Halloween is a confused, and confusing time of the year for people who take seriously the idea of an unseen realm. We believe that there is a reality beyond our mortal eyes, save what Jesus allows us to see from time to time, and so we want to take that seriously and be careful with it. But is Halloween a carelessness? Are we welcoming unseen dangers? Or are we celebrating Christs victory? There is no single answer.
For many it is simply dressing up, having fun, and getting sweets… and I dare say – there is not much more thought about it – it is simply an opportunity for fun and a party, and the theme is – fancy dress, or maybe even spooky fancy dress…
Others may see it as having much more deliberately pagan roots – and may understand its roots to be in paganism, witchcraft, and Samhain… some even think it has something to do with celebrating death.
For others still – Halloween is rooted in the church, and is a church festival called all saints day…
But which is true? What is Halloween all about – what is it’s origin…
The thing is there isn’t one single origin for what we call Halloween today. Neither the Christian or the pagan origins account for the popular celebration of Halloween as it is today.
The Pagan origin is found in Samhain:
Briefly – the Ancient Celtic calendar divided the year into a light half and a dark half and Samhain marks the beginning of new year – as they go into the dark half of the year.
It was also the Harvest time – and for ancient peoples the harvest was a matter of life and death, if the harvest failed people starved and death was always close. And so at this time of the pagan new year, as the days got darker, the leaves fell from the trees and winter pressed in there was naturally this focus on the fragility of life. New year became a time to get together around fire and food to celebrate the harvest that would keep them alive through the darkness of winter.
It was believed then that at this time of year, at the changing of seasons and years, the veil between the two worlds was thinned. That there was a crossing of worlds, that spirits – particularly ancestral spirits could come to you, but also – that you could enter the spiritual world. That the veil between life and death was at its thinnest – and the living and the dead could mingle – that is the main premise of pagan halloween.
And so it was not a celebration of death, but an acknowledgment of it.
The Church Origin is that the church already had a day like this – a day to remember and acknowledge those who have already died – ‘All Saints Day’. It was not a worship of the dead, nor trying to have communication with the dead – but simply a celebration that all who have died in Christ have not ceased to exist but are alive, and with him, and where they have gone – so we shall follow.
Now – yes – in the Orthodox Church this is around May, and it seems that the Catholic Church moved it to November. The accusation has been that it was done to hi-jack a pagan festival, and use it as a time to preach the gospel to pagans who were already thinking about the unseen realities, of life and death. If this is true, is this a bad thing? I don’t think so – the church were just trying to tell a better story! Pointing people to where life really can be found – not relying on a harvest and ancestral spirits. But trusting in Jesus the one who really can take care of those who pass through to death.
So the church celebrated all saints day, or all hallows day on the first of November which made the 31st of October – the day before – ‘All Hallows Eve’ (the day before hallows day, the day of the holy ones). Hallows Eve was eventually contracted to Halloween… so the name Halloween is not a pagan or worldly name, its a church name! When you see the ‘Halloween’ aisle in the supermarket, it is a church festival that they are naming it after!
For the Roman Catholic Church ‘hallows day’ was a time to think of relatives who were in purgatory. Purgatory is not a teaching you will find in the bible, and it is not an orthodox teaching of the church, but what many Catholics believe is that after death Christians need to work off any sins they did not confess before they died before they would be allowed into heaven. It was also believed that if people prayed for these deceased Christians it would make their time in purgatory shorter. And so on all hallows eve children would go ‘souling’. Souling was the practice of going door to door to receive soul cakes (treats), in exchange for prayers for the persons relatives in purgatory – the more prayers for them meaning less time in purgatory.
Conclusion on Origin
So which is it? Is Halloween a Pagan thing – or a church thing, made Roman Catholic?
The Irony is – many Christians would look at people celebrating Halloween and say it’s obviously not a church thing – but equally there are real pagans, druids etc. who would look at the same celebrations and say that it’s obviously not a pagan thing!
I think the best way to understand Halloween – is to acknowledge that it has become a secular thing!
