Over 2,000 years ago, before the dawn of Christianity, Celts and druids in Ireland and the British Isles celebrated Samhain (pronounced “Sow” + “when” and means “summer’s end”) most likely every October 31.
According to the druids, this day marked the end of the harvest year and the ascent of the “dark half” of the year in which death became prominent.
On this special night Celts believed the souls of that year’s dead crossed over to the other worlds. As a result the wall between earth and spirit realm was quite thin and much spiritual traffic was occurring on this evening — for good and for ill. In order to prevent evil spirits from damaging their crops, killing their livestock and possessing or harassing individuals, the Celts dressed up as demons, turned out all the lights, had bonfires and apparently behaved badly. The strategy was: fool evil spirits into thinking we’re one of them and they’ll leave you alone.
This was also an evening in which the “air” was heavily marinated by the spiritual realm and therefore it was believed these were good conditions in which to engage in fortune telling. Celts believed their dead relatives may be seeking to reunite and so many households held feasts welcoming the return of dead family members. Some sources claim that during this Samhain evening, many people dressed as spirits and went door to door in exchange for food.
Some recent archaeological evidence from the early Celtic period in the territory of the Gallic Empire (i.e.: England and France) as well as written accounts by Strabo (64/64 B.C. – A.D. 21) in his work Geography, Julius Caesar’s (100 – 44 B.C.) De Bello Gallico, collections of Irish historical stories and poems (i.e.: Lebor Gabala Erenn) as well as Pliny the Elder’s (A.D. 23 – 79) writings show that Celtic religious practice most likely included human sacrifice. It is very possible that on the “high holy day” of Samhain these deeply significant practices were also taking place. If not on this night, one might wonder, on what other night would it have been deemed more appropriate?
More than 2 millenia have passed since the origins of Samhain yet we still do something similar every October. We call it Halloween. The question every Christian has to ask themselves in October is, what is the biblical view of Halloween? What should I do on October 31 of every year? In order to address this sensitive question, let us take a closer look at the origins of our Halloween tradition and at the Bible.
When Did “Halloween” Begin?
As you may have noticed, the word Samhain is different than the word Halloween. So where did this latter expression come from? In about 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV decided to turn a pagan pantheon in the city of Rome into a Christian one. So instead of celebrating hundreds of roman gods, the building was dedicated to “all of the saints of Christendom.” The name for the pope’s party was “All Saints’ Day” or “All Hallows’ Day.” The date for this yearly celebration was set for May 13 but in the 8th century (i.e.: 700’s) Pope Gregory the 3rd changed it to November 1 in order to squash any trace of Samhain’s influence in western European culture (remember that the Celtic territory had once encompassed most of Britain and northern France). About a thousand years later, in the 1500’s, October 31 began to be referred to as the Eve Before Hallows Day. It was then shortened to Hallows Eve and then to Halloween.
Despite the name change Halloween still carries the ancient Samhain’s focus on the dark spiritual themes of British, Irish and Scottish superstition. A mixture of Christian and druidic demonic imagery is pervasive. Yet, it is by no means a re-enactment of the druidic Samhain. Two other cultural traditions have merged and now sports the Christian name of Halloween.
Trick or Treat
Trick or treating most likely relates back to Celtic Samhain (according to some sources) and is tied to the ritual of dressing up as spirits in order to fend them off. Accounts exist of this custom evolving into the Samhain practice of visiting townsfolk door-to-door in costumes in exchange for food. Medieval European culture included a similar act of dressing up as animals known as “mumming.” It is quite possible the these two practices (Samhain disguises and European mumming) turned into the Christianized tradition that dates back to the 1100’s in England, Ireland and the British Isles. This newer tradition occurred on All Hallows Day (November 1) and saw children — often poor — “guise” as angels, devils or saints and go door to door for sweet biscuits known as “soul cakes.” Sometime in return they would sing praises or offer prayer for the souls of the donors’ dead relatives. As time went on, Irish and British migration to North America brought this tradition to our home turf. And in the early 1900’s it switched from being done on November 1 to being a staple of October 31. The custom also morphed into being for young children who wowed shop keepers with witty rhymes and in return would receive nuts or other treats. Then in the 1930’s in western United States and Canada the term “trick or treating” was first officially used and was done door-to-door in one’s neighbourhood. There is no modern religious significance to this door-to-door solicitation of food or candy yet there is an obvious connection to Celtic Samhain.
