I grew up with a very normal American view of Halloween. It was a day where I dressed up like cartoon characters or cartoonish or campy monsters in order to have a few laughs and get some candy. There really was no weighty “significance” behind it. It was just good clean fun.
As I got older, things got more complicated. I heard the classic warnings against Halloween, how it was Satan’s holiday or that the practices were connected to demonic activity. Even if less extreme than that, many Christians argued that Halloween involved promoting “dark” elements and sent an anti-Christian message. Some Christians refused to participate in Halloween, or they invented alternatives to it. As I got even older and began to study theology, I eventually came across new arguments that said all of this was wrong and that Halloween had really been a good Christian holiday all along. There were different explanations for why this was the case, but they all amounted to a “reclaiming” of the holiday. So what’s the truth? What is Halloween all about? What should Christians think about it today?
A few years ago, I decided to give this question an in-depth study. You can read my lengthy essay on the historical twists and turns of Halloween here. Several people have asked me to write a shorter version so that they can share it more broadly, and so that’s what I’ll try to do in this post. In what follows I will explain where Halloween came from historically and how it took on its current form. Finally, I will conclude with some pastoral thoughts about how Christians should think about Halloween today.
The question that often generates the most excitement and interest is also the easiest one to answer. No, Halloween was not originally a pagan holiday, and there is no evidence showing an actual link between current practices and ancient pre-Christian rituals. The supposed pagan predecessor that most people point to is Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival which celebrated the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter. The problem is, we have basically no evidence to teach us about Samhain, and the later Christians communities in Ireland, Scotland, and England were pretty good at stamping it out.
While Samhain certainly included some typical pagan religious rites, there is no evidence to suggest any overt fixation on death. Ronald Hutton has the most accessible treatment of Samhain in his excellent The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. He admits that our knowledge of Samhain is minimal and plagued by anachronism: “To hazard any guess about the ancient religious significance of Samhain… therefore, we are left completely dependent upon inferences projected backward from folklore collected in the last few centuries…” (365). He concludes rather modestly that the only things which can be reasonably attributed to Samhain are that it was a seasonal festival with bonfires and that there was some thought that supernatural forces were at work.
What’s ironic about this is that Samhain was essentially a “Fall Festival” or a “Harvest Festival.” The only cultural activity that we know went on at Samhain was the building of bonfires. So, if you are really nervous about pagan elements in Halloween, you’ll want to steer clear of two things: Fall Festivals and bonfires.
The name Halloween is a contraction of the older English expression “All Hallow’s Eve.” This means the evening before All Saints’ Day, and if you think about this even only briefly, it is clearly a Christian expression. You should also be aware that “All Souls’ Day” followed “All Saints’ Day,” and the combination of these days was often treated as a unit in medieval Europe. This, and not paganism, is the real “source” for Halloween’s emphasis on death. Each of these days, in slightly different ways, celebrated the lives of Christians who had departed this world, and these days established the memorialization of the dead as a key part of “Halloween.” Still, they did this in a nearly-exclusively liturgical way, making use of prayers, candles, and various ideas about purgatory.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were relatively late additions to the Christian liturgical Calendar, and they always held a fairly minor place among Christian festivals. They were so minor that Thomas J. Talley’s The Origins of the Liturgical Year, a helpful and otherwise thorough study of Christian holidays, makes no mention of them at all. It was only as new ideas and practices concerning “the cult of the saints” grew in importance, along with the various feasts for well-known saints, that a feast to celebrate “all Saints” also arose. The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship explains that this first began as a general feast for both known and unknown martyrs somewhere around the beginning of the fifth century. This earlier form was celebrated in the Spring, and it was the later Western tradition which moved it to the Fall (see pg. 5 for a discussion). It is important to note the date of November the 1st was set in Rome, not in England, Scotland, or Ireland, and so again, there’s no reason to connect it to ancient Celtic customs. No clear rationale is known for the change, though pragmatic reasons remain the most popular speculations.
Halloween’s association with the dead, and even ghosts or spirits needing appeasement or aid, can all be attributed to the medieval views of purgatory and the folklore which popularly accompanied it. The making of “soul cakes” and the practice of “souling,” door-to-door singing in exchange for food or money, seem to have also attached themselves to the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, though it should be noted that these have nearly exact parallels in Christmas practices, especially Wassailing. Even the famous mischief and misrule so often connected with Halloween has possible antecedents in Martinmas and Twelfth Night (both Christmas-related days). Even with this background, the basic components of the Hallowmas celebrations seem to be rather simple: bonfires, almsgiving, the ringing of bells, and general rowdiness on the Eve before. That was about the extent of things.
Halloween first began to change at the time of the Reformation. Martin Luther actually chose the date of Halloween to nail his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Interestingly enough, the Castle Church’s proper name was “All Saints’ Church.” This was all on purpose, since Luther’s theses had to do with the selling of indulgences and the doctrine of purgatory. The departed saints, and the church’s practice of praying to and for them, was the main point. Since this date was the occasion for the Reformation, churches in Germany and what was, at the time, the Holy Roman Empire, began celebrating the Reformation on October 31st. This began in the 16th century, and Reformation Day has remained an important holiday in parts of Central Europe ever since.
