Happy Halloween? Or wait… should I be wishing you a Happy Halloween? I’m a Christian and a pastor, after all.
So, I’ll admit it, when it comes to major festivities like Christmas or Halloween, we Christians have had our hang-ups and complaints, and Halloween is no exception to the rule.
Depending on what Christian you talk to you about Halloween, you’ll hear various responses ranging from…
- “Halloween? That’s a completely evil, pagan holiday. We should have nothing to do with it.”
- “Oh for crying out loud… It’s just a fun day for dressing up, having a good time, and trick-or-treating.”
- Or… a shrug.
Because I like learning about this kind of thing and then writing on it, I did some research into the origins and evolution of the October 31 festivity we have come to know as Halloween. I wanted to know where it comes from. And I was especially curious about what kind of connections we Christians have to it, since it seems to evoke visceral, cheerful, or nonchalant responses. My findings were quite fascinating and varied!
Want to learn more? Read on with me…
So the first thing I learned is that the origins of Halloween are pretty complex, funkier than a witch’s brew. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Seriously, it’s a strange synergy of ancient Celtic, Christian, and even Germanic traditions, ginned up in the last nearly 100 years by our American retail and entertainment industries.
From what I can surmise, the earliest roots for Halloween come from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. (That’s the pagan influence which sends some Christians screaming for the exit doors.) It’s actually a beautiful tradition. A friend of mine who practices Celtic-based spirituality described it for me this way:
Samhain has its roots in the end of harvest celebrations around the world, by many different names. On the agricultural calendar it marks the time before the frost when anything in the fields were rendered dead. the dying of the crop- a sacrifice as it were- makes the fields fertile for buried seeds that bring the promise of a new crop to come in the spring- the rebirth. Because of the shorter days and less sunlight, the gate or veil between the living and dead is so thin.
So there it is. Samhain is an end-of-the-harvest celebration and an acknowledgment of the transition from the life of summer to the sleep of winter. This gave rise to the belief that on Samhain, the veil between the living and the dead was particularly thin, which meant that our ancestors along with good and evil spirits would come to visit the living.
Bonfires were lit and turnips were carved into faces to ward off any evil. People would go out mumming– a mix of caroling and gift giving/receiving, disguised, to celebrate the visit of the dead to the living, while attempting to ward off evil spirits. Great feasts were held to welcome the visitation of the dead with the living.
From this you can see some of the early influences of Samhain still at work today– Halloween bonfires, pumpkin carvings, costumes and mask, parties and feasts, trick or treating, and harvest festivals.
But… that’s only half the story.
Once upon a time, the Catholic Church had a fascinating practice of combining Christian and pagan traditions together, in order to make a bridge from paganism into Christianity. They believed that taking something pagan and “baptizing” it into something Christian would be a way to make connections between the church and the existing culture. And they were wildly successful. (Placing Christmas right around the winter solstice is another successful attempt at the same thing.)
In the 9th Century, Pope Gregory IV took the May 13 “St. Mary and All the Martyrs” celebration (which was itself an approbation of a Roman holiday commemorating the dead) and placed it on November 1, calling it “All Hallow’s Day.” All Hallow’s, later called All Saint’s has taken on many meanings through the years, but largely, it is a time to remember and commemorate the saints of God who have gone on before us and to celebrate our ongoing connection and communion with them, as they surround us in the heavens. We give thanks for them, look to their example, and look forward to sharing in their resurrection from the dead with Jesus Christ, joining together in the New Heaven and New Earth at the end of all time.
Major Catholic feast days were always preceded by a day of preparation- an Eve. That made an All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. Since many of our Halloween traditions came to America from the Irish and Scots, All Hallow’s “Even” (“even” is the Scottish word for Eve) came with them. “Even” was routinely contracted to “E’en”. Over the years, All Hallow’s E’en was shortened to Hallow’een and eventually shortened again to our modern day Halloween.
Put all of that together, and as I mentioned earlier, the Halloween of today is a very odd mix of old pagan and Christian traditions, greatly expanded by American commercialism, leaving these pagan and Christian traditions weaved together into this strange– and at times– uncomfortable hodgepodge of culture and religion. Of course, today, most people, even many Christians, are unaware of the Christian roots of Halloween.
So what can be done about that?
It begins by looking at our modern celebration of Halloween. It seems to be made up of several key things:
- Community. This is the one night of the year that kids happily go from door to door collecting candy from neighbors they might not otherwise talk to. People gather together for parties, community bonfires, and harvest celebrations. I see in all this our ongoing need for connection with our neighbors.
- A festive burlesque of death, evil, and the things that frighten us. Why do we go after all this stuff? Why so many ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches, and tombstones? I think it’s our attempt to laugh at and even mock the things we fear the most. Death, evil, and our shadows lurk in the outer wings of our lives. At least we like to keep them there as long as we can. But once in a while, we feel an innate need to face our fears and shadows and to parody, mock, and play with them. It seems to me that Halloween has become a major vehicle folks use to do that very thing.
- An embrace of the changing seasons. This time of year is an ingathering time– something we felt much more profoundly when more of us lived agrarian lives. It’s a time to say goodbye to the life, light, and warmth of summer and to greet the deep, dark, cold sleep of winter. Perhaps this moves us to think of our own lives, specifically how truly thin the veil is between this life, death, and the next life.
I think we Christians can embrace Halloween in a whole new way, very intentionally, without running from it or heedlessly partaking in it without any consideration to our beliefs and unique witness.
First, we must share and live out the truth that through every season of our lives, God is faithful. It’s just a matter of fully embracing the season we are in and trusting that God is fully present in that season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15). This includes, of course, the passing of summer and our transition into winter, in nature and over the course of our human lives, too.
Second, we can join in the community! Halloween stuff is fun. It’s a special time that people get together, enjoy one another, and hopefully build relationships. It’s within these human connections that the good news of Jesus is shared, both by our gracious speech and the good news of our lives, filled with the goodness of Christ.
Third, we do indeed have good news to share. Death and evil are defeated foes! Through Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross, we have the freedom to resist evil and to move through death into resurrection. Halloween may be one day of the year to laugh off evil and death. But every day we Christians all over the globe openly defy the powers of evil and death through the unstoppable power of God’s Holy Spirit within us and in the world. This segues very nicely into the celebration of All Saints, after the revelry of Halloween is over and packed up. There are so many creative ways to share this awesome good news with an anxious, bitterly divided world. How could we Christians do that, authentically and creatively, without being obnoxiously preachy, during this time of year?
So… Happy Halloween! See the presence and good news of God, even within the strange, growing darkness of the day. It’s the kind of hope and peace that will carry us through all the seasons of our lives.