While the family photos of friends and their children in some really terrific All Hallows Eve costumes in my Facebook news feed are a fading memory, I keep wishing that “Halloween,” like so many other holidays, wasn’t so commercialized.
I know that’s an easy criticism to make, but looking at the close proximity of U.S. Thanksgiving and Christmas, I can’t help it. With the decline of agriculturally centered communities here in the U.S., autumn holidays are still about taking time for celebration and leisure, but most of our time is spent hosting and attending small neighborly or family get-togethers rather than community-wide harvest festivals.
I am a student of the historical, sociological, cultural and religious background to the special days that dot both our liturgical and civic calendars. Here, in the depths of autumn, we are in the midst of a season of celebrations that, symbolically speaking, are about harvest, justice, dying and the hope of new life.
At different points in history, Christians have rejected holidays that have roots in non-Christian religious practices but that have become part of Christianity due to creative and commercial interests. Rejection isn’t the only option, though.
As European mission workers of old encountered indigenous peoples and their cultures for the first time, they also experienced new ways of celebrating common experiences. For some missionaries, such celebrations actually served as bridges between the particularity of a culture and the universality of the gospel.
Rather than the old debates that Christians get into about the spiritual appropriateness of Halloween on the one hand and the glaring imperialism of Thanksgiving on the other, I am advocating that we step back and consider the deeper significance of autumn festivals.
We’ve just passed through “Allhallowstide,” which begins with All Hallows Eve, followed by All Souls and All Saints Day.
Most of us probably don’t realize this trio of observances is connected to a global tradition of honoring those who have died. This tradition includes Dia de los Muertos in Latin America, Japan’s Obon and other regional variations of the cycle of All Hallows (Saints) Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
These three days of remembrance and reflection on death have a lot to offer Christians as we consider our own mortality and the structural and physical forms of violence and evil that cost people their lives and that can be just as difficult to talk about as death itself.
Such festivals also prepare us for Thanksgiving, a time for expressing our gratitude for the ways our physical and spiritual needs have been met, and ultimately acknowledge that all we have means nothing unless we are willing to share what we have with others in the way the Samaritan helped the man on the road to Jericho.
Society teaches us to remember soldiers who have died in war. But what about those who have died because of domestic violence, social rivalries, suicide, traffic accidents, because they lived on the street or because they lacked access to good health care?
When we Mennonites use the moments our broader culture offers us to have a different conversation about how and why people have died in the past year, we are also creating new opportunities to share with others, within and beyond the church.
Malinda Elizabeth Berry is assistant professor of theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.