Secular – as in nothing to do with spiritual things at all! Purely humanistic and materialistic. Todays Halloween has got far more to do with American practices, than its origins in Northern Europe. Christians left here with their church feasts – and they have come back to us distorted by progressive American materialistic Capitalism. The Americans have done the same with St. Patricks day – they have no idea what it is about, and just use it as an excuse to have a party – wear leprechaun hats, and add green food colouring to their watered down beer!
In the same way that Christmas has become just as much a secular celebration as a church celebration – and we don’t think that our unbelieving friends celebrating Christmas makes them believers – neither does celebrating secular Halloween make them pagans.
So – How should we engage with Halloween as Christians?
How should we engage?
I think there are two ways to respond – and they are not mutually exclusive – you could do both.
The first option is redeeming Halloween.
If we view Halloween as a neutral thing – no more pagan than christian, just a secular excuse for some fun, we can see that it’s not really celebrating anything real. It’s just something to do; get dressed up, go trick or treating – nobody really knows why – its just fun. Its not evil, in fact – there are some good things about it! Community, contact with neighbours, generosity of giving sweets.
Given this is the current practice and reality of Halloween I think Christians are free to join in with their neighbours. At the very least it would be a good thing to answer your door, talk to your neighbours, and give a gift… this is Christian! I would go as far as to say Christians are free to even go trick or treating, if their conscience allows. Even dressing up in something spooky… because there is nothing scary or evil about dressing up.
As we think about that possibility though – the question is – what are we celebrating? Why are we dressing up?
You see – as far as I can understand – historically it was Christians who first started dressing up in spooky costumes on All Hallows Eve. The idea was that Christians mocked the devil and his minions on the day before they celebrated Jesus’ victory over death! And so they dressed up to show that they are not scared – openly mocking the evil spirits. We can still do this today! A Christian child can dress in a spooky costume with the knowledge that it’s not that scary, there is nothing to fear because they belong to Jesus. Monsters and evil are as scary as a little girl dressed up as a ghost! That is the reality of Satan and his devils – although they are real, they are toothless, and though they may present as powerful and harmful – to the christian there is no danger and we can show that, and proclaim that, by dressing up – as the OT prophets – acting out the reality of the gospel.
In this way, we can claw back Halloween and redeem it from secularism.
The problem with redeeming Halloween
But – this is not without its problems.
Because Halloween is stripped of any real spiritual meaning there is a danger for unbelievers…
Trivialising these spooky devilish death things is not dangerous for the christian – because they are trivial to us! We trivialise them not because evil is nothing, but because it has become nothing in Christ. We’re not scared of them! It doesn’t mean we seek them out and mess with them – but they are nothing to us, and so they can be mocked.
But for the unbeliever this can be a victory for the devil, not because unbelievers are celebrating occult practices, and leaving themselves open to demon possession or anything like that – but because Secular Halloween is in danger of slowly undermining the fear of death. Trivialising the devil, as though he were only a fictional, laughable character who poses no danger to them.
And so this is worth bearing in mind as we engage with Halloween celebrations – we know what we are doing and why – but are we bringing light and clarity? Are we communicating the truth and saying “yes – I’m dressed like this because I’m not scared of death – but perhaps you should be?!”
We need to think about what we are celebrating, what we believe, but we also need to think about what message we are giving to others when we are joining in. And to be clear – I don’t think that message is given any clearer when we stay at home, turn the lights off, and hide behind the sofa…
If we are going to engage and hope to bring light and truth to bear – we need to do it carefully and thoughtfully.
Also – for our children – are they able to make that distinction? That we’re not celebrating spooky stuff, but mocking it…? Are we just doing the same as everyone else at school – colouring pictures of pumpkins and bats etc. are we doing a good job of giving them a christian worldview that is louder and brighter than the worlds world-view?
The big issue isn’t that it’s occult-ic – it’s that its Babylonian, materialistic etc.
If we understand Halloween as neither pagan nor holy – but secular – just something the world does, then the question is – as with anything the world does, is how do we engage with what the world does?
So the big story is – yes – there are monsters in this world. There is real evil. There are real spiritual beings who are not your friend, and don’t want to play with you, they want to destroy you and drag you down with them.
And so its not wrong for children to draw monsters and think about them – but where do they go from there? Are they enjoying their devilishness? Or are they drawing them in the light of their defeat by Jesus?
