‘Tis the season for these kinds of questions. And there are sincere Christians who would give us very different answers. Unfortunately, much of the discussion seems based more on personal preference and opinion than on solid biblical principles. So I’ll present (in the next post) some principles I think directly relate to Halloween and similar topics. But first, some historical context:
A brief history of Halloween
Many people have a vague idea that Halloween was an attempt to “convert” a pagan holiday, similar to the “conversion” of December 25 into the Christian Christmas. The reality is a little more complicated. As the early church developed more of a focus on ritual and tradition, they began to hold an annual feast in remembrance of the martyrs who had died for the faith. This slowly evolved into a day commemorating all the saints, known as “All Saints’ Day,” “All Hallows’ Day” or Hallowmas. As with many other feast days, this was preceded the evening before by a vigil, known as “All Saints’ Eve,” “All Hallows’ Evening” or (in Old Scottish) Hallowe’en.
The people in different areas celebrated this feast on different days. Eventually, November 1 was designated as the official day to celebrate All Hallows’ Day (making October 31 All Hallows’ Eve). This day was intentionally chosen in order to convert or co-opt pagan folk festivals that celebrated the end of harvest season and the impending “death” of winter. Now, one might guess from all this that the holiday name may have come from Christian tradition but everything else came from pagans—but that wouldn’t be quite right.
Christians historically shared a fascination with death and the deceased that many today would find morbid. You can still see in many medieval churches artwork depicting the Danse Macbre, with people from every station of life (often including children) dancing with skeletons. This reminded the people that death is inevitable for everyone, even emperors and popes.
The Danse Macabre became a common pageant performed in towns and villages. They naturally held these pageants during All Hallows’ Eve, their time to remember those who had died. The intense images were intended to scare the people into renewed faithfulness, but it seems the people began to enjoy the holiday and the fun of dressing up and scaring one another.
Pagans believed that during the transition from harvest to winter (life to death), the spirits or fairies could cross over to this world. The people would build massive bonfires and carry torches outside to protect themselves from the spirits, and they would hold grand parties inside and play games. Pagans and Christians held similar superstitions regarding the souls of the dead wandering the earth until this particular day of the year.
Some Christian feasts involved groups of people slowly going from house to house. The owners of the houses would invite them in for refreshments or sometimes entire meals. Some Latino countries still observe these kinds of practices during the Christmas holiday season. The tradition of Christmas caroling—and the reward of hot chocolate, cider or desserts—comes from these earlier customs. On All Hallows’ Eve, many Christian children would go out souling. The women would bake special “soul cakes,” and then give them to the children as they stopped by the different houses. In exchange for the soul cakes, the children would pray for the departed family members of the homes they had visited.
Over the years, many of these traditions were blended together into a holiday that gradually lost its religious significance and became more of a common, festive event. With the increasing involvement of American corporate marketing, the holiday has become incredibly commercialized and sensationalized (and loved by children).
So, how should Christians respond to this cultural phenomenon? We’ll discuss this next.