“This Is Halloween” is the opening song to Tim Burton’s 1993 stop-motion animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie is set in Halloween Town, a city where the community focuses on Halloween, under the leadership of the Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington.
Tired of the static traditions and longing for something different, Jack is searching for a greater meaning in life. Wandering through the forest, he stumbles upon an entrance into Christmas Town. Then, to expand the holiday traditions in his own town, Jack incorporates the meaning of Christmas into the activities of Halloween Town.
We can learn much from the fruitful search of Jack Skellington. This is Halloween, but Halloween can become something much more when we are open to including the festive spirit of giving and a devoted concern for others.
In the Baptist Standard Oct. 21, Melissa Postell shared the findings of a September 2022 study by Lifeway Research titled “Pastors’ Views on Halloween.” One thousand Protestant pastors participated in a phone survey that yielded some interesting findings: 13% encourage their church members to avoid Halloween completely, and 8% neither encourage nor discourage their congregations regarding involvement in Halloween activities. On the other hand, 71% said they advocate for Christians to invite friends and neighbors to attend church events on or around Halloween. And 58% see advantages of building relationships with trick-or-treaters.
Those who object to participation in Halloween events oftentimes cite its connection to the pagan, Celtic practices of Samhain or the emphasis on horror, witchcraft or demonic activity.
As with all activities, parents need to be cautious about what and how their children participate, but avoidance is rarely a good teacher.
Instead, church leadership and members should continue to explore ways to engage the culture around them. The history of God’s interaction with people is rich with examples of the spiritualizing of a cultural tradition or practice.
For example, many nations of the ancient world practiced circumcision, but the practice was adopted by Abraham and his descendants as a sign of the covenant between them and God. Moreover, baptism has deep roots in ancient Judaism’s mikvah, or purification bathing, but John, Jesus and the developing New Testament church used it as a way to proclaim one’s loyalty to Jesus as king. Jesus himself took the practice of the Passover meal and deepened the symbolic nature to represent his personal sacrifice and our surrender to his transformational power at work in us.
Oftentimes, God takes something prominent in the culture of the day and enhances the symbolic meaning to teach us the deeper truths of faith.
Perhaps at times in our attempt to avoid becoming like the world, we fail to take advantage of the opportunities to live in the world. Especially in light of the trends after the pandemic, where we find fewer people are returning to in-person worship gatherings, it is important for the church to recognize the Great Commission call to “go” into our community with the love and grace of Jesus.
While mobilizing into our community is important, it is even more critical that we do so in the right spirit. The opportunity is missed and the gospel is distorted when it is presented in a self-righteous, arrogant spirit.
We should avoid manipulating Halloween (and all other occasions) as a chance for us to shout condemnation at others, which only further condemns us. Instead, followers of the way of Jesus should exemplify the values of the blessed life: being poor in spirit, meek, merciful, peacemaking. Consider these unique opportunities as you prepare for Halloween:
1. Dress up and receive trick-or-treaters at your home: Weather permitting, get outside, breaking down the barrier of uncertainty about whether you are welcoming company for Halloween. If you cannot be outside, turn your porch light on and sit near the door to receive those who come knocking. If you can sit outdoors, pull up a chair (and maybe even a few extras for your neighbors). Welcome kids and families that come down your street. Compliment their costumes. Ask them to role-play and act out their costumed character. Share your treats with them along with a big smile.
2. Set up a prayer or listening booth: Make a sign asking trick-or-treaters if they would like for you to pray for them or with them about something they are dealing with as they stop by your home. Be available if someone just wants to talk. Some may take you up on it, while others might not. Avoid being pushy. Just being available may open some conversations for others to know you are there if or when they need a friend to talk to. If you have a picnic table set up in the front yard, it might be ideal for this. Be sure to still share your treats with all who come by, regardless of whether they share with you. Another option is to go for a prayer walk while others are trick-or-treating. Silently pray for those who pass by and for the homes you walk past.
3. Host a block party: If you have extra treats, save them and host a party for your small group at church or for the people who live on your street. Invite them over one evening and spend time getting to know each other better. Build community and space for people to belong.
4. Participate in local community activities: We put up dividing walls when we try to have church activities at the same time community events occur. Sometimes we justify these divisions because we think carnivals at churches provide a safe place for kids and families. While this may be our intention, many in our communities do not view churches as safe places and are actually more inclined to participate in community events. So, get out into your community. Offer a helping hand. Set up a booth, welcome attendees or just mingle and engage with others in your town. Be sure to stick around afterward and help with the tear down and clean up.
5. Remember the widows and orphans: Oftentimes we spend holidays with our families. As the holiday season begins with Halloween and continues through New Year, we can become so absorbed with our own families that we forget there are millions of people in America who have no family members to spend the holidays with. Dress up in costume and take candy to a nursing, assisted living or children’s home this year. Go door to door throughout the facility (and do not overlook the staff) and give out the treats you brought. You may be the only one who brings a smile to their faces this Halloween.
6. Support a charity: Many local dentists collect unused candy after Halloween and donate it to Operation Gratitude, which sends the candy in care packages to deployed U.S. troops. Consider going around to your neighbors and asking if they would donate their unused candy. Deliver it to a participating dentist. Other organizations (such as UNICEF) have special campaigns on or around Halloween. Choose one to collect for and ask friends and family to give the cost of a bag of candy to the cause. Post your collection for such an organization on social media.
7. Give a coat: If dressing up is not your thing, consider buying a coat (or an entire outfit) for someone at the local homeless shelter. Instead of a hand-me-down jacket that is well worn from your closet, go out and spend what it would cost to buy a costume and get a nice coat. Take it down to the shelter and explain that instead of dressing up for one night, you wanted to help dress up someone for the entire winter.
These suggestions are merely representative and not exhaustive of the many ways you can use the holiday to share the compassionate love of Jesus with others. Pray and ask God to show you what you can do. Think outside the box. Be extravagant.
God will use your kindness to make a world of difference in the life of someone for the kingdom. As you do, you will experience the “treat” that accompanies sharing God’s goodness with others. Trick-or-Treat!?! Halloween is really how you look at it. Bring the spirit of Christmas Town to Halloween Town.
This is Halloween!
Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, MO., where he currently is starting a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.