Every October, unbeknownst to the Christian community, another religious activity sweeps the rest of the country: the ritual line-up at Starbucks for the return of the Pumpkin Spiced Latte, the sacrament of (finally) extracting sweaters and jackets from the back of the closet, the liturgy of trick-or-treating that defies the #1 parenting rule by encouraging children to take candy from a stranger.
Out of all the seasons there is something about fall, especially in Southern California, a place of seasonal rarity, that signals a significant transition from endless summer to possible breeze and temperatures below seventy-five degrees for its faithful inhabitants. It is a beacon of hope, that Halloween–and thus Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s–will all soon follow in one domino effect of holidays, giving room to breath, a chance to celebrate a short break from life, whether that be school or work. And judging from the entire aisle at Stater Bros dedicated to pumpkin-spiced everything, I think it’s safe to say that our country embraces this transition with a pious devotion to the traditions surrounding the arrival of cool weather.
Perhaps the reason we Californians love this season so dearly is because our lack of change in environment reflects the restlessness that accompanies our day-to-day procedures. By this point, students and parents are settled into their routines. For everyone else, life has simply been ongoing, nonstop, for too long. Fall means the holiday season is finally upon us, and the first of these celebrations is, of course, Halloween.
Yet while the rest of the country is decorating their front yards with styrofoam gravestones and inflatable ghosts, we as a church celebrate something entirely unrelated to cobwebs and confectionary: Reformation Day. While Martin Luther has long slid into the shadows behind the commercial hype of Halloween, we Christians still remember his work and celebrate the Reformation of the Protestant Church. At our church, this will be done through the 3rd annual Children’s Ministry event “Trunk or Treat.”
Cathy Chang, the director of Children’s Ministry, is in charge of organizing this major event. Her vision, Chang says, is to provide local kids with an alternative to trick or treating with a gospel focus. Family participation and church-wide effort goes into this mission, as volunteers of all ages will be helping at the event. It is both a fun, festive opportunity for the children of New Life to celebrate Reformation Day, as well as a chance to open the church’s doors to the surrounding neighborhood of Fullerton.
Growing up in a “very Korean church”, Chang experienced disapproval by church elders of Halloween traditions. Now, as a mother of two young girls, she wants to teach them the Christian roots behind Halloween without limiting them from its cultural experience. For Chang, trick-or-treating and dressing up are harmless aspects of American culture surrounding the holiday; she even admits that her husband, Pastor Will Chang, “loves Halloween” almost as much as her children. Both parents choose to embrace the present generation’s interpretation of Halloween with a heart of “living in the world but not of the world.”
Lauren Choi, College Ministry staff and mother of three children, also celebrates Reformation Day with her family through church events. Her view on Halloween, however, stems from wishing to truly remain out of conformity with the world. In her household, there is no explicit celebration of Halloween typical to American culture. Upon pressure by co-workers to dress up every year and join their fun, Choi chooses to steer away from going along with the crowd. “I don’t like that fact,” she says about having to follow the secular culture of Halloween. “I don’t like having to celebrate it with the world. But because everyone does it, you have to cooperate. If you don’t, people think you’re weird.”
Choi’s daughters, Andee and Karen Choi, express little concern about fitting in with peers at school to participate in secular Halloween activities. “We didn’t grow up with it, so we didn’t mind not dressing up,” says Andee Choi. She attributes this to having the “same mindset” as their mother towards the holiday.
Children, it seems, are not the only ones affected by this standard of cultural celebration. It may be easy to see it as merely a childhood festivity, but from Universal Horror Night to office costume parties, no age group is left untouched by the excitement surrounding Halloween.
Sam Lee, a former management consultant, gives his take on the meaning of Halloween in the workplace versus the church. “It’s really innocuous,” he says. “It’s about who has the best costume, or the best parties…the main distinction is that it has a different purpose, to energize people to get back to work, so that they like their job more.” Lee’s view is that Halloween in a secular setting is more of an end in itself, a means of escaping the daily routine of work rather than a celebration of the meaning behind the holiday. “For us,” he says, speaking on behalf of Christians, “It’s a reminder of all the good things God has given us. A reminder of what’s real here. We have something bigger in mind than just ‘having a good time.’”
Lee also points out that Halloween is a cultural holiday unique to Christians in North America. “We have to get rid of the assumption that Halloween is a ‘bad thing’”, he says. “It’s an American thing. Christians in other countries won’t celebrate it. We have to find ways to appreciate the culture.”
While Reformation Day may be all but forgotten in other parts of the world, Halloween is the one holiday that refreshes our memory of an event long tucked into the dusty corner of a theology textbook. Thanks to those seasonal Walmart aisles of family pack Hersheys and racks of polyester Iron Man suits, we get a chance once a year to remember the work of God through His servant in reforming the church to where we are today. The very ability to celebrate is a blessing and a privilege given to us by our Father, who commands us “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
God-glorifying celebration is a gift we all can boast of having in the midst of broken people struggling to find meaning, seeking a way out of life’s mundanity, just getting by each day to make their way to the next one.
So if you want to take up this opportunity to enjoy Reformation Day/Halloween as a Christian, come check out Trunk or Treat on Saturday, October 27th. See the cute kids, play with the animals at the petting zoo, eat cotton candy. Immerse yourself in a communal celebration of Reformation Day by the body of Christ, and thank God that we have something even greater to celebrate everyday.