A mighty fortress is our God: that other holiday on Oct. 31

Joel van der Veen
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When I was growing up, there was one event we looked forward to every fall, right at the end of October. For us, it was an annual tradition, an evening of mischief and treats, a celebration to share with our friends.

Of course, I’m talking about Oct. 31 — Reformation Day.

I realize this might require some explanation for those of you who didn’t hang out with the cool crowd, so bear with me.

For Protestant Christians, especially members of the Lutheran and Reformed churches, Oct. 31, or the closest Sunday to it, is celebrated as Reformation Day each year in honour of the events that sparked the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

At the time, German monk Martin Luther was increasingly upset over some of the Catholic Church’s teachings, including those regarding baptism and absolution from sins.

He was particularly angry over the sale of indulgences by corrupt priests, who claimed that financial donations would guarantee the release of a relative or loved one’s soul from purgatory.

Luther argued that the forgiveness of sins was a matter of grace, and that those selling indulgences were, at best, in error, and at worst, intentionally misleading believers for monetary gain.

He wrote a protest against these and other clerical abuses, popularly known as the 95 Theses, and in what historians now recognize as one of the earliest Halloween pranks, nailed it to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany on Oct. 31, 1517.

(Allegations that Luther followed this up by smashing pumpkins against the altar and unrolling toilet paper over the bishop’s horse are as yet unproven.)

This and other events gradually led to a wide schism in the church throughout the 16th century, resulting in the establishment of Protestant congregations.

Now, fast forward approximately 485 years to when I was growing up in Peterborough, Ont., and attending the local Christian Reformed Church with my family.

I’d be exaggerating if I said Reformation Day was a big deal to us, but it was one of the events the church recognized each year. I was attending catechism classes then, so I was aware of its significance, if not entirely convinced that it was in any way interesting.

The Reformation Day service was usually held on the closest Sunday to Oct. 31, so as not to interfere or compete with Halloween. The church often held a party of some sort on Halloween for kids who weren’t allowed to trick-or-treat, i.e., me and my siblings.

Of course, we’d also more than likely end up attending the Reformation Day service as well — which, in spite of Luther’s teachings, often felt like a form of penance by itself.

Sitting through an evening service was difficult for children prone to distraction, but we were usually appeased with candy, either salted licorice or peppermints.

And when our parents retreated to the foyer afterward to chat with fellow churchgoers, the younger kids typically ended up chasing each other around or playing hide-and-seek in the sanctuary.

So even if we didn’t get to go from house to house asking for candy, there were opportunities to satisfy both our sweet tooth and our penchant for monkey business.

Since then, I've developed a greater appreciation of my Reformed heritage, although Halloween remains largely a mystery.

My parents had strong objections to the whole business, but it seems relatively innocuous to me, as long as a few parents are around to keep an eye on things and to make sure that kids aren’t running around well into the night.

So have fun on Wednesday, whether you’re nailing theses to doors or just knocking on them in search of treats.

Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.

Organizations: Catholic Church, All Saints Church, Christian Reformed Church

Geographic location: Wittenberg, Germany, Peterborough

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