Reformation Day was never as significant an event in England, however. This was due in part to England’s unique political identity at the time of the Reformation. Henry VIII had himself tried to temper some of the more disruptive elements of Hallowmas, but he was not a fan of Luther’s, and he had no interest in abolishing Hallowmas entirely. Henry was more concerned with law and order. The English Reformers within the church were united in their opposition to All Souls’ Day and its purgatorial ideology, and so they began making some changes, but it was not until Elizabeth I that the Hallowmas, as it had previously existed, was fully transformed. Even here, things were always tied to courtly drama. Ronald Hutton explains, “Queen Elizabeth’s accession date upon 17 November, representing a Protestant holy day slowly evolved to replace the traditional ecclesiastical rites abolished at the Reformation” (The Stations of the Sun, 387). Thus the traditional bells were rung but for an entirely new reason, and the songs and feasts were all in the Queen’s honor.
There’s one more important twist. Guy Fawkes Day would quickly come to overshadow all of the late October and early November festivities. It’s difficult for Americans to understand the significance of Guy Fawkes Day, but it has been a major patriotic holiday in England for the past 300 years. Its celebrations almost always involved bonfires and a bit of mischief, even masquerades and chaotic role-reversals. Guy Fawkes Day probably has as much as anything to do with “mischief nights” becoming a common Anglo-American activity around this time of year.
It’s really America where we find the key ingredients for our modern Halloween. Starting in the late 1700s, modern men and women began to long for the good ole days. They wanted to find ancient familial heritages and big meaning in those long-lost traditions. This got connected with Halloween in Canada and the American Northeast, usually by way of partially-invented ethnic celebrations. “[T]he Caledonian Society’ observed Halloween with an annual concert of Highland reels, jigs, ballads, and the poems of Robbie Burns” (Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night 51). This sort of cultural emphasis spread throughout North America, and other supposedly “Celtic” features were added: guising, mumming and souling, various apple games, roasting nuts, indoor and outdoor fires, and the famous jack-o’-lantern (only now it was made out of the North American pumpkin).
Some of the elements of our modern Halloween can be identified here, though they would still have to undergo considerable change. The “guising” of the time was a precursor to modern dressing up, but it would have been considerably simpler, mostly made up of carnival masks, burlap sacks, or imitation-historical garb. The emphasis on the supernatural, especially witches and spirits, did factor into this period, but it should be clear that it was understood as harmless and domesticated, usually campy, much like the idea of a chubby elf who could fly around the world with magical reindeer (an idea that came from around the same time). It was eventually tied in the growing new horror genre in American literature (think Edgar Allan Poe) and popular magazines. This moved it more into the “spooky” direction, but it was still very much entertainment and recreation.
The final shift occurred around the turn of the 20th century. While the adults were content to tell tales and act out mythical dramas, teenagers turned Halloween into an occasion for trouble. They began to engage in pranks and even outright vandalism, and eventually things got really out of hand. Lisa Morton explains:
Not everyone saw Halloween mischief as simply the fun-loving but ultimately harmless sport of young boys. As pranking became more widespread, it became more of a problem. Simply disassembling a gate–in fact, the name “Gate Night” replaced Halloween in many areas–was one thing, but disassembling the gate and then moving it into the centre of town where it might be piled in the middle of Main Street with dozens of other gates was more troublesome. In the 1920s, Halloween pranking spread into the rapidly expanding major urban areas, and became out-and-out vandalism. Although the simple pranks of the past–switching shop signs, or flinging a sock filled with flour at a man’s black coat–were still practised, so were far more destructive activities, including breaking windows tripping pedestrians and setting fires. In 1933, during the height of America’s Great Depression, destructive Halloween prank-playing was so virulent that many cities dubbed that year’s celebration “Black Halloween.” Vandalism was now described as the work of “hoodlums” rather than mischievous boys, and included sawing down telephone poles, overturning automobiles, opening fire hydrants to flood city streets and openly taunting the police. Local governments that were already struggling economically were overwhelmed, and many considered banning Halloween altogether. (Morton, Trick or Treat 75-76)
Nicholas Rogers supports this description:
…the conventions of rascality that invigorated turn-of-the-century Halloween took a long time to die. While youngsters would dress up in fancy costumes and masquerade in the streets, visiting houses for various treats, their older brothers would indulge in a different kind of devilry. As the Star quite casually reported of one small town east of Toronto: “Hallowe’en spirit held full sway in Whitby last night. Many a citizen found his veranda furniture hanging from spikes on telephone poles, while a number of gates were removed and steps taken away.” On a typical Halloween spree in interwar North America, fences were destroyed, signs and gates moved, roads barricaded, trolley cars immobilized, street lighting smashed, and outhouses tipped over. One eminent historian of Canada assured me that in his more youthful days in the 1930s he turned over as many as fourteen outhouses in one night of Halloween pranks. (Rogers, Halloween 78)
What’s fascinating is that this, more than any of the other more high-minded historical sources, is the real explanation for our modern Halloween. You see, in an effort to get things under control and keep their kids out of trouble, parents, school teachers, and civic groups created supervised carnivals and neighborhood activities for Halloween:
All manner of clubs and societies went out of their way to provide alternative events for Halloween. Lions, Rotarians, Kiwanis, religious groups, high schools, boys’ and girls’ clubs, women’s institutes, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, and even the Sons of the American Revolution all rose to meet the challenge of rendering Halloween safe and sane during the interwar years. (Rogers, Halloween 81)
This sanitization and domestication of Halloween also explains its most-famous component: trick or treating. Whereas guising and pranking certainly offer some ancestral contributions, the modern practice is highly controlled and actually involves almost no “tricks.” Lisa Morton again explains:
Costumed children were also recorded going from house to house begging food… By the 1930s, the phrase [“trick or treat”]in connection with Halloween and costumed children seemed to be working its way down through the northern USA, as states like Oregon reported that “young goblins and ghosts, employing modern shakedown methods, successfully worked the “trick or treat” system.” One of the first national mentions of trick or treat appears in an article of 1939 entitled “A Victim of the Window Soaping Brigade?,” which both refers to “trick or treat” as “the age-old Halloween salutation’ and makes it plain that the practice was a method of subverting rowdy pranking. (Morton, Trick or Treat 78-79).
