As we approach the 31st of October, I wanted to share a few thoughts that have been mulling around in my mind like a spiced cider over the past few years. The following is a rambling assortment of serious concerns that I have had about the American ritual of Halloween, and a few of the reasons why I, my family, and St. John's Orthodox Academy choose not to observe it:
As many of you are already aware from previous messages about this time of year from Orthodox clergy, St. John's Orthodox Academy strongly discourages our students, families, and teachers from taking part in the American tradition called "Halloween", which is a horribly truncated, commercialized perversion of a Roman Catholic feast day called All Hallow's Eve. Regardless of what other Western Christians choose to do on the evening of 31 October, it should be known to even the most nominal Orthodox Christian that our Church calendar (in both of its versions: Julian (old) and Revised Julian (new)) puts a very different emphasis on this date.
On the Julian Calendar, this is the evening before the Feast of one of the greatest Russian Saints of the twentieth century, St. John of Kronstadt; and on the Revised Julian Calendar it is the evening before the Feast of two of the greatest healer-saints in all of sacred history: the Holy Wonderworkers and Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian. We Orthodox Christians can be thankful that our Tradition does not include - on any day of the liturgical year! - anything like "Halloween", a semi-pagan distortion of old European rituals meant to comfort souls in the next world by placating demons in this one.
Instead of some veiled dalliance with Satanic forces, we Orthodox Christians already have more than enough celebrate on the evening of 31 December. There should be no justification whatsoever, apart from laziness, ignorance or spiritual rebellion, that a true son or daughter of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Conqueror of Death and Hell, should participate in any way in the dubious rituals of Halloween, whether surreptitiously, begrudgingly or in the shameful resignation that "This is America, so let's just have fun with the rest of kids and do what everybody else does".
If we do not believe that our conscious participation in such rituals brings us into mystical communion with in the orgy of commercialism, the celebration of monstrosity, the exaltation of false theology (ghosts, goblins, vampires, zombies), the subtle encouragement of black magic, the apotheosis of gluttony, greed, and blackmail that is the inverted communion ceremony of "trick or treat," which occurs on Halloween night, then we might as well stop believing that ANY ceremony, ritual, or rite in which we participate can influence the human soul.
We might as well stop believing that a ritual like Holy Baptism is any more than a rather old-fashioned way to take a bath, or that the Orthodox marriage ceremony is anything more than an ornate way to "hook up" with a person whom we fancy to be an adequate sexual partner for the next few years. We might as well stop believing that Holy Communion has the power to grant eternal life, and that it is "nothing more than" a nice snack of bread and wine which follows an hour and a half of standing in front of some old religious pictures. If we say something like, "I'm going to do Halloween this year, but I'm not really celebrating all of the wicked and sinister symbolism that comes with this ritual; I'm just in it for the free candy", then we might as well just stop believing in the invisible, mystical power of symbols and rituals altogether.
Everything we do is spiritual. Everything! So, if even our most mundane, seemingly "non-religious" deeds actually have eternal consequences, how much more do repeated, annual, ritualized events like Halloween, no matter how innocuous they appear?
I am not against celebrating American holidays. Far from it! I believe that participating in the symbolic virtues and values of many civil holidays is an important way to show Christian love for one's community. Indeed, I am proud to say that my Winslow ancestors were partly responsible for initiating the celebration of the first Thanksgiving in this country. I have always been deeply convinced that, on a mystical level, no other deed - not the signing of the Declaration of Independence, nor the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, nor World War II - have contributed more to the success and greatness of our country than the fact that we have consciously set aside one day year for the sole purpose of giving thanks to our Creator on Thanksgiving Day.
The problem with Halloween is that all of the other American holidays seem to bolster some important ethical value, or encourage some wonderful virtue, whether that virtue be gratitude (on Thanksgiving), or generosity (on Christmas), or patriotism (on St. Patrick's Day & July Fourth), or love (on Valentine's Day), or new life (at Easter) or an assortment of other virtues on minor holidays like Veteran's Day, Labor Day, et al. Halloween is the ONLY day which almost exclusively celebrates vice, viciousness, and rampant consumerism. There is essentially nothing good about this pseudo-holiday. I suppose you could make the case the a handful of folks actually do perform some perfunctory actions to honor their dead relatives on All Hallows Eve at graveyards or cemeteries (which is quite common in pious Catholic countries like Poland and Ireland), but you know as well as I do that for the vast majority of Americans this is just not the case. Dead relatives are the farthest thing on any kid's mind on this night, and if they are, then it is in the weird and wicked guise of ghouls, ghosts and goblins rather than as souls in need of our solemn prayers and loving entreaties to Christ the King for their salvation.
All of the other holidays on the American civil calendar at least make a polite nod to some virtue or another, but, Halloween exists for the sole sake of teaching children that it can sometimes be good to escape reality by mocking and misconstruing the true nature of death. At Halloween, with all of its images of distorted human visages, its undead personages, its werewolves and vampires, its strange and devilish twist on what happens to departed souls in the afterlife, the whole notion of death becomes more of a silly cartoon than the solemn consummation of a precious human life that it really is.
Plus, if you think about it, it's also the only "holiday" in the entire year when you have a very good chance of becoming the victim of what can only be called proto-terrorism: your car might get egged, your tree toilet-papered or your windows soaped with filthy words if you're unfortunate enough to choose to decline from that weirdly mafia-like ritual of blackmail called "trick or treat". Why people think it's OK to instill, even as an annual gag, the basic patterns for blackmail and threat in their children's psyche, I fail to grasp.
With a perspective,
*Spelled holloween as it is a hollow feast.