secular things in life – that being a Christian, if she chooses to be one, is not dependent upon barricading oneself off from the rest of the world and refusing to walk in the Halloween parade.

These days, years after my family transitioned from fundamentalist Christianity to a pretty left-wing, progressive version of the Christian faith, we all celebrate Halloween. We are the people that we pitied when our church told us that donning a costume and trick-or-treating was celebrating the devil. It doesn’t feel that bad over on this side, but I’ll tell you what. It does leave me with an awfully weird feeling every Halloween.

9 replies on “31 Days of Halloween with Slay — Day 22, Guest Post — The Forbidden Holiday”

I also grew up in the ultra-religious world, and we did NOT celebrate Halloween. Sure, we’d give out candy to the trick or treaters, and we’d do the church-based Fall/Harvest/Hallelujah party, but with minimal/”safe” costumes. Basically what LizBR describes was my childhood, too.

My sister hated it the most, because her birthday is a few days before Halloween and she could never have a party — because if she had a party, people would assume it was for Halloween, and they’d show up in costumes and bring Satan into our lives.

Personally, I remember my mom getting hysterical a few times — once when I was in second grade, she was upset that my teacher FORCED US ALL to wear costumes (I think what really happened was that we were given the option to dress as our favorite book character, and a letter was sent home letting parents know that costumes were allowed, but it wasn’t as clear as it could have been). I wasn’t even allowed to watch the Halloween specials for the Simpsons or Charlie Brown or the “Haunted Mansion” segment on a Disney World video (which one of the kids my mom babysat kept at our house).
Later, when I was in high school, I was at a friend’s for the weekend (despite that she was a “bad influence”; apparently I was “good” enough my parents hoped I’d keep her out of trouble and lead her to real, not-Catholic Jesus) and went along with her when she went trick or treating. It wasn’t as fun as I’d expected, probably because I was terrified of getting caught or finding out that the Rapture happened and everyone but me and my sister had been taken (because my sister rejected Christianity when she was in high school, and I had been blatantly SINNING by trick or treating).

Of course, these days, I’m much more relaxed about things. I like scary movies, I’m not freaked out by costumes (though I tend toward lazy, like “oh yeah I’m totally a hippie”, and I’m sorta-planning on a Weeping Angel costume in the future). The candy is the best. I’m going to “help” Fella hand out candy at his house this year, which means we will laze around and laugh at his parrot and give out about five pieces of candy and eat the rest ourselves.

Oh so that’s a harvest festival. A couple of years ago we had a small movement that got into the national media because they had made pamphlets about how horrible Halloween was. The majority was just a bit ‘Oh those people’ and it’s the first time I heard about people hating on Halloween.

But hey, that’s probably because Halloween is still trying to happen over here.

Excellent and thoughtful, as always. (The “Modesty” series had me checking in 3x per day.)

This article left me with two main thoughts:

1) I had never heard that interpretation of the pagan beginnings of Halloween. I had always heard that it was a celtic ritual in which people left sweet “cakes” on their doorstep for spirits to eat and wore costumes (for lack of a better word) in order to confuse the aforementioned spirits, Samhain being the night when spirits could cross over. (If anyone sees this and goes, “She is super confused,” please correct me. I love mythology and ritual in all forms.)

2) Having had friends and family members who celebrated in the same way you did, I’ve always wanted to ask the following question: Isn’t it the exact same celebration, except with the Bible? It has all the trappings of traditional Halloween (costumes, candy, a little bit of fear), but is biblical. Isn’t the adoption and reinterpretation of the holiday just a reinforcement of it with a thin veneer of religion? It’s always had a hint of hypocrisy and judgment to me, the idea that you can call something “devil worship,” but that’s not what WE’RE doing, because we have the Bible and are with fellow churchgoers.

Also, I just realized that Day 22 = October 22nd. Where has this month gone????

Thanks for your comment! I think you bring up two good points/questions.

Regarding the origins of Halloween: I think that a lot of what evangelicals believe about Halloween are, well, made up. Whether that is from the influence of Mike Warnke or other “scholars,” I think it’s a given that the evangelical interpretation of the origins of Halloween is not really trustworthy. I think what I wrote is definitely a commonly taught message in certain churches, but I don’t think it’s really legitimate or accurate.

As far as your question about whether or not the Hallelujah Party was essentially the same thing–yes. And no.

Our church was actually one of the rare churches that actually allowed costumes. My friends grew up with Harvest Parties where kids didn’t get to wear costumes, because that was too close to Halloween.

I think that for many Christians, a lot can be traced back to who is “getting the glory.” Halloween “gives the glory” to Satan, while something like a Hallelujah Party “gives the glory” to God. By breaking the traditions JUST enough to say it’s something different, and by telling the children that what they are doing is separate from Halloween and separate from a focus on the devil, it becomes safe.

There are definitely a lot of people who drew a very different line in terms of celebrating Halloween. I’m sure there were people in our church who felt that the celebration was too close to the holiday. There were probably others who thought the whole thing was pretty silly. Overall, though, the consensus was that this was a way to keep kids from doing the truly dangerous things that Halloween could lead to–trick or treating (being exposed to predators and Satanists), dressing in scary/satanic costumes, playing games related to witchcraft or satanism, etc.

Of course, this is coming from my interpretation based on childhood memories and an adulthood filled with questioning my evangelical roots, so it could be a bit off.

You are pretty spot on with what samhain is BTW.

The references to human sacrifice (I think in other contexts btw!) are in early materials only really found by immediately post conquest Roman writings, ones that were written to justify the expense of expansion into the iron rich but weather wise hostile area. Similar things were written about the people we would later call the vikings. It’s a pretty common Roman MO when talking about people they are actively conquering- and the reports decline after the population has been absorbed into the roman empire as citizens.

But the Roman occupation of Celtic lands, while influential, ended basically because it was the best place to pull out of when Rome was having trouble maintaining the empire. It was on the edges of the empire, and wasn’t as easy to maintain as some other holdings.

(OT continuation that is basically info dump.)
There’s a decent gap between Roman withdraw and the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and yet unless you really dig into it a lot of history books skip over it because there’s less historical (though a decent archaeological) record that can be substantiated beyond lists of names. After that we get the Norman invasion which is basically the people from normandy who, like those in the Isles, were a number of generations back interbreeding (but not necessarily intermarrying) with the same groups of people who invaded the isles in the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Which likely started, btw, as trading expeditions according to the archaeological evidence.

‘Samhain’ is also just the Irish (Gaelic) word for ‘November’; Hallowe’en is ‘Oiche Shamhna’ i.e.: ‘Samhain night’. It’s similar in Scottish Gaelic and Manx, though with different spellings.

I didn’t think, though, that the Anglo-Saxons had much to do with it – even today it’s not as big in England as it is in Ireland, the English tend to go for Guy Fawkes’ night instead.

Leave a Reply