Jack-o-lanterns and carved pumpkins
Carving pumpkins is from an old Irish custom which may or may not go back all the way to the Celtic Samhain but does descend from Irish tradition during harvest festivals. Some sources state that the Celtics carved turnips and put glowing coals in them on Samhain (i.e.: Halloween night) in order to help ward off evil spirits. The term “Jack o’ Lantern” is based on Gaelic folklore which is at least hundreds of years old and is known as the story of Stingy Jack. In this tale, a drunkard blacksmith named Jack tricked the devil who had come to claim his soul. Therefore Jack escaped damnation but because of his sinful life could not get into Heaven either. As one of the versions of this folktale goes, the devil gave Stingy Jack a glowing ember from Hades and Jack used it in his turnip-carved lantern to forever wander the marshes and back woods of the world because of his expulsion from both Heaven and Hell. This tale is most likely a reference to the similar tales in proto-european cultures that attempt to explain the phenomenon of “will o’ the wisp.” Many bogs and marshes emit an incandescent light due to natural interactions between organic gases and static electricity. Before these were understood, the eerie night glow was the subject of many folklore stories.
As time went on, the custom for the Irish became the carving of pumpkins (instead of turnips) which had been brought to Ireland from the North America. They would place glowing coals or candles in these pumpkins to keep Stingy Jack and other evil spirits away on All Hallows’ Eve. Although it was traditional for the Irish and British to carve vegetables into lanterns, it was not until 1837 that the term “Jack-o-Lantern” was used for a variety of different vegetable lanterns. And it was a wave of 19th century Irish immigrants who brought the custom back to the United States. There is no true link between the carving of pumpkins and occultic rituals yet it appears to be based in Irish superstition and possibly Samhain tradition but not the type of sinister religious ceremonies found in modern satanic or wiccan practices.
Except for cross-dressing with the serious intent to be of the other gender (Deut 22:5) there is no biblical commandment against costumes. Costumes that mimic occultic practitioners, symbols or characters would obviously mock the biblical mandates to have nothing to do with sorcery or extra-biblical spiritual practices nor to take them lightly (Deuteronomy 18:9-12). Other than that however, dressing as bears, cows, caterpillars, super heroes, celebrities, etc cannot be condemned from the bible in a manner in which the context and intent are respected.
The question is, what is a modern Christian to do with this popular and inescapable celebration? When it comes to non-essentials (such as the Halloween question), we need to identify strict boundaries within the biblical framework.
Ephesians 6:11-12 states that the demonic realm is very real and very evil:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Satan is a real person and he leads a real super-structure of organized government against humanity and against God. Demonic imagery is no laughing matter. No one would show up to a Jewish family’s home wearing a Nazi SS uniform. So why would anyone “jokingly” wear occultic-themed costumes?
The temptation for the Christian during Halloween is to join hands with the culture and laughingly downplay dark spiritual themes. This is where a line should be drawn. The war against the evil demonic empire is central to the Christian’s life. The realm of Satan is the least funny or casual subject matter possible.
We also need to realize that we cannot escape Halloween. We will have dozens of people show up at our very door step wearing all manner of costumes, speaking and acting in ways that make light of the demonic and occultic realm. There will also be many people who are simply looking to let their children enjoy an evening of fun.
Again, what is the Christian to do? The apostle Paul makes a very important point in regards to a similar struggle faced by 1st century Christians. In his time, the roman empire was littered with idols and false gods. Spirituality was so popular that an entire industry existed to supply animals for idol worship and sacrifice. Keen restauranteurs purchased the post-sacrificial meat and sold it to their customers.
To these early Christians, meat that had been meticulously prepared for, and ceremonially sacrificed to a demonic force was an evil perversion of the God-ordained Levitical sacrificial system. A system that foreshadowed their Lord Jesus Christ. To them, that meat was synonymous with blasphemy. Surprisingly, to the apostle Paul, it was synonymous with… burgers.
“Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
-1 Corinthians 10:25-26
Essentially Paul’s overall view of sacrificed meat was that poor, lost pagans were foolishly serving non-existent gods and the meat used was simply made by God for man’s nourishment. So eat. This is important because idol worship and false religions are nearly always a communication and worship of a specific demonic spirit and a gross rupture of the very first commandment (1 Cor. 10:20, Exodus 20:1-6).
Yet Paul saw no problem with the intimacy of eating the very meat that had just been offered spiritually and killed ceremoniously by a priest of a demonically inspired worship service. In this service, the attendants desired to willfully worship an idol and the demonic power behind it. In contrast, Halloween is typically done tongue-in-cheek in our culture.
Few people we meet are serious about demon worship. Therefore, the candy they prepare or hand out cannot be worse than the meat of true idols. A Christian can eat Halloween candy. Roman Christians could easily have avoided sacrificed meat. There were other sources of meat and food. It was not a matter of survival that led God to okay this for them the way He let David and his men eat the sacrificial bread. Likewise, Christians don’t have to worry about the spiritual tainting of food. No matter what process it has undergone.
We can see that trick or treating and pumpkin carving are most likely linked to pagan traditions of the Celtic Druid religions and customs. And there are dark, occultic themes attached to the original Samhain practices. Wearing costumes and decorating homes and property with themes that depict evil spirits and symbols on October 31 is the most direct remnant of the occultic Samhain. This is clearly incompatible with Christian principles. Not costume wearing in general. Decorating our homes or children in occultic imagery is not biblical for Christians. But on October 31, most of the North American Christian population finds itself in the middle of unavoidable and overwhelming Halloween traffic.
A Christian can bow out of this cultural phenomenon or he can navigate that traffic with discernment. Personally, I don’t see any problem for adult Christians to participate in Halloween especially if there is an unavoidable work or family function incorporating it. But for those who have small children, it is unnecessary to ask children to step outside of the trick or treating and pumpkin carving aspects of Halloween if these are done in a fashion that avoids embracing dark or occultic symbols. Kids are thinking about fun and candy. Not evil or witchcraft. Just as it is possible for a Christian to go to a corrupt workplace and remain honest himself, it is possible for a family to go out into the neighbourhood on Halloween and remain innocent.
Many churches have a “Harvest Festival” on Halloween. Kids dress up and eat candy and play games. This is an obvious parallel to Halloween with an attempt to take all the “dirt” out. Yet essentially, it is an evening whose calendar date and activities are dictated by the cultural Halloween surrounding it. Such churches agree that “neutralizing” an otherwise part-pagan, part-secular celebration is possible. And I would agree.
Satanic cults, witch covens and wiccan groups all hold Halloween to be an important day on their spiritual calendar. This is due to the darker pagan origins of Samhain and October 31 pre-christian cultural practices. Many Christians are turned off by the link between the modern occult and Halloween. Very understandable and it is acceptable to choose to bow out of this celebration. I condemn no one that avoids Halloween. It is a day in which most celebrate the darkness in the spirit realm.
Now, remember that the roots of Halloween are both descending back to pagan and Christian traditions. Also recall that Christmas is yet another Christianized tradition that was meant to drown out pagan Winter Solstice celebrations. Therefore the answer to what should a Christian do on Halloween is up to the individual Christian. A Christian can participate in Halloween without compromising or sinning. But, on an individual basis, “should” he or she?
“Everything is permissible for me”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”–but I will not be mastered by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12
If a Christian comes out of an occultic background, he or she may have different views on Halloween for them or their children. And it would be perfectly understandable for them to completely boycott this festivity the same way an alcoholic should most likely be a tea-totaller.
Personally, our family “celebrates” Halloween. To be perfectly honest, we really enjoy it. I love the feeling of the city peacefully (for the most part) engaging in a singular community act.
But most importantly, it is on Halloween that our family does the most neighbourhood evangelism of the entire year. We individually pre-prepare bags of candy for our trick or treaters. Each bag contains the following home made tracts. Further, at each and every door our children hand out these tracts as well:
Each year, over 150 tracts are handed out to our neighbourhood. Satan does not own a single day on our family calendar. In fact, the day most people associate with the god of this world is the day our family dedicates to distributing the most Truth about the one and only true God who lives inside of us and is greater than “he who is in the world.”
Enjoy your Halloween. No matter what decision you make!