Christians and Halloween

Michael Kotsch

How should Christians navigate this increasingly popular holiday? And what is its true background? Some answers from a historical and biblical foundation.

John Carpenter’s Halloween is a world-famous horror film from 1978. It’s about the fictional Michael Myers, who dons a Halloween mask and ambushes his victims in order to stab them to death. As the story in the film goes, six-year-old Michael had killed his seventeen-year-old sister Judith with a chef’s knife. He was sent to a sanitarium for the next few years, but his condition proved to be untreatable. He managed to escape on October 30, 1978, and since then Myers has been looking for people to hunt down and brutally kill. In the feature film and its seven sequels (shot through 2002), Michael Myers is “evil personified,” which preys on others but cannot be killed itself. A real cult following developed around the series.

The basis for the film is, of course, the American traditions surrounding Halloween. Houses are decorated with Jack-o-lanterns, lit from within by candles. Children dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods, calling “Trick or treat!” at each door. They are usually rewarded with candy or other small goodies.

The Background of Halloween
Halloween’s actual starting point is the Catholic All Saints’ Day, which is currently celebrated on November 1st. In the 2nd century, the Church began to hold a memorial service on the anniversary of the deaths of Christian martyrs, to commemorate their courageous sacrifice and to honor the strength of their faith as a model for other Christians. As centuries passed, the increasing number of these “saints” made it difficult to remember each and every one through a separate festival. So, in the Eastern Orthodox Church during the 4th century, the numerous martyr memorial days were combined to form a shared All Saints’ Day festival. It was celebrated the Sunday after Pentecost. This singled out the martyrs as the “spiritual elite” of the Christian church.

On May 13, 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome as a memorial for all Christian martyrs. The Friday after Easter was established as their official holiday, in order to make use of the proximity to Jesus’ death. Ireland—which had long been Christianized—moved the festival to November 1st in the 8th century, the beginning of the Celtic year and winter. This date underscored parallels between the deceased martyrs and the dying of nature. It was hoped that the visible death in nature would contrast with the eternal spiritual realm of believers. In 835, Pope Gregory IV designated November 1st to be an official day of remembrance for all Christian martyrs and saints for the entire Catholic church. At the end of the 10th century, Benedictine monks at the monastery in Cluny, France also introduced the festival of All Souls’ Day. On this day, Christians were meant to reflect on all those who had already died and, according to Catholic interpretation, would now have to suffer in purgatory. The faithful were to plead through prayer for the welfare of these souls, especially on this day.

Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve) is the night before All Saints’ Day. Due to the various customs that prevail, it’s assumed that we especially remember death and the deceased at this time. Of course, such an occasion attracted many to numerous ghoulish customs and various forms of divination. After all, it was believed that people have a special closeness to the otherwise inaccessible hereafter on that day. That’s why some, especially the young, disguise themselves as the grim reaper, a skeleton, corpse, witch, or other person believed to have a close connection to the afterlife. Some people also love to scare or even harass acquaintances or passers-by with scary masks.

Technically, until the 19th century, Halloween was celebrated almost exclusively in the British Isles, particularly in Ireland. Halloween came to the United States later with Irish immigrants. Then in the 1990s, the increasingly commercialized celebration found its way to Europe.

The custom of putting out carved pumpkins (turnips, originally) at Halloween also comes from Ireland. According to legend, there was once a villain known as Stingy Jack. He is said to have lured the devil into a trap, releasing him only after securing a promise that the devil would leave him alone forever. But because Jack had become involved with the occult, he wasn’t welcome in heaven after his death. And because of his bad experience with Jack, the devil didn’t want him in hell either. So, according to legend, Jack’s spirit has wandered the world with a hollowed-out turnip for a lantern ever since. Only in the United States has the turnip morphed into a pumpkin. Since then, a grimacing pumpkin, illuminated by a candle and placed in front of the house, is supposed to keep the devil and evil spirits away.

Because of its innate proximity to death and the devil, Halloween is one of Satanism’s most important holidays. In the United States, the concept of Halloween also became blended with Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), which is celebrated at the same time. The idea of the dead coming to visit from the afterlife and happily reuniting with the living once a year—complete with music, dancing, and feasting—comes from the pre-Christian time of the Aztecs. Today, to mark this occasion (particularly in Mexico), homes and shops are decorated with stylized skeletons and fake skulls. Small skulls or bones made from sugar or marzipan as a children’s treat, as well as the “bread of the dead” (a sweet biscuit flavored with anise and decorated with skulls), are popular. Food and drinks, flowers and personal mementos, candles and incense, are placed before small home altars in honor of the dead. On this day, it’s important to be on good terms with the deceased and invite them to eat and drink. The idea is that at midnight, the dead have to say goodbye and return to the afterlife.

