Halloween is a popular holiday in North America, particularly among children. Adults may enjoy the creativity of costume parties and haunted houses, while children look forward to candy, games, and (of course) more candy.
Yet Christians remain divided over Halloween. Some embrace the costumes and celebrations, while others proceed cautiously and limit their involvement. Still, others opt out of all Halloween observances altogether. But who is right? Should Christians celebrate Halloween, and if so, how?
Christians are not forbidden from celebrating Halloween. However, in discerning the appropriateness of certain aspects of Halloween, Christians should understand the origins of certain practices and weigh them against the words of scripture.
Origins of Halloween
One of the reasons that Halloween generates more debate among Christians than other cultural celebrations is that it is difficult to identify a single origin and purpose for Halloween to begin with. And so Christians often rest their convictions regarding Halloween on their understanding of it as either a pagan festival or a Christian celebration.
Christians who avoid all association with Halloween cite its roots in the pagan festival of Samhain. Originating from the druidic religions of the ancient Gaelic and Celtic people, Samhain was one of four seasonal festivals that marked a time of transition. Situated between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain was observed as the end of the harvest season and the beginning of a period of increased darkness.
Some of the customs of Samhain bear similarity to our modern Halloween traditions. Such customs include:
Bonfires: Samhain festivals were regularly accompanied by bonfires, thought to be a form of sympathetic magic to extend the light and warmth of the sun into the dark and cold of the approaching winter.
Roving Spirits: Celtic beliefs included the idea that the boundary between the spirit realm and the natural world was at its thinnest during seasonal changes, giving the dead easier access to our physical space. The spirits were believed to roam about, seeking appeasement.
Ancient observers would then sow costumes and go door to door in search of food offerings on behalf of the aggrieved spirits. And more recently, carved lanterns were used to represent the presence of these roving spirits.
And because Samhain was understood as a time of increased spiritual presence, divination rituals (séances) were also a common practice.
All Hallows Eve
The Christian tradition from which we derive the modern name “Halloween” is All Hallows Eve. This evening marks the beginning of observances that flow into All Saints Day, which is observed on November 1st in Catholic and Protestant Traditions. This is an annual observance whereby the church commemorates departed saints, both ancient and recent.
Many churches today still distribute flowers and during services on the first Sunday of November, and read the names of members who had died in the preceding year as a means of carrying on this tradition.
And since ancient calendars counted sunset (rather than solar midnight) as the start of each new day, it was common for festivals and observances to begin in the evening preceding the day of celebration. So, All Hallows Eve was marked with candlelight vigils, and parades of mourners dressed in black and ringing bells.
In addition to commemorating the dead, the Catholic practice of praying for the dead was (and continues to be) an inextricable part of All Hallows Eve customs. In conjunction with such prayers, observers in past centuries baked small soul cakes, which children would collect by going door-to-door, exchanging prayers for the cakes.
Identifying the earliest occurrences of these separate traditions is not an easy endeavor. Samhain is believed to have been celebrated since before the time of Christ, though the absence of written records limits our capacity to confirm its beginnings. And Christian feasts honoring martyrs have been observed since as early as the fourth century.
Shortly thereafter, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official faith, which greatly reduced instances of persecution and martyrdom. Then, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV expanded the commemoration of historic martyrs to include the remembrance of all of the departed saints.
The earliest All Saints Day observations were held in May but were later moved to their current place on the calendar by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century. Some speculate that this move was made to appropriate and Christianize the pagan festival of Samhain. Others suggest that the Pope was addressing a merely practical matter by moving the festival to a date when food sources were more abundant.
Common threads, such as door-to-door solicitation of food, dressing in dark and/or ghastly costumes, and recognition of the dead are evident in both Christian and pagan customs, and have merged into the traditions that we know today. When and how this convergence was affected is itself a matter of debate.
Some point to the perceived eight-century assimilation of Samhain by the church. Others suggest that the convergence took place much later when Irish and Scottish settlers in North America increasingly comingled with the earlier Germanic colonists.
Regardless of how we arrived at this point, Halloween in America is largely recognized as a secular activity focused on fun costumes and candy that serves little (or no) religious purpose. So it is not uncommon for American Christians to join in the cultural activities that mark the holiday.
Some Christians, of course, do abstain from Halloween practices as a matter of conscience. Many churches opt to offer an alternative celebration (usually a harvest festival) for their children and communities.
Such celebrations generally center on seasonal food (including apples, corn, and pies). They may or may not involve costumes, provided the costumes themselves are benign (devoid of satanic imagery or gore). And ‘trunk or treat’ events (involving the distribution of candy from car trunks in church parking lots) are a popular alternative to allowing children to roam the neighborhood in pursuit of candy.
Honoring God in Our Celebration
Recognizing that Christians are free to observe different customs and holidays (Romans 14:5-6), we are called to do whatever we do for the Lord. And so, we offer the following considerations, which may help to inform your own conscience as you evaluate if and how to observe Halloween in your own family and church:
Refrain from the occult: As God’s people set apart for Him and united to Him by Christ, we are forbidden from engaging in witchcraft and sorcery (Leviticus 19:26, Galatians 5:20). And so we are wise to avoid using costumes and decorations that promote such practices. So our imagery should be free from such Halloween mainstays as witches, devils, and ghosts.
Refrain from divination: Though divination is an occult practice, it warrants its own mention because of Halloween’s emphasis on the departed. As we addressed in our entry about spirits, the spirits of departed people do not return to the natural world. To attempt to contact them is not only a forbidden practice (Leviticus 19:31) but invites the very real danger of engaging with evil spirits.
Honor the Dead: Finally, as Jesus is the Lord of both the living and the dead (Romans 14:9), if we choose to honor the dead, it is right that we do so appropriately. By celebrating the legacy of influence that the saints before us have left for us, we affirm our own hope that we will one day join them in eternal rest in the presence of Jesus.