So trick-or-treating in costumes turns out to not be very spooky at all. It was an adult-supervised neighbor activity designed to give young children something to do and keep them out of trouble. All of the modern Halloween practices come from this period of history. Hollywood is, of course, responsible for adding the gory horror elements, and this only started in 1978. Things have exploded in popularity and revenue since then, and Halloween has gradually become an adult holiday as well as a children’s holiday. This has given it a different flavor, to be sure, though things vary dramatically depending on where you live and what the customs and practices are on the ground.
There you have it, the long winding tale that ends with a very non-supernatural explanation. Halloween is a modern secular holiday designed to let kids have fun without getting into too much trouble and also to sell a bunch of candy and movie memorabilia to adults. What does that mean for Christians today? I suppose it all depends.
On one hand, it means that we don’t have to be scared of Halloween. All of the superstition is just that–superstition. It isn’t true. The witches and goblins have always been fictional, and Halloween need not have any demonic association whatsoever.
Of course, since Halloween is an ordinary worldly thing, it is capable of attracting all sorts of ordinary worldly sins. Mature Christians will certainly want to be aware of this. The most obvious sins associated with Halloween today are overt sexualization and thoughtless gore and violence. Christians shouldn’t dress immodestly or trivialize pain and suffering on Halloween for the same reason that they shouldn’t do this on any other day of the year. It is improper and unloving.
Now, what about “darkness” in general? Isn’t that a problem. Here we have to be careful. The Biblical meaning of darkness is not simply nighttime or the color black, nor even death, but rather things like drunkeness, lewdness, lust, strife, and envy (Rom. 13:12-13), as well as fornication, covetousness, coarse jesting, and idolatry (Eph. 5:3-5, 8, 11). These things may certainly be present at certain Halloween parties and activities. If so, then a Christian should leave. And if you have good reason to expect those things to be present before you go, then you shouldn’t go. But these are much more likely to be temptations for twenty year olds than they are for eight year olds.
But what about that verse that says to avoid even the appearance of evil? Doesn’t that mean we should steer clear of ghosts and ghouls? Well, to start with, that isn’t exactly what the verse says. The verse is 1 Thessalonians 5:22, and it says “abstain from every form of evil.” The word “form” doesn’t mean “appearance,” but rather “outward manifestation.” So it isn’t saying to be careful to not look like you are being evil. It means that we should stay away from the places where evil shows up. Of course, it is still a good idea to not give off the wrong appearances, but that can be a judgment call. That involves knowing what the local perception is, whether or not the person making the judgment is a Pharisee or a weaker brother, and where to draw reasonable lines. That’s the kind of decision that is up to Christian liberty, done in love. You may want to abstain from Halloween. It might be a good idea. Indeed, I think many Halloween parties are a bad idea and much Halloween imagery is unbecoming and unedifying. But we need to be careful to acknowledge that there is not a divine law about Halloween as such. Christians should use their loving judgment to decide whether they can have fun doing Halloween activities in such a way that glorifies God and shows love to their neighbor.
Finally, are there any reasons to participate in Halloween? This will again depend on your situation, but I can think of a few. Halloween is one of the only times in our day where you can meet your neighbors. In fact, if you let them, tons of strangers will stream right to your door, and you will have a great opportunity to get to know them and even build a relationship that could lead to fruitful opportunities for evangelism and discipleship. If done appropriately and in good fun, Halloween can also be a good opportunity for parents to participate along with their kids in neighborhood fun. Again, though, it’s up to you. If it make sense and doesn’t cause problems, then go for it. But if you don’t want to, then don’t worry about it. There’s no law for these things.
In all of this, of course, we should keep things in perspective. Don’t try to make any of it fanciful and sacred. It’s not. It’s just permissible fun and a good opportunity for teaching and edification. Make the most of the opportunity, and whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.