HALLOWEEN: ORTHODOXY AND SECULAR CULTURE
by Fr. John Moses
Below is an talk given by our priest, Father John Moses,
at the 2004 Southern Missions Conference held at the
St. John of Shanghai & San Francisco
Russian Orthodox Outside Of Russia Chapel
in Mobile, Alabama
On the evening before October 19 (Nov. 2), 1964, the Russian Church Abroad celebrated the solemn canonization of Father John of Kronstadt, whom Vladyka John Maximovitch loved. Vladyka had even been involved in compiling of the service and akathist to him.
A group of Russians organized on this night a Halloween Ball. When the All Night Vigil celebrated to St. John of Kronstadt began, many people were absent, to the great sorrow of Vladyka. After the service, St. John went to the place where the ball was being held. He entered the hall and the music stopped as Vladyka, in absolute silence, glared at the people, and with his staff in hand, he slowly walked around the entire hall. He didn't speak, but the sight of Vladyka brought general consternation to the party. Vladyka left but the next day in church he called all to the devout Christian life.
In some ways, talking to an Orthodox group about Halloween is like what we use to call "preaching to the choir." In other words, non-participation in Halloween should be a "no-brainer." Yet, I believe that the issue of Halloween is an example of a more fundamental struggle between Orthodoxy and the secular spirit of our age. What I hope to accomplish in this speech is for us to begin to understand the cause and the nature of this struggle and begin to gain some idea of how to deal with it.
First, on the slim chance that some of you are unfamiliar with its origin, I will present some basic facts about Halloween. Fr. Victor Potapov relates this history: "The feast of Halloween began among the Celtic peoples of Britain, Ireland, and northern France. These pagan peoples believed that physical life was born from death. Therefore, they celebrated the beginning of the "new year" in the fall (on the eve of October 31 and into the day of November 1), when they believed, the season of cold, darkness, decay and death began. The Celts believed that a certain deity, whom they called Samhain, [pronounced - sow-in ] was the Lord of Death. To him they gave honor at their New Year's festival.
Many beliefs and practices were associated with this feast, which have endured to this current time. On the eve of the New Year's festival, the Druids, who were the priests of the Celtic cult, instructed their people to extinguish all hearth fires and lights. On the evening of the festival they ignited a huge bonfire built from oak branches, which they believed to be sacred. Upon this fire, they offered burnt sacrifices of crops, animals, and even human beings to appease and cajole Samhain, the lord of Death. They also believed that Samhain, being pleased by their faithful offerings, allowed the souls of the dead to return to homes for a festal visit on this day. This belief led to the ritual practice of wandering about in the dark dressed in costumes indicating ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, fairies and demons. The living entered into fellowship and communion with their dead by this ritual act of imitation, through costume and the wandering about in the darkness, even as the souls of the dead were believed to wander.
The dialogue of "trick or treat" is integral to Halloween beliefs and practices. The souls of the dead had--by Celtic tradition--entered into the world of darkness, decay, and death. They bore the affliction of great hunger on their festal visit. This belief brought about the practice of begging as another Celtic ritual imitation of the dead. The implication was that any souls of the dead and their imitators who are not appeased with "treats", i.e. offerings, will provoke the wrath of Samhain, whose angels and servants (the souls and human imitators) could retaliate through a system of "tricks" or curses. One radio commentator takes great fun in calling Halloween, "Begoween."
The sacred fire was the fire of the New Year was taken home to rekindle lights and hearth fires. This developed into the practice of the Jack O Lantern (in the U.S.A.; a pumpkin, in older days other vegetables were used), which was carved in imitation of the dead and used to convey the new light and fire to the home, where the lantern was left burning throughout the night.
Divination was also part of this ancient Celtic festival. After the fire had died out the Druids examined the remains of the main sacrifices, hoping to foretell the coming year's events. The Halloween festival was the proper night for sorcery, fortune telling, divination, games of chance, and Satan worship and witchcraft in the later Middle Ages."
The Church responds
"In the strictly Orthodox early Celtic Church, the holy Fathers tried to counteract this pagan new year festival that honored the Lord of Death, by establishing the Feast of All Saints on the same day. (It differs in the East, where the Feast of All Saints is celebrated on the Sunday following Pentecost). The custom of the Celtic Church was for the faithful Christians to attend a vigil service and a morning celebration of the Holy Eucharist. This custom created the term Halloween. The Old English of "All Hallow E'en", i.e., the eve commemorating all those who were hallowed (sanctified) became Halloween.