Best approach to redeeming Halloween
My thoughts on these things are always being sharpened, and growing and changing – but my best thought at the moment is: if we are going to join in with the community thing – maybe the best option is get dressed up etc. but not as spooky things? Not because it’s wrong, or we can’t but out of concern for unbelievers? I don’t know – a lot of wisdom is required. But I think those are the issues around it.
Thats one option – join in and on the outside look like we are doing everything the same, but know that inside we are not – and that is fine for our conscience, but is that being clear on the gospel?
The seasons belong to the church
Second response is – instead of redeeming Halloween back from secularism – returning to its Christian roots. To do that we need to begin by asking – what was this all about in the church to begin with?
What is it about this time of year that means that pagans and Christians are thinking along similar lines to begin with? Its almost as though there is some inherent meaning in the seasons that are being observed by both groups, but both are coming to different conclusions on.
Because although it may be true that All Hallows Day was moved to this date in October to ‘redeem’ pagans, there was in fact already a Christian feast at this time of the year – Michaelmas.
You see – there is meaning imbued in the world and in the seasons.
God has created everything to proclaim his glory. And who is the glory of God? Jesus! Jesus is the glory of the father, and so God has created everything to proclaim Him! Jesus is the true meaning of the seasons.
We are perhaps familiar with the psalm that says ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. Maybe we have seen it in a Christian gift shop above a picture of a beautiful sunset. And while it is true that we can look at creation and glorify God for it – something much deeper is being said in the psalm. The heavens declare the glory of God, not just because they are beautiful – but because the stars in the heavens declare times and seasons.
Again – this is something that even pagans have noticed in their following of star signs. Its not just hocus-pocus – they are on to something they have noticed something that God has put in place – a meaning in the heavens. But they misappropriate that meaning to make it about themselves rather than Jesus. Now maybe that sounds a bit weird to you – Jesus and star signs! Surely Christians don’t believe in knowledge in the stars right?! But just think of the Magi, these gentile scholars who followed the stars and knew when and where Jesus would be born… God has clearly out the truth about his son in the stars… but more on that here..!
The point is nothing is accidental! God has made the universe to be a clock, with day and night, seasons and years – a clock that tracks one thing – Jesus! All clocks exist to point to his first coming, and now his second coming. Even you own body is a clock! It measures and marks the passing of time – so you might be ready for Jesus return!
And so the church calendar just follows this clock of the seasons that Jesus has given us. The church year is designed to help us to live focussed on Jesus – always watching, always waiting – letting the seasons preach to us.
So – of course we are about to come to the beginning of the church year – Advent! The Church calendar starts with advent, his birth… and from their we move through the seasons…
And this isn’t a new thing – its not a New Testament thing, the Old Testament church were also given times and season and feasts by God to keep Jesus front and centre.
And so I think the best framework to understand Halloween is Harvest. Because Halloween has its roots in Harvest Festivals – and we can acknowledge this is true both for Christians – AND for Pagans…
Halloween’s roots in Harvest
The last feast of the year in the bible was the Harvest Festival – the Feast of Trumpets. The Feast of Trumpets is first spoken of in Leviticus 23:23-25. During the feast, the people would bring various offerings to the Lord (Numbers 29:1-6). It was a call to stop work and remember the Lord, and the people were to hold the feast on the first day of the seventh month and throughout the day, the Israelites could hear the sound of a trumpet – hence the name Feast of Trumpets.
The Feast of Trumpets was an outward expression of the feeling of anticipation the church had that the Lord had shown himself to Moses at Mount Sinai, and the people anticipated the Lord showing himself again. And so this feast is also a beautiful picture of the second coming of Christ. It was a harvest feast that focussed on the coming and return of Jesus (more on the feast of trumpets here).
The church never stopped observing and celebrating the church calendar given to the Old Testament church by Jesus, but, as the gospel and the church spread across the world, the feasts began to have slightly different expressions in slightly different places. And so Christians in Northern Europe began to celebrate the final harvest festival of the trumpets in the form of St. Michael and All Angels (Michaelmas).
