For many Christians, Halloween is a deeply disdained holiday. Everything scary and dark and evil comes out and wreaks havoc for a night (or a week). The holiday originated in Celtic lands as Samhain – a day when spirits roamed the earth and the living dressed up in costume to protect themselves. Medieval Christians tried to overcome this pagan holiday with a holiday commemorating the Christian saints of old on November 1 naming it All Saints Day, and the evening before as All Saints Eve or All Hallow (holy) Eve (hence, Halloween).
Today, Christians ask themselves whether it is biblical to carve pumpkins, or to allow their children to dress up or to go out and trick-or-treat, whereas non-Christians often don’t see why there is a fuss. Though there are pagan roots, many non-Christians understand Halloween as simply a time for fun and wear costumes. In contrast, many Christians revile the ‘pagan’ roots and, in particular, Protestants are shocked at the thought of even a holiday ‘worshipping’ saints explaining it away as a Catholic heresy.
Similarly, Protestant missionaries to China in the late 19th century debated the Chinese practice of ancestral veneration. Many saw it as idolatry and called it a ‘Romish’ (that is, ‘Catholic’) practice. Interestingly, this is a debate that Catholics had much earlier in China since Jesuits accepted the practice as a civil and filial act whereas Franciscans rejected the practice as on par with idolatry. It seems as though, for the Catholic missionaries, the problem was around the examples they witnessed – Jesuits mixed with the elite scholar-officials who in fact saw the practice as much more civil and filial whereas Franciscans mixed with more of the masses who could be said to be worshipping their ancestors. This is perhaps why there is a bit of a debate in the Chinese as to whether this is ancestor worship 拜祖 or ancestral veneration 敬祖. In some ways, this is a debate that occurred in the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 about icons, ultimately agreeing that it was legitimate for Christians to venerate saints but not to adore (or worship) saints – an act that could only be offered to God.
I suspect the biggest reason why many Christians, and particularly Protestants, are so worked up by Halloween is for the wrong reasons. Most Westerners today do not in fact think there are spirits roaming around the world, nevermind on the specific day of October 31st. But should Christians theologically consider a stronger continuity between the living and the dead? Many in Asia and Africa do. After all, Christians are taught theologically that salvation overcomes the powers of Satan, Sin, and Death, and that the gospel offers eternal life.
Moreover, it is important to remember the history around the veneration of saints. The Christian practice dates as early as the second century, originally associated with martyrs who suffered and died for their faiths. The memorial of these martyrs was a way to inspire the generations of the living to continue to persevere through the persecution Christians faced. But there is also biblical precedence in this as can be seen in Hebrews 11-12:3. This is arguably similar within the Chinese sense of ancestral veneration that originally was tied to a filial love that continued to parents and ancestors into their deaths – acknowledging the morality and wisdom of one’s forebearers (as opposed to the godly living of one’s forebearers).
Christians should in fact celebrate the Christian lives of those who came before them and, in a sense, venerate those lives as reminders and challenges of how they are to continue to live today. While many Western Christians may be able to look to their own Christian ancestors as inspiration, Chinese Christians who are first-generation Christians would need to look at others as role models.1 What better day to do all this than All Saints Day?