It’s that time of year once again, when the air gets crisper, the days get shorter, and for many young Canadians the excitement grows in anticipation of the darkest, spookiest holiday of the year – Halloween
I was raised in a home where it seemed that there was a lot of confusion about whether or not Christians should participate in Halloween. One year we were allowed to participate, the next my parents would feel convicted that we should burn all candy, the next we were allowed to participate as long as we only trick-or-treated at people’s homes we knew, the next we’d burn candy again.
I’m exaggerating somewhat of course, however the conversations, debates and questions kept being discussed and asked year after year in our home – “How should Christians respond to Halloween?” “Is it irresponsible for parents to let their children trick-or-treat?” “What about Christians who refuse any kind of celebration during the season – are they overreacting?”
The Pagan Origin of Halloween
The name “Halloween” comes from the All Saints Day celebration of the early Christian church, a day set aside for the solemn remembrance of the martyrs. All Hallows Eve, the evening before All Saints Day, began the time of remembrance. “All Hallows Eve” was eventually contracted to “Hallow-e’en,” which became “Halloween.”
As Christianity moved through Europe it collided with indigenous pagan cultures and confronted established customs. Pagan holidays and festivals were so entrenched that new converts found them to be a stumbling block to their faith.
To deal with the problem, the organized church would commonly move a distinctively Christian holiday to a spot on the calendar that would directly challenge a pagan holiday. The intent was to counter pagan influences and provide a Christian alternative. But most often the church only succeeded in “Christianizing” a pagan ritual – the ritual was still pagan, but mixed with Christian symbolism. That’s what happened to All Saints Day – it was the original Halloween alternative!
The Celtic people of Europe and Britain were pagan Druids whose major celebrations were marked by the seasons. At the end of the year in northern Europe, people made preparations in order to ensure winter survival by harvesting the crops and culling the herds. Life slowed down as winter brought shortened days and longer nights (darkness), fallow ground, and death. The imagery of death, symbolized by skeletons, skulls, and the colour black, remains prominent in today’s Halloween celebrations.
The pagan Samhain festival (pronounced “sow” “en”) celebrated the final harvest, death, and the onset of winter, for three days – October 31 to November 2. The Celts believed the curtain dividing the living and the dead lifted during Samhain to allow the spirits of the dead to walk among the living – ghosts haunting the earth.
Some embraced the season of haunting by engaging in occult practices such as divination and communication with the dead. They sought “divine” spirits (demons) and the spirits of their ancestors regarding weather forecasts for the coming year, crop expectations, and even romantic prospects. Bobbing for apples was one practice the pagans used to divine the spiritual world’s “blessings” on a couple’s romance.
For others the focus on death, occultism, divination, and the thought of spirits returning to haunt the living, fueled ignorant superstitions and fears. They believed spirits were earthbound until they received a proper send-off with treats – possessions, wealth, food, and drink. Spirits who were not suitably “treated” would “trick” those who had neglected them. The fear of haunting only multiplied if that spirit had been offended during its natural lifetime.
Early Christian converts found family and cultural influence hard to withstand; they were tempted to rejoin the pagan festivals, especially Samhain. Pope Gregory IV reacted to the pagan challenge by moving the celebration of All Saints Day in the ninth century – he set the date at November 1, right in the middle of Samhain.
As the centuries passed, Samhain and All Hallows Eve mixed together. On the one hand, pagan superstitions gave way to “Christianized” superstitions and provided more fodder for fear. People began to understand that the pagan ancestral spirits were demons and the diviners were practicing witchcraft and necromancy. On the other hand, the festival time provided greater opportunity for revelry. Trick-or-treat became a time when roving bands of young hooligans would go house-to-house gathering food and drink for their parties. Stingy householders ran the risk of a “trick” being played on their property from drunken young people.
Today Halloween is almost exclusively a secular holiday, and many who celebrate have no concept of its religious origins or pagan heritage. That’s not to say Halloween has become more wholesome. Children dress up in entertaining costumes, wander the neighborhood in search of candy, and tell each other scary ghost stories; but adults often engage in shameful acts of drunkenness and debauchery.
How should Christians respond?
First, Christians should not respond to Halloween like superstitious pagans. Pagans are superstitious; Christians are enlightened by the truth of God’s Word. Evil spirits are no more active and sinister on Halloween than they are on any other day of the year; in fact, any day is a good day for Satan to prowl about seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). But “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). God has forever “disarmed principalities and powers” through the cross of Christ and “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them through [Christ]” (Colossians 2:15).
Second, Christians should respond to Halloween with cautionary wisdom. Some people fear the activity of Satanists, but the actual incidents of satanic-associated crime are very low. The real threat on Halloween is from the social problems that attend sinful behavior – drunk driving, pranksters and vandals, and unsupervised children.
Like any other day of the year, Christians should exercise caution as wise stewards of their possessions and protectors of their families. Christian young people would be wise to stay away from most secular Halloween parties since many are breeding grounds for trouble (use discernment). Christian parents can protect their children by keeping them well-supervised and possibly restricting treat consumption to those goodies received from trusted sources.
Third, Christians should respond to Halloween with gospel compassion. The unbelieving, Christ-rejecting world lives in perpetual fear of death. It isn’t just the experience of death, but rather what the Bible calls “a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume [God’s] adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27). Witches, ghosts, and evil spirits are not terrifying; God’s wrath unleashed on the unforgiven sinner – now that is truly terrifying.
Christians should use Halloween and all that it brings to the imagination – death imagery, superstition, expressions of debauched revelry – as an opportunity to engage the unbelieving world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. God has given everyone a conscience that responds to His truth (Romans 2:14-16), and the conscience is the Christian’s ally in the evangelistic enterprise.
Christians should take time to inform the consciences of friends and family with biblical truth seasoned with salt (grace & love) regarding God, the Bible, sin, Christ, future judgment, and the hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ.
How might Christians engage?
There are several different ways Christians might engage in Halloween. Some will adopt a “No Participation” policy. As Christian parents, they don’t want their kids participating in spiritually compromising activities- listening to ghost stories and colouring pictures of witches. They don’t want their kids to dress up in costumes for trick-or-treating or even attending Halloween alternatives. That response naturally raises eyebrows but can provide a good opportunity to share the gospel to those who ask (1 Peter 3:15).
Other Christians will opt for Halloween alternatives called “Harvest Festivals” or “Reformation Festivals” – the kids dress up as farmers, Bible characters, or Reformation heroes. Some churches leave the church building behind and take acts of mercy into their community, “treating” needy families with food baskets, gift cards, and the gospel message.
Finally, some Christians will opt for a limited, non-compromising participation in Halloween. The good news is that there is no burning candy here. After all there’s nothing inherently evil about candy, costumes, or trick-or-treating in the neighbourhood. In fact, all of that can provide a unique gospel opportunity with neighbours. Even handing out candy to neighbourhood children (please don’t be stingy) can improve your reputation among the kids. As long as the costumes are innocent and the behaviour does not dishonour Christ, trick-or-treating can be used to further gospel interests.
Ultimately, participation in Halloween is a matter of conscience before God. Whatever level of Halloween participation you choose, you must honour God by keeping yourself separate from the world and by showing grace, mercy and love to the culture we live in. Halloween provides the Christian with the opportunity to accomplish those things in the gospel. What better time of the year is there to share such a message of hope than Halloween?