Halloween: Why it's a dilemma for some faiths

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This undated product image released by Part City shows a girl wearing a zombie queen costume. Catering to the popular zombie craze, Halloween costumes for young children are getting more grisly. Even costumes that were once benign now have violent twists: The sweet, simple “sock monkey” is now a bloody zombie sock monkey with razor-sharp teeth, sold in sizes small enough for kindergartners. (AP Photo/Party City)

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - Heather Salemink of Lafayette has celebrated Halloween since childhood. She can recall dressing in costume and her dad decorating the house.

So even as a Christian, she never questioned whether her children would celebrate the holiday, too.

"Kids need opportunities to imagine themselves in different worlds," said Salemink, 34. "It's really kind of fun to watch them explore different parts of the world through their imagination. In Christianity, there is so much that requires belief in things that you can't see."

But not all religious groups approach Halloween with such ease and excitement. Controversy still surrounds the holiday, which has origins in ancient Celtic spiritualism.

Some local pastors call the holiday "divisive" and leave it to congregants to decide whether their families celebrate it and to what extent. Other pastors actively discourage participation in Halloween traditions.

There's a spectrum in other religions as well. The more conservative the faith, the more likely its leaders will shun the holiday or point to other celebrations that have similar traditions with stronger religious ties.

For conservative Christians, the controversy lies in Halloween's ties to pagan traditions and beliefs. The holiday celebrated on Oct. 31 dates back to 800 B.C. and was called Samhain (pronounced Sawin) in Irish. It was originally a pre-Christian holiday, observed by ancient Celts, the ancestors of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh.

"They believed that there are all kinds of superior powers in the world," said Frederick Suppe, associate professor of Celtic and medieval history at Ball State University. "They saw everything as a dichotomy, between dark spirits of winter and light spirits of summer."

Ancient Celtic beliefs and practices revolved around that idea that Samhain created a loophole for dark spirits - repelled by the sun during summer months - to return, Suppe told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/Q23bW8 ).

Even Halloween traditions such as jack-o-lanterns, bonfires and bobbing for apples have roots in ancient Celtic practices.

"Fire is a means to imitate the sun," Suppe said. "The jack-o-lantern connects fire with the harvest. You want the good magical influence of the sun to preserve your harvest through winter."

Bonfires were held to imitate the good effects of the sun and keep cattle alive during the winter months. Bobbing for apples was a way ancient Celts let magic decide whom they would marry.

The holiday became Halloween after Christianity spread to this region of the world. The Catholic Church created "All Saints' Day," in honor of the saints, on Nov. 1 and the eve was called "Allhallows Eve," (hallows meaning saints) and eventually shortened to Halloween.

"These old beliefs were adapted to fit into a Christian context and not rival Christianity," Suppe said.

The traditions came to the United States with the influx of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and Wales during the early 19th century.

"A lot of these practices continued," he said. "The church wasn't completely happy about it. It didn't sanction them, but it didn't condemn them either. It's a way for people to let off steam."

But even today some churches do not encourage congregants to celebrate Halloween.

Willie Thompson, senior pastor of Abundant Love Outreach Church in Lafayette, discourages it.

"It deals with the dead being raised, ghosts and goblins and things like that, that we don't associate with spiritually," he said. "We are alive and well in Jesus Christ and not dead."

He said the church offers its children an alternative celebration with games and treats but no costumes.

Although Salemink celebrates Halloween and looks forward to dressing her children in costumes each year, the family shies away from the macabre elements that can be associated with it.

"In some parts of our culture they've gone too far," Salemink said. "They've turned it into something that isn't about having fun. It's more of the horror end of things. I think Christians can object to the horrific. I really wouldn't let my kids choose to be a horror movie character."

Robby Bradford, lead pastor of First Assembly of God in Lafayette, said his church offers a fall party where children can bob for apples, eat candy and play other harvest-related games.

But he lets congregants decide whether they want to celebrate Halloween. "Among Evangelicals, which is a part of Protestantism, Halloween is a divisive issue and not everyone feels the same way. Rather than bring it into the church where you can offend some people we leave it outside ."

Trey Garner, pastor of children's ministries at Faith Church in Lafayette, agreed. "A lot of people have different views on what Halloween should be. We don't think focusing on those issues helps us with our mission."

Faith Church offers an alternative harvest party where children can dress like Bible characters, Garner said.

Other religions may shy away from the holiday as well. Traditionally, Muslims do not approve of Halloween either.

"Halloween, because it has pagan roots and traditions, is not something Islam will approve for its followers," said Aurangzeb, president of the Purdue Muslim Student Association.

There's variance among Jewish believers. Daniel Frank, director of the Jewish Studies Program and professor of philosophy at Purdue University, said from a traditional point of view, Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish festivals, whether it be pagan or Christian.

However, some conservative and reformed Jews may celebrate Halloween as a cultural holiday.

"Orthodox Jews as a typical rule don't celebrate Halloween," said Nora Rubel, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York. "Conservative and reformed Jews can, but it's left to the individual family. It's not just the pagan roots that bother Orthodox Jews but also the Christian roots."

Jews celebrate a holiday called Purim in the spring. Although the origins are different, some of the traditions resemble those celebrated during Halloween. "Kids get dressed up," Rubel said. "There's a lot of revelry and treat giving."

Similar to other Jewish celebrations, Purim recognizes a historical event where the Jews were saved from extermination while living in the ancient Persian Empire. Although it has strong religious ties, it's still a time of reverie, Frank said.

"It's a very happy, raucous and crazy time," he said.

Although a controversy surrounding Halloween and faith may still exist, it has lessened over the years, said Angelica Duran, director of religious studies at Purdue University.

The Catholic Church still has a special mass for All Saints' Day, but overall many Americans have embraced Halloween simply as a cultural holiday devoid of spiritual meaning, she said.

This may be evident in a number of local churches hosting trunk-or-treat events that allows children to dress in costume and trick-or-treat on church grounds.

Salemink's husband, Michael, is the associate pastor at St. James Lutheran Church in Lafayette. The church held a trunk-or-treat event earlier this month and his three sons attended.

"I think there are certain well-meaning Christians who are trying to hinder the influence of secular culture upon the people in their congregations," he said. "I definitely think their hearts are in the right place. But for us, it doesn't have religious undertones. I don't think anybody learns any religious lessons from Halloween."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.