The remaining pagan and therefore anti-Christian people, whose paganism had become deeply intertwined with the Occult, Satanism and Magic, reacted to the Church's attempt to supplant their festival by increased fervor on this evening. The early medieval Halloween became the supreme feast of the Occult, a night and day witchcraft, demonism, sorcery and Satanism of all kinds. Many practices involved desecration and mockery of Christian practices and beliefs. Costumes of skeletons developed as a mockery of the Church's reverence for Holy Relics; Holy things were stolen, such as crosses and the Reserved Sacrament, and used perversely in sacrilegious ways. The practice of begging became a system of persecution to harass Christians who were, by their beliefs, unable to participate with offerings to those who served the Lord of Death. The Western Church's attempt failed, to supplant this pagan festival with the Feast of All Saints."
"The ancient Slavic counterpart to Halloween in ancient Russia was Navy Dien' (Old Slavonic for the dead "nav" ), which was also called Radunitsa and celebrated in the spring. To supplant it, the Eastern Church attached this feast to Easter, for celebration on Tuesday of Saint Thomas ' Week (second week after Easter). The Church also changed the name of the feast into Radonitsa, from Russian "radost" - joy, of Easter and of the resurrection from the dead of the whole manhood of Jesus Christ. Gradually Radunitsa yielded to Easter's greater importance and became less popular. And many dark practices from old Russian pagan feasts (Semik, Kupalo, Rusalia and some aspects of the Maslennitsa) still survived till the beginning of our century. Now they are gone, but the atheist authorities used to try to reanimate them. Another "harmless" feast--May 1, proclaimed "the international worker's day" is a simple renaming the old satanic feast of Walpurgis Night (night of April 30 into the day of May 1), the yearly demonic Sabbath during which all participants united in "a fellowship of Satan"."
The Modern Context
When we try to protest to our neighbors, our schools, and even many of our own Orthodox brethren about the origin of Halloween, we usually get indifference and humor. Most who observe Halloween laugh at any suggestion that they are participating in evil, or honoring Samhain, or entertaining dead spirits.
As an example, let me quote from an article "Hallowing Halloween-Why Christians should embrace the "devilish" holiday with gusto—and laughter." by Anderson M. Rearick III. After ridiculing various statements of fellow church members about the evils of Halloween, he writes,
"I have always considered Halloween a day to celebrate the imagination, to become for a short time something wonderful and strange, smelling of grease paint, to taste sweets that are permissible only once a year. How wonderful to be with other children dressed up as what they might grow up to be, what they wished they could be, or even what they secretly feared. All of us, dreams and nightmares, were brought together on equal footing, going from door to door to be given treats and admired for our creativity. How delightful to go to parties with doughnuts, apples, brown cider, and pumpkin cakes—and to hear spine-tingling ghost stories and feel our hearts skip a beat when the teller grabbed for us."
Dr. Rearick concludes with the idea that we shouldn't abandon Halloween to the dark side of satanists and Wiccans. We should "reclaim the season" just as we did with Christmas. Therefore Halloween can be seen as a time to laugh at Satan and make fun of him and to rejoice in Christ's victory over death and demons. The only real reason that we are reluctant to join the party is because Christianity fears the use and development of imagination.
My Methodist mother would point out that I had, in days prior to Orthodoxy, participated in Halloween. Where was the harm? I had watched all the Frankenstein, Werewolf, and Dracula movies, trick-or-treated, and had dress up as everything from a bum to the Mummy. Had this turned me into a satanist or devotee of Samhain? My mother would agree with Dr. Rearick. Why deprive children of a chance to use their imagination and engage in harmless fun?
While an Orthodox Christian may disagree with Dr. Rearick's (and my Mother's) analysis, we must face the fact that we now have a change in context, a new way of seeing the world. This is no longer a druid world governed by Samhain, devils, the walking dead, and evil spirits, and Satan. It is a brave new world of human hopes, dreams, ambitions, and fears. It is a place of imagination and celebration. It is a world where God, and in particular the God of Orthodoxy, has been pushed to the side and made irrelevant. A new order has arisen with a new way of seeing things and this worldview informs every aspect of modern western life. In short, we call this worldview "secularism."
