The Connection Between Halloween and Reformation Day

During the first few centuries of the church, it became a custom to honor the legacy of Christians who were martyred or who were significant leaders in the church. You probably know a few of the big ones. The most famous feast day of a saint in America is March 17, which is the day that St. Patrick of Ireland was martyred. Christians have been celebrating All Saints' Day since the 4th century (300s AD), as a way to honor all the saints of God who don't have their own special feast day. Since the 8th century (700s AD), All Saints Day has been observed around this time of year.

But what about Reformation Day? Although the Protestant Reformation had been brewing for several centuries before 1517, it was the German monk and university professor name Martin Luther who ignited a full-blown reforming movement within the Roman Catholic Church that eventually split off the Catholic Church. Oct. 31, 1517 is the famous date that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses (aka "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences") to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It's worth noting that Luther was an academic professor who was looking for an academic debate with scholars and church leaders. He wasn't trying to start a revolution, much less split the church. His 95 Theses were an invitation to a debate, and he posted them on the door of the university chapel where many other notices and university documents were likely posted.

Have you ever wondered why Martin Luther picked Halloween—All Hallows' Eve, the day before All Saints' Day—to post his theses? Luther's decision to post the Theses on Halloween was almost certainly not a coincidence. Here are two reasons why Luther probably chose Halloween. The main reason is found in the 95 Theses themselves. Luther was outraged at how indulgences were being sold by the Church with the promise that paying some money could get a dead loved one out of purgatory sooner. The Roman Catholic Church officially adopted their doctrine of purgatory in 1274, and, thanks to Dante, it had become a very popular doctrine in the 1300s and 1400s. The Catholic Church taught that the extra spiritual Christians were saints who went straight to heaven, but the other 99% of Christians—not saints, but souls—went to purgatory for some extra punishment and extra purification before getting into heaven. Indulgences were sold by the church as a way to shorten the time in purgatory for yourself or a loved one. Luther saw this as a terrible way of taking advantage of the poor and, even worse, a terrible corruption of the gospel.

The other reason Luther probably chose Halloween is closely related to the issue of purgatory and indulgences. Prince Frederick III of Germany was a very pious man, and he had a massive collection of relics. You know what relics are, right? Items that used to belong to a saint. Well, in 1518 Frederick's collection of relics included 17,443 items. In his collection he had, among other things a thumb from St. Anne, a twig from Moses' burning bush, hay of the holy manger, and milk from the Virgin Mary. The French reformer John Calvin later mocked the relic industry as a sham by saying that there were so many pieces from Jesus' cross displayed around Europe that it would take 300 men to carry a cross that big. Be that as it may, on All Saints' Day, Frederick would allow people—for a price—to come venerate his relics in order to escape time in purgatory. It's estimated that a pious person who rendered appropriate devotion to each of Frederick's relics could merit about 2 million years worth of penance. Luther realized that this whole relic thing was a huge racket that was fleecing poor people of their money and actually sending people to hell by obscuring the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

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