Halloween: What’s a Christian to Do?
by John Rysdyk
The contemporary Christian often finds Halloween an uncomfortable topic. Some want to blackball it all together because of the evil often associated with it, while others are reluctant to give up what is still a cherished childhood memory. How should a Christian respond to this holiday known as Halloween?
If we are to come to a conviction on the issue, some history of this particular day is needful. It may surprise you that the celebration we know today as Halloween is actually a combination of pagan, Christian, and civil traditions. Yet, the truth is, I could say that of almost every holiday.
The beginnings of Halloween go back more than two thousand years. A people called the Celts lived in what are now Ireland, Great Britain, and France. Among the Celtic people was an elite intellectual class known as the Druids, who served as religious priests, judges, lawmakers, and scientists. They celebrated a number of elaborate pagan religious festivals. Chief among these was the Fire Festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-een) observed at harvest time to mark the Celtic New Year.
The Celts believed that on this night the barrier between the natural world and the supernatural was removed, and the spirits of the dead were able to move freely among human beings. On this night it was believed that Samhain, the lord of death, sent evil spirits abroad to attack humans who could only escape by assuming disguises and looking like evil spirits themselves.
In response to this pagan ritual and tradition, the church decided to offer and alternative and they invited people to celebrate Halloween. Chrysostom tells us that as early as the fourth century, the Eastern Church celebrated a May festival that honored believers who had died. This festival became known as “All Saints Day” or “All Hallows Day.” The night before the celebration was commonly referred to as “All Hallows Eve” or “Halloween.” On that night, the church gathered for a sacred time of worship, prayer, and testimony. In 835 AD the church moved this day of celebration to November 1st, in order to replace the observance of Samhain. They believed that this was a unique opportunity to declare how the Lord God can truly change one’s life. So while the neighbors were fearfully dodging the evil spirits sent by Samhain, Christians were rejoicing in their rich heritage, a heritage that proclaimed that Christ had conquered both evil and death. Let’s remember that our celebrations of victory in Christ are always set against the dark background of the overwhelming evil that made the cross necessary.
Now, although pagan and church history adds light to our understanding, there are still some traditions in the U.S. that seem unique to this holiday, especially that of “trick-or-treating.” This custom is thoroughly American in origin. In the traditions of North America, Halloween had become an occasion for pranks and mischief. Vandals would wander through the night, soaping windows, overturning outhouses, and pulling gates from their hinges. These pranks were playfully said to be the work of witches and ghosts, but by the 1920’s the joke wasn’t funny anymore. To counteract Halloween vandalism, community clubs like the Boy Scouts began to organize alternatives that were safe and fun. Children were encouraged to go door-to-door and receive treats from homeowners and merchants, in hopes that the mere presence of so many people out in the streets would keep the troublemakers away. By the 1930s, the practice was popular nationwide and young voices crying, “Trick or treat!” were echoing through neighborhood streets. In this way, a combination of pagan, Christian, and civic elements formed the Halloween celebration we know today.
So in light of all this information, it is time to come back to our initial question: How should a Christian respond to this holiday known as Halloween? It is my personal opinion that the ancient Christians thought out their strategy quite well. “All Hallow’s Eve” can be a ripe time of communicating Christ’s power over death and evil. In fact, I think it’s quite interesting that the Reformation began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was his proclamation to the Catholic Church that salvation was by faith in Christ alone and that the Scriptures, not popes and councils, are the standard for Christian faith and behavior.
In my opinion, October 31, is a day Christians can and should celebrate. Maybe as one church in Fairfax Virginia does, we should also have an “All Saints Party” for children with costumes of Bible Characters and heroes of the faith. I’ve heard of other churches having Reformation parties. Children need to learn their Christian heritage and Halloween may be great day to do that!
Why allow Halloween to be a pagan holiday in commemoration for the powers of darkness? Why not instead fill the church with light and celebrate the victory of Jesus over darkness? Let’s make it a day that we celebrate our salvation through faith in Christ alone and honor the godly saints who lived before us and gave us faithful examples to follow.