St. Michael is the angel associated with the final harvest because in the bible he is associated with the final true harvest when Christ returns. When Michael blows the trumpet, the last Christians will be gathered up to meet Jesus in the air while the angels clear out the Earth. It’s the final harvest of souls.
And so as Christians come to the end of Michaelmas tide, it becomes fitting to think about what life is like for those gathered in Heaven. Those meeting Jesus in the air right now. We don’t think about these things so deeply because we are so removed from the idea of harvest, and we live in a time when we enjoy the fruit of the harvests from across the world, the idea of a final harvest is not normal for us. But the church was drawn by the season to think deeply about those who had already been taken up from the earth, harvested from the earth, and what it must be like for them being in the presence of Jesus! Safe from the evil of this world! This time of year is meant to be eschatological, with an eye to what comes after death…
And so – of course, the pagans noticed harvest times too. If they didn’t they would have died out. So, they had traditions of their own. St. Bede noticed these traditions, and no doubt the other Church Fathers for other regions did as well – and noticed how the seasons had drawn the pagans to thoughts of what happens after death too.
Now – the Church was sure to root out pagan influence from her feasts, but some things could slip through. Not because they were tolerant of even a sliver of paganism, but because these traditions were fitting to their region.
We can hardly have griddle cakes and goat as easily as the Israelites could, so elements of the Harvest Festival had to be shaped around what life is and was like in Britain. That means some things that local pagans did slipped through – not because they were pagan, but because they were local. This is something that pagan apologists like to make far too big a deal of.
So – I think what makes most sense of Halloween as a Christian is to see it in the whole story of the year. When we see it out of context – it doesn’t make much sense, and we get all sorts of confusing ideas.
But if we start our Church years with Advent, then Christmas, then Childermas, Epiphany, Candlemas, Easter, Johnmas, Annunciation, Ascension, Pentecost, Dispersion of the Apostles and Michaelmas, the Church Year will have already told the story of Jesus birth, childhood, preparations led by John, his Death, Resurrection, Ascension, establishing the Church and the Coming Judgement Day.
With all that done, Halloween will simply be the next step in understanding the Gospel story: the parts we are living in and looking forward to. We can at that point look back on the souls already harvested as we eat the sweets from the Final Harvest. All that should make more sense as a lived-through story. Once we have spent a few weeks in Michalemas thinking about the fact that we are like grains safely stored up in Jesus’ barn – the idea of then dressing up and mocking the forces of evil makes much more sense, and is set in the context of the gospel. Once the whole story of our gathering into safety has been properly told with all the proper backdrop, all that mockery of the Devil will make sense.
Conclusion – a better story
So the feasts given to the Old Testament church were given to proclaim Jesus to them. The seasons were given to proclaim Jesus to them, and the church across the world has continued these feasts to proclaim Jesus to each other.
And so in Britain and parts of Europe the church year ends with Harvest and the feast of St Michael and his angels, showing how the natural harvest season proclaims the true spiritual harvest that is to come.
Harvest, where every good thing is taken up from the earth, and offered to God. Every good crop is taken up, and what is left dies, and the earth is left desolate – until the new life of spring comes, bringing new creation.
Halloween – this season is a time for Christians to look forward to being with Jesus, and being lifted up with him, and the earth being made new.
The devil of course is defeated – but he’s not done fighting. He knows the day is coming when his doom is final – and until then he is going to fight tooth and nail to prolong his time on earth, and drag as many humans down with him as he can… And so he is going to try hi-jack Christs seasons – make the clock about something else – anything else other than Jesus.
When the world generally had a more spiritual world view, he made it about ancestral spirits, and relying on the earthy harvest for their life – worshipping moon, rain, and sun. But now – there is no mainstream acknowledgement of a spiritual world – materialism and secularism works much better for him now. He doesn’t need to turn heads to the occult – he has far greater success with mundane parties and distractions.
The pagans at least were on to something – this idea of the closeness of the spiritual world…
Christians acknowledge the same – we are thinking of the saints who have gone ahead and escaped death! Who have died – but are alive! They witness to us – as a great cloud – that where they have gone – we can go too!
This is a better story. Halloween is an opportunity to tell it.