Halloween has been a night about spirits and ghosts for over a millennium. But in the early part of the 16th century, the holiday underwent a revamping. The story goes that on All Hallows Eve in 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the church, marking the first Reformation Day. But why do it on Halloween?
I'm glad you asked. For hundreds of years before Luther, the Catholic Church hated Halloween because it was believed to have pagan roots. In order to oppose the spreading of it, Pope Gregory IV started All Saints Day on November 1st in the year 835. Posting the 95 thesis on this day was an intentional effort to stir up the papacy. Nailing it to the doors of the church the day before All Saints Day made sense, because it was one of the biggest days of the church year and would be seen by lots of eyeballs. Fun Fact: the church in Wittenberg was commonly referred to as The Church of All Saints.
The 95 thesis was predominately railing against the selling of indulgences- which were pieces of paper to get you (or your loved one) out of purgatory and into heaven. Thesis 86 says, "Why does the Pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" Ouch. The problem with indulgences for Luther (other than stripping poor people of their money) is that they suggested that anything other than God's grace alone would land us in heaven. What's more, part of the festival of All Saints Day in Wittenberg also included viewing ancient relics, which were items that we said to have belonged to Saints of old. Similar to indulgences, it was believed that viewing these relics could shorten your time in purgatory. Luther was undoubtedly against this practice as well, and perhaps his posting his letter to the Pope on Halloween was also his protest to the local community.
And forever since, Lutherans and Halloween have been taken together. Luther intentionally used the holiday as his vehicle to the Reformation to "frighten" the Pope into a dialogue. A conversation he was never fully granted.
The pagans believed that Halloween was a day for conversation between the living and the dead. They believed that October 31st was the last day of the year, when the door between the land of the living and the land of the dead was opened so that old souls could seek resolution to their lives on earth. And, after the dead had said their piece, the idea was that the living would wear masks and costumes to scare them back to their own world. How Spiderman and Snow White became acceptable costumes for the task: I'm not sure.
But I do know this. In Mexico, All Saints day is called Día de los Muertos or "Day of the Dead," which is a conglomeration of Halloween and All Saints Day. And from what I have seen, this is predominately happy celebration. Every year our men's mission trip was met with the awesome site of Día de los Muertos, where thousands of people gathered in cemeteries, bringing sugar skulls, flowers, and colorful garments to the grave-site of their loved ones. It's about honoring the previous generations, recounting their lives and remembering what they taught us.
Halloween and Reformation Day ought to inspire us in the same way. We have a lot to learn from all the Saints that came before us. And yet, we do not live in the past. We must also live with the "spirit" of Luther and perpetually work for a better church and a brighter future. The future shouldn't be scary for our young trick-or-treaters.
So grab your small catechism and your Spiderman mask: it's going to be a long night.
Pastor Daniel Pugh