Halloween, Martyrology, Chinese Ancestral Veneration


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?

  1. See a number of good examples in G. Wright Doyle, ed., Builders of the Chinese Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015). 

5 thoughts on “Halloween, Martyrology, Chinese Ancestral Veneration

  1. I guess it really depends upon how different groups believe what it is meant in their minds and hearts. … Like St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:7 regarding eating certain food, “But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.”….

    In this line of Paul’s theological reasoning, each individual’s faith and conscience does somehow define the nature of our activities and actions. Paul here gives a maximum degree of freedom and flexibility to each individual’s conscience and choice??! Paul is obviously awesome!! The forefather of the reformer and protestant of church dogmatism and intellectual monopoly.

    1. Well, yes, there seems to be in the Bible a sense in which the knowledge and the experiences of a person shape the responsibilities demanded of that person. Hence the distinction of what seems to be two means of salvation in Romans 2:12-29. Or as Uncle Ben tells Spiderman, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’

      1. Yes. in Romans 2:29 particularly, … “and circumcision is the circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by written code.”

        However, I do not understand what you mean by “two means of salvation” from this passage. Is Paul here talking about the ways or means of salvation? I thought he is talking about the law and the Jews. Which are the two means of salvation in your understanding? I thought Pau is going to expose and establish his theology on salvation is by faith alone a little later on in the book (the righteous will live by faith. Abraham believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. …. so that no one is able to boast before the LORD.

        I am interested in how Chinese Christianized minds are able to contribute to Christian theology of this age and serve the needs and demands of people in this global village, giving that Chinese minds, in the past two thousand years, have been indoctrinated for long by Confucianism rules and laws, and now transformed by Christ and the Spirit. There must be something that Chinese christian thinkers are called to give uniquely and creatively to the world. Like Martin Buber wrote: “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique. “It is the duty of every person in Israel to know and consider that he is unique in the world in his particular character and that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there has been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world. ….” The Way of Man by Martin Buber
        Love it!

      2. In context, the Romans passage is about Jews vs. Gentiles. However, many commentators express that what is spoken of for Gentiles is a kind of conscience which can, as the law for Jews, in some ways lead to God.

        With regards to the Chinese Christian bit… I totally agree. See the next post!

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