Halloween is celebrated by millions of people each year with costumes and candy, and is the second highest-grossing commercial holiday after Christmas. This festive day also carries a lot of baggage, however. Scholars Ralph and Adelin Linton write:
Among all the festivals which we celebrate today, few have histories stranger than that of Halloween. It is the eve of All Hallows—or Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day—and as such it is one of the most solemn festivals of the church. At the same time, it commemorates beings and rites with which the church has always been at war. It is the night when ghosts walk and fairies and goblins are abroad… We cannot understand this curious mixture unless we go back into history and unravel the threads from which the present holiday pattern has been woven.
The Origins of Halloween
Generally, it is agreed upon that Halloween has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of summer. Typical popular folklore suggests that Samhain was a festival based on human sacrifice. Recent scholarship, however, suggests that this is a caricature, based on Roman writers who had little evidence of actual Celtic practices and were more interested in decrying them as “barbarians” who needed to be “civilized” by the Romans.
According to historian Nicholas Rogers, “the pagan origins of Halloween” arise not from rumors of human sacrifice but from “the notion of Samhain as a festival of the dead and as a time of supernatural intensity heralding the onset of winter.”
Halloween has been rejected as demonic and pagan, subsumed into (medieval) Christian ritual, and accepted unthinkingly as harmless fun.
He continues, “In marking the onset of winter, Samhain was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural. In Celtic lore, winter was the dark time of the year when ‘nature is asleep, summer has returned to the underworld, and the earth is desolate and inhospitable.’”
What was especially noteworthy about Samhain was its status as a borderline festival. It took place between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. In Celtic lore, it marked the boundary between summer and winter, light and darkness. In this respect, Samhain can be seen as a threshold, or what anthropologists would call a liminal festival. It was a moment of ritual transition and altered states. It represented a time out of time, a brief interval ‘when the normal order of the universe is suspended’ and ‘charged with a peculiar preternatural energy.’ These qualities would continue to resonate through the celebration of Halloween.
Halloween in the British Isles
According to Rogers, while Halloween derives its original “supernatural intensity” and “spookiness” from Samhain, most of the actual traditions and practices of the holiday developed out of the medieval Christian holy days of All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day. Early Christians in the 4th century began the practice of celebrating the martyrs of the early Roman persecutions. By the 9th century, these festivals were beginning to shift focus to celebrating the lives of saints instead. This festival was held on November 1 in England, but on April 20 in Ireland (disproving the popular view that a November date was picked to “Christianize” the pagan festival of Samhain).
By the end of the twelfth century, the linked festivals of All Saints’ and All Souls’, Todos Santos or Tots Sants in Spanish, or Hallowtide in English, were well-established liturgical moments in the Christian year. At the end of the Middle Ages they were among the most important. The feast of All Saints’ and All Souls’ was one of the six days of obligation, marked by high masses and prayers. It was a holiday that affirmed the collective claims that the dead had on the living. Its requiem masses also served as insurance against hauntings, for ghosts were generally ‘understood to be dead relatives who visited their kin to rectify wrongs committed against them while alive and to enforce the obligations of kinship.’ As night fell and All Souls’ Day arrived, bells were also rung for the souls in purgatory. These were people who were in a spiritual suspension, in an intermediary space between heaven and hell, for whom prayers and penance could be made for their sins before the day of judgment. In preparation for Hallowtide, churches made sure that their bells were in good shape, for in some places they were rung all night to ward off demonic spirits. (Rogers)
Over time, other rituals were added to the celebration of the Mass. For instance, “In England, many churches purchased extra candles or torches for the ecclesiastical processions of Hallowtide. Bonfires were also built in graveyards to ward off malevolent spirits.”
After the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the rituals of Hallowtide in England came under attack from Protestants because of its association with the doctrines of purgatory, saints, and prayers for the dead. Reformers “denounced purgatory as a popish doctrine” and “deplored the idea that the living could influence the condition of the dead through their prayers and rejected the belief that the saints could function as intermediaries between humans and Christ.” A back-and-forth ensued for decades as Protestant leaders such as Thomas Cranmer tried to abolish Hallowtide rituals and Catholic leaders attempted to revive them.
By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the official practices surrounding Hallowmass had been eliminated. Yet the more popular customs associated with the holiday did survive in some areas. . . [Around] 1783, Catholics continued to light fires on hilltops on All Saints’ Night. In the more remote areas of the Pennines there were torchlight ceremonies to commemorate the dead. At Whalley, in Lancashire, near the forest of Pendle, families formed a circle and prayed for the souls of the departed until the flames burned out…
If many of the religious customs associated with All Hallows and All Souls had died out by the middle of the seventeenth century, it is nonetheless clear the days were still regarded as a time of supernatural intensity. On Halloween, as it came to be known in the eighteenth century, ghosts, spirits, and witches were likely to be abroad. (Rogers)
Over time, Halloween traditions developed apart from any religious connotation, though the initial religious celebration influenced the developments. Rogers explains, “The diversity of names associated with Halloween did not connote the declining fortunes of the holiday. In Scotland, Ireland, and even in some of the remoter areas of England and Wales, Halloween was robustly observed throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. At the time of substantial Irish and Scottish immigration to North America, Halloween had a strong tradition of guising and pranks, a fundamental aura of supernatural intensity, and a set of games and rituals that often addressed the fortunes of love rather than the prospect of death, or life beyond death.”
