What would happen if churches tried to reclaim All Hallows' Eve as their own?

Greetings, GetReligion readers on this All Hallows' Eve.

If, by chance, you live in a small town or city somewhere in Middle America -- especially in a deep-red Bible Belt zip code -- there is a pretty good chance that your newspaper this morning contains a news-you-can-use item that starts something like this one. The headline: "Fall festivals and Halloween alternatives in the Oklahoma City area."

There's still time to visit fall festivals and Halloween alternative activities offered by area churches during the Halloween season. The following events, set for Saturday, are free, unless otherwise noted:
* Fall Festival, 6:30 to 8 p.m., Portland Avenue Baptist Church. ...
* Trunk or Treat, 6 to 8 p.m., Memorial Presbyterian Church. ...
* Trunk or Treat, 1 to 3 p.m., Trinity Baptist Church. ...
* Trunk or Treat, 6 to 8 p.m., Capitol Hill Assembly of God. ...
* FestiFall, 4 to 6 p.m., Putnam City Baptist Church. ... Big inflatables, candy, games in the building and a hayride will be offered. Parents must accompany children. Costumes welcome; scary costumes are discouraged. 

This list goes on and on, as do the many others like it. You can see the basic cultural DNA that is at work here, especially in the instructions with that Baptist FestiFall item. The key is that these churches are offering, basically, two different approaches to avoiding, or almost avoiding, the growing sort-of secular tsunami (about $6.9 billion in spending this year) called Halloween.

What's up with this? That was the topic of my Universal syndicate "On Religion" column this week, which "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I then discussed in this week's GetReligion podcast. Click here to tune that in.

You see, some religious believers are trying to avoid the unsafe or troubling elements of Halloween (thus, the growing "Trunk or Treat" phenomenon), while others are convinced that Halloween itself is, doctrinally speaking, fatally flawed. Many of the folks in this second camp, if pushed to describe their discomfort, would probably use the word "pagan" in their answers.

You can see this struggle going on in the results of a new survey from LifeWay Research:

"It's hard to know precisely what people mean when they use a word like ‘pagan.' For many people, it means anything that's ungodly or disturbing," said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research. "That's what some Americans think Halloween has become -- a clash between good and evil."
A recent LifeWay telephone survey, he said, found that 21 percent of Americans have decided to avoid Halloween altogether, while 14 percent specifically try to avoid "pagan" elements of the festivities. Nearly 60 percent said Halloween is "all in good fun," while 6 percent of survey participants were "not sure" what they thought. ...
Religious beliefs and practice affect this discussion, with Americans who attend church once a week or more being the least likely -- at 44 percent -- to say Halloween is "all in good fun." Those who identified as nonreligious were the most likely -- at 75 percent -- to embrace Halloween and the least likely to avoid it.

Now, this takes us into the history of this holiday, which is complicated -- especially when one digs into what early Celts did or didn't do in pre-Christian times.

But one thing is certain: Halloween is another way of saying All Hallows' Eve, as in the day before the very important rites of All Saints Day, in Western Christian traditions. (For the Orthodox, our All Saints Day is elsewhere on the liturgical calendar, usually in June.)

Now, back to some basic Internet searches. What is interesting is that you will find all kinds of Halloween material and searchers will also find stories about All Saints Day. What you will not find, in almost all cases, is information about events that -- in keeping with CENTURIES of Christian tradition -- link the festivities of All Hallows' Eve with the rites of All Saints Day.

In my research for the column, I ran into this 2014 article -- "It's Time for Catholics to Embrace Halloween" -- by Father Steve Grunow of the Word on Fire ministry, near Chicago. I found what he had to say quite interesting, so I called him up to talk. What he had to say opened the door to the discussions at the heart of this week's podcast.

The key: Churches need to find a way to affirm what All Hallows' Eve meant in the past, while rejecting the "violent, macabre" and materialistic pop-culture themes that dominate today's secular holiday. In other words, it's time to try to do something positive, using the materials from church history. Thus:

Yes, this would require priests to talk to their flocks about "what it really means for Catholics to party," he said, and perhaps offer some suggestions for how participants in these festivities should and shouldn't dress. Digging into their own traditions, people could dress as saints, kings, queens, bishops, martyrs and other heroes of the faith.
Rather than "locking our churches up and going dark on Halloween," Catholics could return to the streets in festive parades and processions with candles, incense and religious art, said Grunow. These festivities would then flow into the liturgical rites of All Saints' Day, building a positive bridge between "reverie and the reverence."
"We used to be good at this. We were really good at this for centuries," he said. "Rather than being trapped in all the negatives that we see in the secular Halloween all around us, why don't we start doing something positive and then offer that to the public? We could try."

So, if you are a churchgoer, what is your church doing tonight? What is it doing tomorrow for All Saints Day? What's the connection?

Journalists, there is a story here. And -- hint, hint -- this is also linked to all of those public-square wars over Nativity scenes. Hold that thought. 

Enjoy the podcast.

IMAGE: A procession into All Saints Day rites in Medieval Europe.

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