October 31 is it Halloween, All Saints, or Reformation?
The answer is...it depends on what your preference is.
HALLOWEEN: What is Halloween? At its core Halloween is a “Holy Day” since literally the word holiday means Holy Day. Yet our consumerist culture has ably converted this holy day into an overindulgent fright fest capped off with candy. Yet Halloween wasn’t always this way. For many centuries it was a Christian celebration that replaced a combination of differing traditions from the ancient Celts “Samhein” festival to the Romans “Feralia” festival. Both festivals centered on recognizing the onset of winter and its imminent threat of death as well as recalling those who had died in previous years. That scary outlook of winter and death is where all these scary symbols of Halloween come from: bats, black cats, witches, goblins, mummies etc. Various ways of warding off these scary things during the Celtic or Roman festivals consisted of vast bonfires or bribing evil spirits to stay away by providing food or sweets. Thus, enter the “trick or treat” aspect of Halloween. Costume parties, fright fests, and candy consumption sell well which is probably why our society prefers the consumerist celebration of Oct 31 over the more Christ centered options. (see below)
ALL SAINTS: Christianity didn’t become legal in the Roman Empire until 313 AD. Just a generation later in 370 A.D. Christianity went from outlaw religion to the Empire’s official religion. Even with this fortunate turn of events the Christian community remembered the sacrifice so many believers had made for the past 300 years. In fact, in the persecution of Christians in 311 A.D. tens of thousands of faithful had died. Their sacrifice kept the faith alive and made converting an empire possible. Therefore, it was no surprise when the Bishop of Rome in 373 A.D. set aside a day to remember those who had died for their faith. These folks were known as martyrs or saints and so the Holy Day was to celebrate “All the Saints.” While the origin of All Saints Day starts independent of Celtic and Roman traditions it was eventually influenced by those traditions when the day of All Saints was moved to Nov. 1st in the 7th century under Pope Boniface IV. The coinciding of a Christian Holiday on the same day as a Celtic/Roman festival eventually resulted in all these various celebrations somewhat merging into “Halloween.” The night before All Saints Day was known as “All HALLOWED Saints EVE.” Eventually the populous shortened that mouthful to “Hallowed Eve.” We today shorten the phrase to “Halloween.” The contraction of various words that has become “Halloween” appropriately captures the sense of melding that’s happened amongst these European celebrations.
REFORMATION: By the 15th century the festival of All Saints Day had become a major Christian celebration only surpassed by the celebration of Christmas and Easter. The exaltation of a festival memorializing the faithfully departed makes sense when one considers it was an age of short life spans. Many areas experienced widespread outbreaks of Bubonic plague! Into this setting steps an Augustinian monk, named Martin Luther. Luther questions the authority of the most powerful and perhaps wealthiest man on the planet at that time, the Pope
Luther objects to the Pope’s claim of authority to “create saints.” The Pope was charging people for the right to receive a forgiveness certificate called an “indulgence.” This essentially gave them a spot in heaven (the equivalent of sainthood). Luther posted this objection along with an invitation to debate him on the subject on All Hallowed Eve, Oct. 31, 1517. He posted it on the community bulletin board in Wittenberg which just happened to be the doors of the church located at the center of town. Because of a recent invention known as the printing press, Luther’s objections went “viral.” Soon people joined him in protesting the abuses of the Pope. Eventually, the protestors would split off from the Roman Catholic Church and become known as “Protestants.” Thus, for Lutherans, Reformation Day, October 31, is the “birthday” of the Lutheran church.
For most Americans Oct. 31 is just a trick or treat Halloween occasion. For many protestant Christians Oct. 31 is a day to celebrate the rebirth of grace- based Christianity. Hopefully, for Lutherans Oct 31 is not only a day to celebrate the rebirth of grace-based Christianity but also an opportunity to celebrate the birth and heritage of the Lutheran church itself.