There is a big difference between kids dressing up in cute costumes for candy and Mardi-Gras-like Halloween parties, offensive costumes, and uninhibited excess.
It is important to note that this secular account of the history of Halloween seeks to vindicate the holiday from its Satanic and barbaric origins. While it may be the case that the dark side of Halloween has been overemphasized, Christians will still want to affirm that the holiday originated (at least) in pagan and mythical practices. The extent to which such practices can be categories as “Satanic” is a debate of semantics. Is Roman mythology “Satanic”? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Regardless, the origin of Halloween is certainly in the realm of non-Christian spiritualism. As such, Christians should be thoughtful in their approach to Halloween.
Halloween for Christians
Halloween has an uneasy history with the church; Christians have not always been sure what to do with a holiday of apparently pagan origins. Is Halloween unredeemable, such that any Christian participating in the holiday will necessarily compromise their faith? Is it something Christians can participate in as a cultural celebration with no religious ramifications? Or is there the opportunity for Christians to emphasize certain aspects of our own faith within the holiday?
1. Should Christians Renounce Halloween as “the Devil’s Day”?
One of the most famous recent examples of Christian interaction with Halloween comes from Pat Robertson, who called Halloween the “festival of the Devil.” As such, he claimed that participating in Halloween was a mistake for Christians and therefore wrong.
In renouncing this holiday outright, Robertson fails to ask the following question: To what extent does something’s evolution from pagan roots entail that its present practice is tainted? As Albert Mohler notes, there has been a shift in Halloween from pagan ritual to merely commercial fascination with the dark side. What Pat Robertson misses is that for most people in America, Halloween is about candy. A quarter of all candy sold annually in the US is for Halloween night!
Granted, dressing up as witches and goblins can be a tricky issue, but to think that putting on a scary mask or makeup opens you up to the dark side is a bit naïve.
In addition, there are two built-in problems with a blanket rejection position. One is that those who insist on rejecting certain holidays are not being consistent. Should we reject other holidays because there is a propensity toward excess? In other words, if people are inclined toward gluttony on Thanksgiving or Christmas, shouldn’t those holidays be renounced as well? After all, gluttony is a sin. Second, many times the reject position assumes that the evil of the extrinsic world will taint the faith of a Christian. The idea is, “garbage in, garbage out.” But Jesus says the exact opposite is true (Mark 7:21-23). The fruit of our lives (whether in holiness or sin) is always inextricably tied to the root of our hearts. If our hearts are prone toward sin in certain ways, we will find a way to sin. Sin indeed corrupts but the sin is not so much “out there in the world” as much as it is in the heart of every person. The reject position falsely assumes sin is mostly what we do rather than who we are.
2. Can Christians Participate in Halloween Wisely?
The Christian church has tried to deal with Halloween in many ways throughout the centuries. It has been renounced as demonic and pagan, subsumed into (medieval) Christian ritual, and accepted unthinkingly as harmless fun.
An informed understanding of the history of Halloween and the biblical freedom Christians have to engage cultural practices (1 Cor. 10:23-33) leads to the conclusion that Christians can follow their conscience in choosing how to approach this holiday.
Just how Christians ought to go about relating to or participating in Halloween is still a tricky subject. In order to navigate the waters successfully, one must always distinguish between the merely cultural aspects of Halloween and the religious aspects of the holiday. In the past the church has tried to subsume the religious aspects of Halloween by adding a church holiday. But again, this is a questionable area. It seems that Christians can easily participate in (with wisdom) some cultural aspects of the holiday, and there is some potential for the pagan cultural practices to be enjoyed—but care must be taken. There is a big difference between kids dressing up in cute costumes for candy and Mardi-Gras-like Halloween parties, offensive costumes, and uninhibited excess. Therefore it’s naïve to make a blanket judgment to reject or accept Halloween as a whole. There should be no pressure to participate, but for those Christians whose conscience permits we should view it as an opportunity to engage wisely with our culture.
For those who are still bothered by Halloween’s historical association with evil spirits, Martin Luther has some advice on how to respond to the devil: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him for he cannot bear scorn.” Perhaps instead of fleeing the darkness in fear, we should view Halloween as an opportunity to mock the enemy whose power over us has been broken.