October 31st, the last day of October. For many, it is a day to dress in costumes, decorate your homes with all things spooky, distribute candies, or go “trick-or-treating”.
Although it is now widely considered a pagan observance day with Celtic influence, many years ago, Halloween was a Christian holiday known as Allhallowtide.
Allhallowtide observes All Saint’s Day (Allerheiligen), All Saint’s Eve (Halloween), and All Soul’s Day (Allerseelen). It was once a time of remembrance for the martyrs and saints who sacrificed their lives in defense of their faith.
This spring, my friend Connie and I traveled to Wittenberg, Germany. A town where a candy-free theologian, who did not sugar-coat his preaching, shook the core of Christianity 500 years ago on Allhallowtide.
What exactly happened in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517?
Long story short, Martin Luther (a theologian and a monk) disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching that one can be saved through good works. He also found the practice of indulgences, a custom of buying forgiveness by paying the church, to be immoral. I tend to agree with Martin Luther here. Let’s face it, I am no theologian, but I don’t think forgiveness can be bought. In response, Martin Luther nailed the famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, starting a series of debates that marked the beginning of the Reformation.
Why Specifically did Luther Choose October 31st?
Some historians and biblical scholars speculated that Luther nailed the 95 Theses on this day to confront an observance that exploited people’s fear of judgement and purgatory. Although this theory sounds logical, the true motive for nailing the Theses on Halloween was an unsolved mystery that Luther carried to his grave.
Who is Martin Luther and what else did he do?
Martin Luther (not to be confused with Martin Luther King Jr.) was a German, Augustinian monk. He sparked the Reformation movement by challenging the social and economic status quo of the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Leo X.
He translated the Bible from Latin and Hebrew into German. By doing so, commoners can read it without paying for interpretation services from the priests.
In 1523, he married Katherine von Bora, a fugitive nun who changed his life. Their legacy of love was considered scandalous and shocked the entire country. As Luther asserted, his marriage would “rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh and the devils to weep.” My fondness for Luther increased tremendously as I read and laughed at his reasoning. To this day, their marriage remains a symbol of liberation that is made possible by the Reformation.
Historic side note: Monks and priests observed celibacy at Luther’s time. Luther believed that celibacy is not required (as it is not mentioned in the Scripture). He argued that it is better to be married than to be tempted.
Why visit Wittenberg?
Wittenberg is the best place to celebrate Reformation Day and Halloween. Seven must-see sights of Wittenberg, including the Luther memorials on the UNESCO World Heritage list are:
- All Saints’ Church (or Castle Church) where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses
- The Medieval style Town Church where Luther preached many sermons
- Luther’s House: a museum with manuscripts and Luther’s famous toilet. Luther suffered from chronic constipation and allegedly spent much time contemplating theologically related issues on the lavatory.
- Melanchthon’s house, the birth place of Philip Melanchthon, a reformer, theologian, and collaborator with Luther.
- The striking market square where you can relive Reformation history.
- Many original, charming 16th Century homes and murals along the streets of Wittenberg.
- The other door with a story: I met this sweet gentleman as I was sitting on a pew of the Castle church. We both wandered off from our travel companions and were taking in our surroundings with amazement and awe. As our eyes met, he asked, “your papa and mama?” He assumed that I was lost in a foreign country, as I often have a “deer in headlight” look on my face (or so I’m told). I chuckled and said, “I’m not lost, how about you? Where are your friends and family?” He shrugged with a smile and handed me his camera so that I can take a picture of him. Inspired by the radical essence of Wittenberg, we decided to take a picture of ourselves nailing a pretend set of Theses to the wrong door (as we both could not find the Theses Door at that time).
Another historic side note:
The current bronze Theses Doors were installed in 1858 with the 95 Theses inscribed. It was placed where the original wooden Theses Doors were located. The original doors were destroyed during the Seven Years’ War in 1760.
What is Halloween about? For the people in this sleepy little town of Wittenberg 500 years ago, it was about following the footsteps of a modest, quirky, middle-class theologian, holding their ground and speaking up against authorities. The courageous people of Wittenberg further defended their faith by initiating the Reformation, forever changing the culture and practices of churches all over the world. As Martin Luther declared before the Roman Emperor while his life was at stake:
“I cannot, and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Photo credit and much appreciation to Connie, our guest travel bug, for celebrating my birthday in the marvelous city of Wittenberg. As different as we are in our sleeping schedule and habits, we sure made the most out of this trip and enjoyed eating across East-Central Europe. Thank you for this wonderful gift of creating and executing our jam-packed, 12 cities in 9 days wickedly-cool itinerary. It was fun and exhausting but I would not have it any other way.
To my amazing husband and daughter, the OG travel bugs, thank you for being the rocks in my life. You taught me that family time is not defined by crazy adventures or relaxing holidays. Home is where you are. Without you, I would have been lost somewhere in wanderlust.