Novus Ordo Seclorum
Webster defines secularism as "indifference to or rejection of religion and religious considerations." While we may object to the hedonism and materialism of our day, these are not new to this world. There have always been those who loved pleasure more than God and who placed their material well-being above their spiritual life. What is most important here is the word " indifference,' and it draws its life from a basic an all-pervasive idea: all truth, especially religious truth, is relative. Fr. Seraphim Rose spoke of this new philosophy. He used the word "Nihilism", and called it the basic philosophy of the 20th century.
Maybe you've read this quote. It illustrates the indifferent spirit of our age.
If I were the devil
By Paul Harvey
• I would gain control of the most powerful nation in the world;
• I would delude their minds into thinking that they had come from man's effort, instead of God's blessings;
• I would promote an attitude of loving things and using people, instead of the other way around;
• I would dupe entire states into relying on gambling for their state revenue;
• I would convince people that character is not an issue when it comes to leadership;
• I would make it legal to take the life of unborn babies;
• I would make it socially acceptable to take one's own life, and invent machines to make it convenient;
• I would cheapen human life as much as possible so that the life of animals are valued more than human beings;
• I would take God out of the schools, where even the mention of His name was grounds for a lawsuit;
• I would come up with drugs that sedate the mind and target the young, and I would get sports heroes to advertise them;
• I would get control of the media, so that every night I could pollute the mind of every family member with my agenda;
• I would attack the family, the backbone of any nation.
• I would make divorce acceptable and easy, even fashionable. If the family crumbles, so does the nation;
• I would compel people to express their most depraved fantasies on canvas and movie screens, and I would call it art;
• I would convince the world that people are born homosexuals, and that their lifestyles should be accepted and marveled;
• I would convince the people that right and wrong are determined by a few who call themselves authorities and refer to their agenda as politically correct;
• I would persuade people that the church is irrelevant and out of date, and the Bible is for the naive;
• I would dull the minds of Christians, and make them believe that prayer is not important, and that faithfulness and obedience are optional;
• I guess I would leave things pretty much the way they are.
We should remember that in the past paganism was a religious phenomenon. There was a common ground and a common theological language between pagan society and the Church. The Roman soldier torturing you might be a pagan, but he was a god-fearing man who attended the temple with his family, had two chariots in the garage, attended sporting events at the coliseum, and even had an altar in his house. Of course, he called Christianity atheism, and he would kill you for believing it.
Today's modern pagans are also "god-fearing people." They might attend church with family, have two cars in the garage, attend or watch sporting events, etc, Concerning the religion of others, they are tolerant because "after all, there is no real difference between us." Though a member of a denomination, the modern secular pagan is prideful of the fact that he really believes that denominations are in fact of no real consequence. To the mind of the modern secular pagan, the more absolute the claim to truth, the more irrelevant it seems to the cares and concerns of modern life. Is it any wonder then that to these modern folk, Halloween is no big deal?
Such is the world in which we now live and those who claim the Orthodox Faith undertake a unique challenge. Never before have Christians lived in a society that is secular by design and intention. Because we do not address our worldliness we can, on a Saturday night hold a Halloween party instead of going to Vigil. It isn't until St. John walks in our midst and looks at us with those piecing eyes that we suddenly feel the presence of that other world, the Kingdom of God, and we begin to sense our utter conformity to the world.
The Lord said, "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that shouldest keep them from evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." (John 17:15-16) How is it possible to accomplish this?
First, we need to repent. Well, we hear this all the time in Church, but I propose that we must go deeper than just feeling sorry about the situation. The Greek word for repentance is "metanoia" which means a "change of mind."
St. Paul tells us that we should not be conformed to this world, but transformed by "the renewing of our minds." This means that we strive to gain the mind of Christ, an Orthodox mind. Fr. Seraphim believed that modern man could not come to Christ fully until he was first aware of how much the world had changed. Instead of just criticizing the world, we must recognize the Nihilism (or secular spirit) in ourselves. "The Nihilism of our age exists in all," he wrote, " and those who do not, with the aid of God, choose to combat it in the name of the fullness of Being of the living God, are swallowed up in it already.