Against the backdrop of the Irish/Celtic renaissance in the second half of the 19th century, there were efforts to trace many Christian traditions back to their pagan or Celtic roots. During that time, when some were turning away from a generally Christian self-image, people were searching for older, (allegedly) more authentic traditions. These ideologically motivated efforts often led to speculations that lacked a genuine historical basis. Throughout Europe, it became fashionable to establish a purported continuity with the ancient Celts, Teutons, or Romans. After Ireland’s forced unification with England in 1800, there was also a strong nationalistic interest there. During the ancient Irish festival of Samhain, people could gain access to the “other world.” People were advised to stay home on that day to avoid encountering the mythological heroes of the past, or the underworld god Cenn Crúach (“the bloody head”). To appease this god, a solemn blood sacrifice was made. Samhain also commemorated the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, in which two Irish tribes fought each other, supported by magic, curses, and rape. It is alleged that as early as 700 BC, the Druid priest would light a sacred bonfire at Samhain, from which every person would carry a flame to relight their own hearth.

The widely promoted concept of an Irish renaissance, boiled down to Halloween being viewed as a superficially Christianized Samhain festival. However, extensive historical and archaeological research over the past few decades, has cast doubt on this conclusion. In ancient Ireland, Samhain wasn’t at all intended to commemorate the dead. Additionally, there is no evidence of the supposed victims of the gods of the underworld, or mementos of famous battles in a Halloween context. We should also remember that All Saints’ Day (and, by extension, Halloween) was originally invented in Italy, not Ireland. Also, Ireland was Christianized so thoroughly and early (the 5th century) that there was no reason to adapt pagan rites later on. Very little of Halloween custom resembles the old Irish Samhain, beyond superficial similarities such as light used as symbolism, which is to be expected in a festival during a dark season. As a result, researchers currently regard attempts to establish continuity between the two festivals to be historically unfounded speculation. The same applies to attempts (also dating from the 19th century) to link Halloween/All Saints’ Day with old Germanic traditions.

Recently, neo-paganism has sparked an increased interest in claiming much Christian symbolism and church custom as its own. That’s why false claims, like the ones of the Irish renaissance, are made so often. Contrary to historical record, both the ancient Irish Samhain and Catholic Halloween are interpreted as celebrations of meetings between the living and the dead. A counterpoint to the spring festival of Beltane, Samhain is claimed to emphasize darkness and the proximity of this world to the hereafter. However, this is just an unhistorical reinterpretation, primarily for reasons of self-promotion. Those who represent neo-paganism can’t even agree on the exact symbolism of light, pumpkins, and roaming children. Some of them want to celebrate the supposedly ancient Irish or Germanic festival on November 1st; others evoke the Irish lunar calendar and calculate a different date entirely.

Should Modern Christians Celebrate Halloween?
1. It’s rather unfortunate that Halloween has almost completely displaced the traditional St. Martin’s Day in central Europe. This day, observed on November 10th and 11th, traditionally commemorates the 4th century Christian missionary Martin von Tours, as well as the Reformer Martin Luther. On this day, children would go from house to house with lanterns, singing Christian songs, and were given sweets and fruit. Reformation Day, also celebrated on October 31, has unfortunately been largely suppressed by Halloween.

2. Today, Halloween is mainly about consumption: buying costumes, candy, and decorations. Generally, Christians shouldn’t support this kind of holiday commercialization.

3. Halloween is commonly celebrated in a context of magic, horror, and fortune telling. These are aspects that Christians reject as occult practices, according to the Bible.

4. Halloween is closely related to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which are customarily Catholic holidays. Since Jesus and the apostles taught nothing about the veneration of the “saints” or about the punishment of the dead in purgatory, modern Christians are critical of these concepts from Catholic theology.

5. The originally intended commemoration of deceased believers, is unrecognizable in modern Halloween celebrations. Instead, along with occult aspects from popular culture, neo-pagan interpretations are increasingly prevalent. Christians reject this with good reason.

6. According to the Bible, there is generally no connection between the worlds of the living and the dead. On the contrary, God even makes a clear distinction. Jesus and the apostles firmly reject attempts to establish contact with the afterlife or the realm of the dead (Deut 18:10-11; Luke 16:26ff.).

7. Of course, Christians can and should remember the faithful who came before them (2 Tim 3:14-15; Heb 12:1). After all, they also belong to the Church of Jesus, which stretches beyond all borders and ages. Their lives help Christians come to better know God’s actions and gain an awareness of their own historical influences. We are absolutely permitted to dedicate a special day to remembering the exemplary believers of the past. It’s the aspect most worthy of consideration, but Halloween fails to achieve this.

Therefore, Christians are advised to stay as far away from Halloween as possible. But since most people are content to enjoy Halloween’s simple amusements, and its spiritual roots have largely fallen to the wayside, Christians don’t need to present themselves as the celebration’s committed enemies either. That would inspire some people to curiosity about its assumed occult roots, or even to try them out. Of course, it’s also possible to use this day as an opportunity to emphasize the reality of a life after earthly death or God’s coming judgment, through tracts or conversations. After all, these significant aspects played an important role in Halloween’s historical development. If a greater number of people are willing to think about death and the afterlife because of Halloween, it can serve as a welcome occasion for Christians to talk about these important spiritual connections.

Midnight Call - 10/2022

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