The ’Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at the water cooler.
(RNS) Yes, Oct. 31 is Halloween, a day of candy, costumes and mischief. But it is also Reformation Day, a time when Protestants celebrate the birth of the Protestant Reformation. In the U.S., Reformation Day is mainly marked by Lutherans and members of the Reformed Church. In some churches it has developed into a holiday meant to rival Halloween. But does it? Let us ‘Splain . . .
What does Reformation Day commemorate?
A German scholar and monk named Martin Luther was upset that a representative of the Catholic Church was coming to his hometown of Wittenberg, a little backwater of a town, to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The church planned to sell “indulgences” — a way of winning remission from penance in this life or in purgatory by making a donation to the church. There was a popular saying of the time: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther wasn’t having that, and he wrote down his reasons — his 95 Theses, or grievances against the pope and the church. On Oct. 31, 1517, he nailed them to the door of Castle Church in the center of town.
Luther’s main idea, developed in subsequent years, was this: Man enters heaven not through sacraments like baptism or absolution, but through faith alone — “sola fide,” in the Latin of the church. Luther had five “solas” he believed Christians needed: faith, Scripture, Jesus, grace and glory.
“I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith,” Luther wrote. “Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”
It was like a theological bomb going off. Thanks to the newly invented printing press, Luther’s theses were printed, translated into different languages and spread around Europe. People flocked to Germany to hear Luther speak, the Protestant Reformation was born, and — fast forward — about 70 percent of Americans now identify as some form of Christian.
For all his pain, Luther was excommunicated. But, he married a runaway nun who escaped the convent in a fish barrel, and lived a happy, if poor, life.
Sounds like a party. How is it celebrated?
Some Protestant churches mark the day as Reformation Sunday, and celebrate it on the Sunday just before or just after Oct. 31. More often than not, the hymns sung in church that day include “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” with words and music composed by Luther himself. But most members of Lutheran churches — the direct descendants of Luther’s movement — wait until Oct. 31. And that, as we know, is also Halloween and has led to some creative celebrations for kids.
A lot of Christians — especially evangelicals — don’t celebrate Halloween, not because they prefer Reformation Day, but because they are uncomfortable with Halloween’s pagan roots. Some churches hold costume parades, but instead of witches and ghouls, kids are encouraged to dress in medieval costumes such as those Luther wore. Others are encouraged to dress as characters from the Bible.
There are lots of Reformation Day-specific activities for children — some do an apple bob, with apples carved with symbols representing Luther’s five “solas.” Another game is “pin the beard on the theologian.” There are places where medieval line dancing is part of the fun.
Then there’s the matter of candy. Instead of going from door to door, some Protestants hold “trunk or treats” — walking the kids through the church parking lot, in broad daylight, to collect candy from the trunks of decorated cars.
And while their peers may visit a haunted house, Protestants Lutherans may send their kids to a “judgment house,” also known as a “hell house.” There, instead of moving through rooms with scenes of graveyards and ghosts, children encounter scenes from the Christian version of hell — with flames, pitchforks, devils and torments aplenty.
Fun times! But why is Reformation Day worth all this extra-Halloween hubbub?
Because Luther’s theses were the Protestant big bang. Scholars rank it as the most successful and important religious movement in the Western world, one that changed music, art, architecture, literature and more. All Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians and nondenominational Christians who are not Catholic or Orthodox can trace their denomination’s DNA back to that Wittenberg church door. And note the year in which it happened — 1517. That means next year will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and for that, Germany, Lutherans and Protestants the world over are planning a yearlong party, culminating on Oct. 31, 2017, which just happens to be … Halloween.