In his book, For the Life of the World, Fr. Schmemann describes this change of mind and what it could mean for us:
"Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress: -not of God's existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is some kind of heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is a negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act that both 'posits' his humanity and fulfills it."Like Fr. Seraphim, Fr. Schmemann is saying that we must gain an Orthodox mindset. And what is this mindset? It is a rejection of the indifference of plagues modern life. It means strive to live each moment as if we truly believe that the Holy Spirit "is everywhere present and fillest all things."
The entire world becomes vehicle of God's appearing and there is no sphere of life without His presence. "It is meet and right to sing to Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of thy dominion..." How did the Psalmist say it?
O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought from afar.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou has beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me...
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend into heaven, thou art there.
If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
Orthodox worship is not just a private matter. It is a rejection of the duality of the modern secular world – a duality that says, God is here, but He is not there. The goal of my striving is to become a sacramental man, who sees the entire universe as a place of God's appearing. That means that family and work and leisure are not separate places apart from God.
True repentance is never an easy thing to accomplish, and gaining an Orthodox mindset in this world will not be easy either. As a priest, I see my people struggling with the confusion of trying to live an Orthodox life in a today's world.
I was going to school in England when I first met the Orthodox community at Durham University. These students came from all over the Orthodox world. I met my first archimandrite there and my first archpriest. One thing I remember is that they all seemed curious about how it was possible to live as a Christian such a secular and pluralistic country as the USA. I was a Methodist then, but I had to admit that I didn't have a ready answer. I would guess however that if trends continue as they are, and as the secularism and materialism of the West continue to conquer the East, they too might have to struggle to find an answer. God help them.
The Tools of Repentance
Holy Orthodoxy and the Church have given us the tools to transform our minds. All are contained within Holy Tradition: attending Church, fasting, prayer, the reading of Scripture, the reading of the lives of the Saints, and the teachings of the Fathers, all these things can work to make us holy people. It isn't enough to just possess the tools, we must actually use the tools if we are to build anything of lasting value.
Often people ask me why the Orthodox Church repeats things so much, "Paxi-paxi" (Slavonic for "again & again")
This is what I tell them: How do I know the following so well?
My bologna has a first name, its O-S-C-A-R.
My bologna has a second name, its M-E-Y-E-R.
Oh, I love to eat it everyday,
And if you ask me why, I'll say
'Cause Oscar Meyer has a way
How do I know it so well after so many years? Because I heard it sung by some child over and over and over again on the TV and the radio. Fifth Ave. believes wholeheartedly in "again and again."
Perhaps if I read the morning prayers often enough, I would know the prayers as well as the Oscar Meyer song. Maybe, having learned them by heart, I might begin to dwell upon words and ponder them. Maybe, I would allow the words to sink in and become a part of me. Maybe, just maybe, by the Grace of God found in these prayers, I might actually begin to think the way an Orthodox Christian should think.
As a priest, and as your Orthodox brother, this is what disturbs me when people are habitually absent from Vigil. This is what disturbs me when folks confess laxity in prayer, reading, and fasting. I wonder how any of us will be able to resist the power of worldly conformity when we simply will not lift the shield of faith or put on the helmet of salvation to protect ourselves.
Enjoying the Fruits of Repentance
So, we must have the desire to see worldliness in ourselves, and we must use the tools that Orthodoxy gives us. Is there anything left?
Years ago, I made the observation that people would attend faithfully attend Church services despite the fact that they had to wash their clothes in the river, gather their food from the fields, make their own clothes, harness the horse, cook from scratch, etc. Goodness, where did they find the time to go to Church so much? Now, in this wonderful modern world, we are "blessed" with time-saving and labor-saving devices: dishwashers, clothes washers, canned and prepared foods, ready made clothes, fast cars, etc. Yet, even with this timesaving technology, it seems that we have less time for spiritual life than our predecessors.
What has happened?
I heard it said once that today the Devil majors in three things: noise, crowds, and hurry.
Certainly, silence has virtually disappeared from our lives. "Crowds" doesn't simply mean a lot of people, but it means entertainment, spectacles, and diversion. We have certainly have an abundance of it in this country. I could speak at length upon each of these, but I want to deal mainly with the issue of hurry.
