Admittedly, I can understand why many Christians today have serious misgivings about Halloween. As a high school teenager years ago, I was part of the problem. When I could hear young trick or treaters walking down our street, I would put my Pink Floyd Echoes album on my turntable, and crank up the speakers to scare the kids. Halloween has indeed become a time of mischief, and the glorification of the occult.
However, if you take a closer look at history, the development of these darker traditions and celebrations popularized by contemporary Wiccan and neopagan groups actually originated in a mishmash of superstitions and religious practices that have arisen since the 19th century, primarily here in America. Contrary to the popular idea that Christians “stole” Halloween from pagan cults, like the Druids, the real origin of Halloween goes back hundreds of years prior to today’s “trick or treating,” when Pope Gregory in the 9th century instigated the move of the Western date for All Saints Day from the springtime to November 1st. This had nothing to do with the Irish Celts. If anything, the Irish more probably picked up the November 1st date from the English, as the Irish were known for celebrating All Saints Day on April 20, which is actually closer to the Christian practice in the springtime, more common in the Christian East.
Christian apologist and YouTuber Michael Jones at Inspiring Philosophy has a helpful short video sorting out fact from fiction about Halloween. For a concise and highly educational article summarizing the same, I would recommend a new blog post by Tim O’Neill at HistoryForAtheists, who specializes in debunking bad history being promoted by atheists and other skeptics.
Jack Chick, fundamentalist cartoonist, died at age 92, on October 23, 2016. His most popular comic book tract was This Was Your Life, viewable in full at www.chick.com, though I have included a few pages here. Jack Chick and the popular obsession with fear at Halloween have a lot in common .
I read my first “Chick tract” at a highway rest stop on Interstate 95 as a teenager. A middle-aged gentleman handed me this small comic book, spoke a few words, and before I could glance at what he gave me, the man quickly walked away. It was Jack Chick’s tract, This Was Your Life. I was already a follower of Christ, but what I read disturbed me, in more ways than one.
In one sense, Jack Chick was right. Before the scene shown above, a man who lived his life indifferent to the things of God, dies. Then this dead man was brought before the judgment seat, having his entire life exposed before the Lord, like on a theatre screen display. The hidden things were brought to light, demonstrating that his life, lived apart from Christ, had negative eternal consequences. He thought he could “get away with” sinful thoughts and actions in his life, thinking no one would notice, when in reality, nothing escapes the notice of God.
Well, the question has a point to make. After all, the timing of Halloween goes back to an ancient pagan festival, some say that was originated in Ireland, marking the beginning of winter. Samhain, pronounced “SAW-in,” from what I have learned, also celebrated the end of the harvest season. Since Samhain is at the same time of year as the traditional date for Halloween, the overlap gives the impression that Halloween has a pagan connection…. And since anything that distracts the believer from whole hearted worship of Jesus Christ could be considered “Satanic,” it only makes sense to raise such suspicion.
All Saints Day was celebrated by early medieval Christians to remember those Christian martyrs and other exemplary Christians who had gone on before them. All Saints Day, though originally in May, was moved to November 1st, under Pope Gregory (731-741 A.D.). All Souls Day, a related Christian festival to remember the faithful departed, particularly deceased relatives, was set on November 2nd. During the Reformation, the All Souls Day fell out of favor. But All Saints Day was held on by the English Anglican Church. All Saints Day is otherwise known as “All Hallows Day,” (Hallows=Holy, or Saint), which is how we get “All Hallows Eve,” or “Halloween,” for the night before on October 31st.
Halloween today is basically secularized, as are most holidays now, but as the 21st century merges into what appears to be a “post-Christian” era in the West, the revival of pagan practices associated with the ancient Samhain festival have started to reappear, such as among contemporary Wiccans. But even most honest observers admit that neo-pagan spirituality is in a continued state of flux, morphing and changing quite a bit.
We can have endless debates about how “Satanic” all of this is. Or we can take a tip from this 3-minute video at John Piper’s desiringgod.org ministries. Do you see Halloween as something to be avoided, or do you see it as an opportunity to be a witness for the Gospel?
