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DES PERES • Jason and Stacey Leeker grew up going door to door on Halloween night, collecting candy in costumes. But after the couple dedicated their lives to their Christian faith, they decided they would shield their own children from Halloween’s pagan roots.

Last Saturday evening, the Leekers and their three children ventured out to Faith Des Peres Presbyterian Church’s trunk-or-treat party.

Trunk-or-treats — Halloween tailgating parties, with kids going from car trunk to car trunk — are an increasingly popular alternative for schools, churches and community groups to traditional doorbell trick-or-treating.

For the Leekers, the church atmosphere provided a safe Halloween outing where they could give their 5- and 3-year-old a taste of the holiday’s fun.

“We were nervous because Halloween is a pagan holiday, but by coming to the church, the kids could get a taste of Halloween without submitting to the culture,” Jason said.

The Leekers read about Des Peres Presbyterian’s trunk-or-treat online. They are not church members, and in that sense, they are typical of the visitors to the thousands of trunk-or-treat celebrations staged in church parking lots over the last week.

Following in the tradition of their Christian forebears, pastors across the ideological spectrum have embraced, as an evangelical tool, a profane ritual with roots in pre-Christian Celtic celebrations of the dead.

“We want kids from around the community to get to know the church,” said Sharon Wyman, chairwoman of Des Peres Presbyterian’s worship and evangelism committee who stood in the church’s parking lot, handing out candy, dressed as a witch with green hair. “We want to plant that seed for people who aren’t members yet. It’s about our future.”

Faith Des Peres is small — just 87 members — “but we’re looking to add more,” said Barbara Abbett, sporting eye-black and a Rams uniform. To get there, church leaders sent 300 postcards to homes in the neighborhood and pushed the event with friends by word-of-mouth.

“Aside from our Easter egg hunt, it’s the most successful community outreach program we have,” Wyman said.

Church member John Willock stood in front of his trunk, which featured eerie organ music and was decorated with skulls on fence stakes.

“Historically, the church has done a good job copy-catting pagan holidays, so that’s what we’re trying to do,” Willock said.

Jack Santino, a professor of folklore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has written that Halloween has its origins in a pastoral festival called Samhain (pronounced sah-ween). Throughout Europe, it was the biggest festival of the Celtic calendar, and a celebration of the end of harvest and the beginning of winter.

The Celtic people believed that during Samhain, the souls of those who had died during the year “traveled into the otherworld,” Santino wrote, and “their ghosts were able to mingle with the living.”

They lit bonfires to honor the dead, “to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living.” Early missionaries appropriated many pagan rituals and subtly transformed them into Christian rituals.

“On All Hallow’s Eve, Christians would go to the graves of the saints and have dinner on the graves,” said the Rev. Rob Schneider, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Edwardsville. “The original pagan holiday has been reclaimed.”

Schneider was sitting Saturday on a lawn chair in Calvary’s parking lot next to the opened trunk of his own car. The inside was festooned with a verse from the Gospel of Matthew as his Halloween decoration: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Calvary’s 200 members are encouraged to share a Christian message with their trunk decorations. A $40 gift card to Target was awaiting the winner of the “most evangelical” trunk.

“It’s a wholesome, Bible-friendly emphasis,” Schneider said. “We want to stay away from any occult, murderous, evil or malicious themes.”

The event at Calvary costs the congregation $1,000, and regularly draws between 300 and 600 people to the church lot, which is ringed with a couple dozen cars, SUVs and minivans. Children dressed as cats, butterflies and princesses, walked from trunk to trunk with their parents, some of whom were also in wholesome costumes.

One trunk featured a huge “Jesus Loves You” pumpkin. Another highlighted words from John’s Gospel: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ ”

A trunk with a Western theme ― wooden slats with cowboy boots and barrels next to a sign that said, “We’re Wild for Jesus,” parked near another with a trunk full of banjos, mandolins and keyboards and a sign reading, “Be an instrument of Jesus.”

But for the Rev. Kim Skilling, pastor of the 90-member Affton Presbyterian Church, hosting a trunk-or-treat has less to do with proselytizing than with being a good member of the local community. The church’s trunk-or-treat, also held Saturday, routinely brings more than 100 people to the church parking lot.

Little robots and princesses roamed from car to car as their parents sipped hot cocoa and coffee. Some trunk owners had light shows and zombies emerging from hay bales.

As she handed out candy from the trunk of her own car, Skilling said she wasn’t worried about using an ancient pagan rite to gather people to her church.

“Halloween and Christianity have always been in conflict, and a lot of Christians worry about the influence of witches and devils,” she said. “But if you take Jesus Christ seriously, you know he’s stronger than any force of evil. We don’t need to be afraid of Halloween because our God is stronger.”