To enjoy the fruits of repentance, we must deal with the issues of priority and time. This is what "hurry" is all about. The pace of life has quickened, and this why, even with our technology, we have less time than before. Listen, I know we are tired, I know that our lives are full, and I know that we grow weary of hearing priests complain about why we aren't more faithful.
All I want to say is that if we do not set our priorities to make the Kingdom of God first before all things, the world will set our priorities for us. If we do not commit the time necessary to enjoy the fruits of holiness, the world will take away what little time we have. If we do not seek a place of silence, the world will inundate us with noise. If we do not strive to be transformed, conformity will surely overtake us.
The choice is ours. Yet, if we do not choose, the choice will be made for us.
Perhaps, you feel that I have gone a bit far from the topic of Halloween. Possibly, but to piously say to our beloved pagans that we don't celebrate because we are "not of this world" (i.e. Orthodox) is laughable if we are as worldly as they are. By worldly, I don't mean that we participate in the gross sins of the flesh. But if we are also hurried, concerned with success, fretting over money, fretting over possessions, constantly seeking entertainment, constantly filling our lives with noise, putting God in a Sunday morning box, finding little place for Him in the weekday cycle of work and family – then they will see the truth - we are just as pagan as they are. Our protests about Halloween will fail to convince anyone.
You see, it's a matter or witness by word and style of living. We must witness to the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of the only true God; that all things were made by him, and for him. Christ holds all things together and by him all things consist. He is Word of God, the source of all truth, beauty, and love. Any culture, tradition or nation, even a secular one cannot limit him.
This must be our Orthodoxy, and to believe it and to witness it is to truly become a "fool for Christ." Never has it been more foolish than it is today to be an Orthodox witness in the secular world of today. It is for this witness then that we don't participate in Halloween.
By non-participation in Halloween, we refuse to acquiesce to the greatest and most subtle trick of the Devil. In Dr. Rearick's world, the Devil does not exist, or if he does, he is simply nothing more than something to laugh at. Modern media has made horror fun. Video games desensitized the mind by making images of evil commonplace and part of our playtime. This is similar to what Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote about in his book, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. Fr. Rose believed that if you took the entire psychic phenomenon - from something as benign as the TV series Star Trek to the "Gnostic Christianity" of psychic gurus such as Sylvia Browne - the mind of humanity is being subtly prepared to receive the guidance of "beings of higher intelligence." These beings could be spiritual guides that channel through us, or they could be riding on UFOs. In reality, Fr. Seraphim believed, this mental conditioning is preparation for the Antichrist.
Whether or not you agree, with Fr. Seraphim's analysis, Halloween, as it is practiced rejoices in the irrelevance of spiritual evil. Today, spiritual evil is but a concept, and a dated one at that. Like all religious truth it is relative, and is thought to lie solely in the inner psychological landscape of the individual. Therefore, it is a matter of therapy and is of little importance to the cares and striving of the modern, pagan and secular world.
So, I don't participate, but with that alone, I shouldn't congratulate myself. What is more important is that I attain to stillness and salvation.
If I do, "ten thousand around me will be saved." I doubt that loudly protesting Halloween will accomplish as much.
I end with these words from Abba Pambo:
"In those times the love for God in most souls will grow cold and a great sadness will fall onto the world. One nation shall face-off against another. Peoples will move away from their own places. Rulers will be confused. The clergy will be thrown into anarchy, and the monks will be inclined more to negligence. The church leaders will consider useless anything concerned with salvation, as much for their own souls as for the souls of their flocks, and they will despise any such concern. All will show eagerness and energy for every matter regarding their dining table and their appetites. They'll be lazy in their prayers and casual in their criticisms. As for the lives and teachings of the Holy Fathers, they'll not have any interest to imitate them, nor even to hear them. But rather they will complain and say, "if we had lived in those times, then we'd have behaved like that." And the Bishops shall give way to the powerful of the world, giving answers on different matters only after taking gifts from everywhere and consulting the rational logic of the academics. The poor man's rights will not be defended; they'll afflict widows and harass orphans. Debauchery will permeate these people. Most won't believe in God; they'll hate each other and devour one another like beasts. The one will steal from the other; they'll be drunk and will walk about as blind.
His disciple again asked, "Abba, what can we do in such a state?"
And Elder Pambo answered, "My child, in these times whoever will save his soul and prompt others to be saved will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven."