Celebrating Halloween in 1517

In the very early 1960’s Halloween meant little more than a costume party at school and cupcakes if October 31st fell during the week. In the greater Detroit area later in the ’60s kids who were too old to beg for candy exchanged ringing doorbells for goodies for a little bit of mischief the night of October 30th; Devil’s Night.

On Devils Night teenagers hung toilet paper over the houses, trees, shrubs, cars, and outbuilding of their friends or favorite grown ups. Getting teepee’d was a sign of popularity. The more you had to clean up on Halloween the bigger the smile on your face as you filled trash bags with damp Charmin tissue.

Other tricks included writing on windows with paraffin sticks. Soap washes off easily but waxy paraffin is a real headache to remove. As an adult I realize that covering windows with paraffin, bricks with peanut butter, and putting Fizzies in a swimming pool was closer to vandalism than innocent fun.

Halloween hasn’t been on my personal radar for decades. We’ve lived out in the country so long that the Trick or Treating of our childhoods is little more than ancient history. But our mailbox has filled in recent years with catalogs primarily devoted to selling expensive Halloween decorations, costumes, and everything needed for themed dining and entertainment. When did Halloween become the second Holiday season and not just a simple children’s party?

Come to think of it, the selection of stuff for Halloween arrives earlier each autumn and rivals the page-volume of catalogs hawking Christmas decorations, themed clothing and accessories, and everything you could possibly use to set the table and populate every surface and wall in your house with winter holiday stuff.

Halloween History and Reformation Day

Halloween has a rich and lengthy history both pagan and Christian. Separating one from the other is like dissecting the warp and woof of silk.  All Halloween customs in the United States originated from practices in other countries. The first modern celebration in North America occurred in 1911.

Christians have long referenced October 31st as All Hallows Eve. October 31, 1517 is also known as Reformation day. That was the day Martin Luther wrote a letter to the Bishop of Mainz containing his Ninety-Five Theses which were eventually tacked to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Recommended book by Martin Luther

Recommended book by Martin Luther

The heart of Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church was the sale of indulgences for the purpose of expediting the transition of a soul caught in purgatory to heaven and the doctrine of a “middle-man” between Christian and Christ.

That the Reformation started with Luther’s protest against this traffic in indulgences proves its religious origin and evangelical character. At issue here was nothing less than the essential character of the gospel, the core of Christianity, the nature of true piety. And Luther was the man who, guided by experience in the life of his own soul, again made people understand the original and true meaning of the gospel of Christ. – Herman Bavinck

What was the foundation of Luther’s radical thought?

“The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24–25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us … Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31).”

Much about Martin Luther’s disposition and later writings about the Jews provide just cause for inquiry and debate, but there is little argument about the role he played in reforming Christian religion – to the extent any religion may be reformed. What is of greatest note is Luther’s insistence that God’s Word is sufficient without interpretation by Pope or priest.

Luther Tried and Condemned

As you can well imagine Luther’s protest did not go unnoticed and was not appreciated by the powerful Catholic ruling class of his day. Luther was charged with heresy among other sins and crimes and was excommunicated by Pope Leo X on 3 January 1521.

On 18 April 1521, Luther appeared as ordered before the Diet of Worms.  The presiding authority was Emperor Charles V  with Johann Eck the prosecutor. Having been bested in debate by Luther in a previous public event Eck had a personal ax to grind.

Johann Eck showed Luther a table covered with copies of his books. Eck asked if the books were his, and whether he stood by their contents. Eck asked if Luther would recant. Luther confirmed that he authored the books, but asked for a 24 hour delay before responding to Eck’s second question. Luther reflected, prayed, and gave this response the next day:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen

Martin Luther was sentenced to death. It became an immediate crime to provide either food or service to him.

Luther’s Daring Abduction and Rescue

Prince Frederick III of Saxony had previously received permission to conduct Luther safely to and from the trial at Worms.  During Luther’s return trip back to Wittenberg he mysteriously disappeared. Frederick III intercepted him in the forest near Wittenberg with masked horsemen intended to appear as armed highwaymen. During Luther’s time in Wartburg under the protection of Frederick III Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German.

Recently I’ve read more of Luther’s less well known books. His observances on liberty and government are really spot on for events transpiring in Washington DC and across this fruited plain today. Many are free as Kindle books. If you are interested, browse Amazon for available titles.

 Halloween in the 21st Century

The histories of Halloween and the Protestant Reformation are well documented for all inquiring minds who just want to know more. But what about Halloween this year and the next? Do you celebrate? If so, with witches, candy, and goblins?

Our Halloween activity is limited to finding special treats for the two adorable girls who live next door. No decorations or parties.

This year I think I’ll spend a little time reflecting on other interesting quotes by Martin Luther:

“God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”

“I am afraid that the schools will prove the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the heart of the youth.”

“Human reason is like a drunken man on horseback; set it up on one side, and it tumbles over on the other”

“All our experience with history should teach us, when we look back, how badly human wisdom is betrayed when it relies on itself”

“Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail”

May you have a blessed Reformation Day.  My three dogs will be getting treats. But then, they get treats every day.

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