The historical legacy of Halloween is longer, richer, and more dichotomous than one would imagine. Its birthplace was ancient Celtic Europe in the pagan celebrations of Samhain, celebrating the Lord of the Dead and all manner of darkness, demons, and witchcraft.
But with the birth of the Roman Catholic church in the first century A.D., a second and very distinct thread in the history of what we now know as Halloween appeared. Rather than demolishing all pagan celebrations, the pope thought it more prudent to offer alternative, and hopefully more enticing, festivals.
The three-day celebration of Hallowmas was the eventual result: All Hallows Eve on October 31, All Saints day on November 1, and All Souls Day on November 2. The focus of Hallowmas was on honoring the saints, interceding for the souls of the departed, and gathering in community fellowship following the harvest. The earliest hints of the trick-or-treat tradition began here, with visitors going from house to house and hosts offering soul bread or cakes to their guests.
In 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church on All Hallows Eve, and the Reformation began. In time, an alternative to Hallowmas emerged and reformers celebrated Guy Fawkes Day in its place. Guy Fawkes Day borrowed heavily from the traditions of All Hallows Eve, but veered more toward mischief, with grotesquely carved turnips (the precursor to our jack-o-lanterns), pranks, burning effigies of the pope, and raucous singing around bonfires.
When America was colonized in the following centuries, the melting pot of traditions began to churn together and eventually create blended traditions, weaving folklore with new ideas for a new world. Different eras yielded vastly different celebrations.
In Victorian times, parlor parties and tasteful autumn décor overshadowed the dark and ghoulish. Young partygoers bobbed for apples or tossed apple peels over their shoulders to try to predict who would marry whom, and when the next wedding would be.
A rise in industrialism and marketing commercialized Halloween and began to change the face of the holiday (culminating in the multi-billion dollar industry it is today). Costumes gained popularity, and trick-or-treating caught on in the mid-20th century, as did community festival celebrations, parades, and carnivals.
The dark, occult thread that began with Samhain continued, and still continues, to weave itself parallel to other celebrations of Halloween all throughout history, sometimes intertwining overtly with the popular mainstream traditions, and sometimes lurking, obscured, in the shadows. This pagan thread is the aspect of Halloween that stands in clear opposition to biblical commands, glorifying sins like the practice of witchcraft and sorcery, worshiping Satan and demonic spirits, and even drunkenness, orgies, and sexual perversion (Gal. 5:19–21; Rom. 1:22–25). These should have no place in the life of a follower of Christ.
However, what gives many Christians pause is that second thread winding through Halloween’s history—full of celebration, community, disguises, treats, harvest bounty, and maybe a little mischief. Some believers are convicted to abstain, either entirely or in part, and some feel the liberty to participate. It’s been a consistent point of confusion and contention in the Church, but the Apostle Paul addressed such gray areas more than once in the New Testament:
“[Do not] quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:1b–4)
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16–17)
While Paul was specifically talking about food and drink, the broader scope here is our traditions and convictions, as we see in the Colossians passage. Paul is saying that both “abstainers” and “participators” can be right if their convictions are Spirit-led and borne of a rightly motivated heart. Furthermore, we are not to judge anyone whose convictions don’t match ours.
This gives us no right to say with finality that Christians should or should not celebrate Halloween. And as Paul so powerfully concludes: “the substance belongs to Christ.” Jesus Christ is the substance, the fulfillment, of everything our traditions cannot fulfill. He is the Redeemer of all.
How our convictions translate into action on Halloween will vary, and that’s okay. Some of us will set our porch lights blazing, throw open our front doors, and turn the trick-or-treat tradition around with generous goodie-giving. Some will do the same from the trunks of their cars or at their community carnivals. Others will walk our princesses and superheroes from house to house, meeting our neighbors and engaging them in conversation. Some are called to our knees in spiritual warfare against the darkness of the day (Eph. 6:12). And for some of us, it’ll be encouraging the barista who makes our pumpkin spice latté, or sharing the Gospel with our favorite farmer’s market vendor.
No matter how our hearts are convicted to participate in or abstain from Halloween celebrations, the Body of Christ has an opportunity to invade the darkness with light on Halloween by loving and engaging our communities. We can choose to invest rather than merely consume. We can reserve judgment, reject isolation, and choose instead to pour out our redeemed lives in living testimony, to make even the darkest day hallowed.
* The historical background information for this article was gleaned from the book Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne.
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