Here is my spin on that this year: If Christians really want to “take back Halloween,” then we might want to take a few lessons from church history. I suggested to my wife that instead of a ghost, or something like that, she can dress up as a Christian saint at the party, such as Saint Thecla. Early accounts are sketchy, with various elaborations, but Thecla was surely one of the Apostle Paul’s most well-known converts to the faith, first meeting Paul in what is now modern day Turkey. According to this Eastern Orthodox source, Thecla was forbidden by her mother to go out into the street to hear Paul preach. But she was able to listen outside of her bedroom window, where she heard the Gospel. So, if someone asks my wife, “Who are you supposed to be?,” well, then, she has an opportunity to talk about Thecla’s story as she heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and had her life set free from the fear of darkness and death.
The point is this: perhaps one of the best ways to celebrate “All Hallows Eve” is to remember the examples of remarkable Christians who have died and gone before us. If you receive an invitation to a Halloween party, perhaps you can read up a bit on church history, dress up as some Christian figure from the past, and then use the opportunity to share the story of that person you came dressed as, with others at the party. Sure, it sounds a bit geeky, but it is a whole lot more interesting than dressing up as some “Superhero.”
For more on the origins of Halloween, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has some perceptive comments to share in 3 minutes. In the meantime, I need to figure who I should be… and find a costume!
UPDATE: November 3, 2015
I need to make correction to an earlier statement, which suggested that the original All Saints Day spring celebration was moved to November 1st, partly to counteract the Samhain fall festival. A recent post at the Anxious Bench blog, references a work by historian Nicholas Rogers, arguing that while the Irish world, where Samhain came from, originally celebrated a feast for saints in April, the Germanic world, that did not recognize the Irish Samhain, had a feast for saints in November. This undermines the idea that All Saints Day was placed in November in order to try to supplant the Samhain festival. I am glad to be corrected, and so I modified the rest of the blog post. The study of history reveals some interesting surprises and busts a lot of pious fiction.
Martin Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door on All Hallows Eve, 1517. Most people associate October 31st with Halloween, but students of church history know this as “Reformation Day”
Like any kid growing up in an American secularized society, I liked the whole Halloween thing. I have a serious weakness for chocolate, so I always looked forward to going door to door to see how many chocolate treats I could get. Sure, there were horror stories about people sneaking razor blades into mini-candy bars, but I was willing to take the risk. As I got a little older, I would try to terrify the neighborhood kids by playing Pink Floyd’s Echoes album through my bedroom speakers out the window as costumed figures approached our house.
Okay. I stopped that pretty quick when my mother learned about it and reprimanded me for making a few of the little kids cry.
When I began to take my spiritual journey with Jesus Christ seriously in high school, I began to hear other types of horror stories about Halloween from my new church friends. There were tales about its connection to Satanism at worst, or perhaps just only a milder, yet just as bad, connection to Wiccan, Druid and other forms of pagan religions… and those “dreadful” Harry Potter books.
I began to see a shift in evangelical churches away from celebrating “All Hallows Eve” towards things like having “Harvest Parties” or “Fall Festivals.” Well, I can surely appreciate the effort to shift the focus, but I am not so sure how successful it has been.
Instead, I think if we really want to shift the focus away from the negative aspects of Halloween, then we should instead take a page or two from church history. On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther approached the door of the Wittenberg church with a list of his Ninety-Five Theses regarding abuses in the Roman church. What he nailed to the door of that church that day has forever changed the face of Western Christianity… and the whole world!
Martin Luther had kicked started the Protestant Reformation, a movement that resulted in perhaps the greatest revival of spiritual vitality and love for the Scriptures that the world has ever seen. But Martin Luther’s Reformation belongs not just to Protestants. It belongs to the whole Christian church. Even those Roman Catholics who murmured about Luther must admit that change was necessary to correct some serious problems. It was through the efforts of people like Martin Luther that the Bible came to the common people in their native tongue, a privilege that most Christians today simply take for granted. It was also through the turmoil of the Reformation that made the Western world into what it is today, providing the intellectual and cultural incubator for the growth of modern science and capitalism. So even if someone is not a Christian, Luther’s Reformation has made an incredible impact upon world history.
So, instead of getting all flustered about those trick or treaters coming to our doors to unwittingly fan the flames of pagan traditions, let us as believers consider a completely different approach, encouraging people to remember this day in world history, where one man with a hammer in hand and a powerful set of ideas birthed in Scripture changed the world.