>Have you ever wondered where the holiday “Halloween” came from? Did you know that this holiday has origins both in Pre-Christian paganism and the Roman Catholic Church calendar? Did you know that the Protestant Reformation began on October 31st almost 500 years ago? As a Christian, it is important to understand the origins of this holiday and to place it in proper perspective. Therefore, this post will help to provide a Christian perspective to this interesting holiday.
Pre-Christian Pagan Origins
Halloween is originally based on the pagan
Gaelic festival entitled, Samhain (pronounced: sa:win). This was a harvest festival based on ancient Celtic polytheism. Samhain marked the end of the harvest, ending the “lighter half” of the year and beginning the “darker half”. Some scholars believe that this festival was the beginning of the Celtic new year. Samhain in many ways resembles a festival of the dead; because during this celebration, the Gaelic people believed that participants could commune with those in the spirit world. In fact, the border between this world and the Spirit world became so thin during this celebration that they believed some would be caught up in the spirit world. The Gaelics had the custom of marking this festival by setting off many bonfires and wearing costumes and masks in an attempt to copy the spirits and placate them.
with the Catholic Christian Calendar
The Catholic Church during its spread throughout the Roman Empire after Christianity became legal in the 4th Century had the practice of “Christianizing” pagan holidays so that Christianity would be more palatable to pagans. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church took the Roman festival of Lemuria and changed it into what is called “All Saints Day”. Lemuria was a feast in the religion of ancient Rome during which Romans performed rites to exorcise the malevolent and fearful ghosts of the dead from their homes. This festival of the dead was celebrated around May 13th and became the Catholic All Saints’ Day (which is still celebrated by Catholics today). This new “Christianized” holiday All Saints’ Day commemorates all those who have attained the “beatific vision of Heaven.” In other words it commemorates all of those who have made it out of purgatory into paradise. You can tell why this is a Catholic holiday. In the 8th Century, All Saint’s Day was moved from May 13th on the Catholic Calendar to November 1 to coincide with the Gaelic festival of Sawhain (thus attempting to Christianize this festival as well – a Catholic version of killing two birds with one stone). Another holiday was then added on November 2nd entitled All Souls’ Day, which is a day set aside by Catholics to pray for the faithful departed who are still consigned to Purgatory to pay for their venial sins. Thus, Catholics pray for their departed loved ones in a hope that they may assist in bringing them out of purgatory into heaven. Another name for All Saints’ Day (on November 1) is All Hallows’ Day (Hallow = Saint). Then, October 31st became known as All Hallow’s Eve, which was then shortened to Hallow-even, thus Hallowe’en. Many of the pre-Christian pagan festivities were retained and celebrated during this Hallow’s Eve day in, but then the Christian (Catholic) celebration was observed on the following two days.
October 31 and the Protestant Reformation
For Protestants, however, this day takes on a more unique significance. On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Ironically, Luther’s main concern in his 95 Theses was the use of indulgences (coin / money offerings given to the church) to bring loved ones out of purgatory. This, of course, is similar thinking to the concept of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. John Tetzel, the great Indulgence Salesman who prompted Luther’s 95 Theses, was famous for saying, “Once a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Due to the newly invented printing press, the nailed “95 Theses” was quickly printed and distributed throughout Germany and brought Luther into the radar of the Catholic Church. When Luther did not back down, he was asked to defend himself at the Diet of Worms in April of 1521, where he would not recant and only escaped death due to the protection provided by Prince Frederick and his exile to Wartburg Castle. Because Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation on October 31st, 1517, many Protestants celebrate this day each year as “Reformation Day”. It is a day of remembrance (officially celebrated mainly by Lutherans) held usually on the Sunday before October 31st. However, many other Protestant (including Evangelical) denominations have recently started seeing Reformation Day as a good alternative to Halloween.
Halloween today has become largely a “secular” holiday that includes some seemingly innocent traditions as dressing up in costumes, trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns, fall festivals, bobbing for apples, haunted houses, and the like. However, the commercialization and increase in the TV media of the holiday has made Halloween a big business (sales each year average around $6 Billion). Cable-TV channels usually have special programming during the month of October leading up to the holiday that focuses on horror movies. Primetime drama and comedy programming on network television usually have Halloween themed shows. I realized the pervasiveness of this when just this evening I saw that the show Outsourced (an NBC comedy that follows an American who works as a manager in India for a call-center) had a Halloween based show tonight where there was a Halloween party in India. I need to research the practice of celebrating the holiday of Halloween in India.
An undercurrent of all these secular trends in Halloween is a fascination on death and ghoulish behavior. This fascination tends to do one of two things. It either tends to trivialize and mock death, thus taking the consequences and finality of death lightly, or it over-emphasizes and dwells too much on death making it overly gruesome and horrifying, feeding the secular (and non-Christian) fear of death. Another issue is that there is an abundance of occult and pagan practices that are either overtly practiced on this holiday or at least alluded to and toyed with. Neopaganism, although a small phenomenon, is making a comeback. Many are opting to go all the way back to the pagan roots and celebrate the pagan ritual of Samhain just as the Gaelics did over 1500 – 2000 years ago.
How should Christians deal with Halloween?
To say the least, a Christian response to the complex holiday of Halloween is tricky. The secular buy-in to this holiday is quite pervasive. Trick-or-treating and costume wearing is almost a community rite that is expected to include Christian participation. Christians (especially Evangelicals) have chosen to respond in various ways:
1. Total Refusal to Participate due to the tie-in to ancient paganism and the occult.
2. Further “Christianizing” through various ways:
a. Judgment Houses – where the church sponsors a haunted house that provides a glimpse into Heaven and Hell and is used as an evangelistic tool.
b. Fall Festivals: sponsored by churches to be a family friendly alternative (or addition to) trick-or-treating and is used as evangelistic opportunities.
c. Trunk or Treat – another evangelistic idea that ties into the tradition of trick-or-treating.
3. Deciding to celebrate Reformation Day instead of Halloween.
4. Playing along with the community in the holiday. Trick-or-treating with kids and handing out candy, but not going “all out”.
5. Full acceptance and enjoyment of the holiday.
What is the best response? First, every Christian parent should be aware of the origins of the holiday and the dangers of the occult and ghoulish overtones in Halloween. Secondly, Christians should support any evangelical work that their church decides to do on this holiday to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and provide a family friendly atmosphere to enjoy the holiday. Thirdly, as a Baptist and a Protestant, I believe we should set aside this day to also remember the heritage of Martin Luther and the significance of Reformation Day, commemorating October 31, 1517. Finally, we need to take the opportunity that Halloween gives to us to teach our children and fellow Christians the proper, Christian perspective on death. Death is an enemy, but it has been defeated and vanquished, not by divination, the occult, or pagan rituals, but by Jesus Christ. It is His death on the cross and His resurrection three days later that conquered the sting and fear of death. As it says in I Corinthians 15:54-58, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Therefore, my dear brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, knowing that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.”