Friday, October 24, 2008

Can a Christian Celebrate Halloween?

Of course. However, many contemporary Christians are concerned about Halloween. Given the rise in the practice of witchcraft, the occult, and satanic worship, coupled with the fact that the deepest roots of the Halloween tradition come from an ancient pagan Celtic festival which pre-dates Christian faith, I believe that it is important that every parent have an awareness of what lies behind the Halloween tradition. Many of us will celebrate the fun and frolic this year, and how we practice and teach this cultural tradition to our children needs to be an informed decision.

There is a lot written on the subject of a Christian response to Halloween from a variety of sources, ranging from the most belligerent and judgmental to the most academic in nature. Some Christian criticism of Halloween is erroneous and inaccurate when compared with the actual roots of the festival. So here's my attempt to offer an accurate assessment of the origins of Halloween. I hope it helps Christian families make a decision on their acknowledgement of the holiday.

Origins of Halloween

Contrary to some Christian criticism, Halloween did not originate as a satanic festival but as religious in nature (though it was the Celtic faith of ancient Druids rather than Christianity). This is an important distinction, for any association between Halloween and satanic worship is a modern phenomenon. In Celtic faith, there was no real concept of heaven or hell. Some fundamentalist sources have called Halloween a festival worshipping the devil or a “demonic god of death”, which is not accurate. Halloween is a descendant of the ancient Celtic new year festival of Samhain, a feast of the dead signaling the close of the harvest and the initiation of winter. There is no evidence that Samhain was considered a deity as claimed. The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal happiness called Tir nan Og. It was believed that at Samhain, the turn of the new year, the separation between Tir nan Og and our world was at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their beloved dead.

The origins of what we call "trick or treating" come from the most ancient form of the festival. Celts did not have demons and devils in their belief system. But they did imagine that fairies, neither bad nor good, would roam the lands between the worlds of the living and peaceful dead (in a sort of "purgatory"). Resentful of humans moving about their lands, they would try to trick them. Bonfires were lit to ward off the mythical figures. Humans would cause mischief and imitate or dress up like these fairies, going from house to house begging for treats, which usually amounted to food or milk. The people who roamed abroad would sometimes carry turnips carved with faces with a candle inside to scare away the "real" fairies and also light their way. This is the origin of the Jack-o-Lantern.

Little else is known about the festival, except that it was an important transition into the new year, with party-like fervor like modern new year celebrations. It is true that in its most ancient practice there was probably animal and possibly human sacrifice, not unlike other pagan religious practice of the ancient world. There is also evidence of divination and playful fortune telling practices, which is the origin of "bobbing for apples" (the first to bite was the next to get married, like the modern toss of the wedding bouquet).

While there is historical evidence of ancient occult practice and what we now call witchcraft in the origins of Halloween, these practices were consistent with ancient pagan religious life according to their world-view. In recent decades, satanic and cultic groups have claimed Halloween as a "holy day,” but Christian accusations concerning demonism or satanic worship in the ancient festival are simply not accurate.

All Saints' Day - a Day of the Church

One of the most wonderful things we can do in the church is use the occasion of Halloween to teach about All Saints' Day. The Church practice of All Saints Day developed in the seventh century A.D. It was originally called the Feast of the Holy Martyrs and developed independently of Samhain to praise God and honor the deceased of the Christian faith. Yet centuries later (the A.D. 800's), the day was assigned to November 1 to coincide with, yet by no means adopt, what had continued as a local harvest festival. This sort of dating was not unusual. Christmas, for example, was set on December 25 to coincide with and alter the meaning of a pagan holiday celebrated as the winter solstice Festival of the Unconquered Sun. Even the English word "Easter" reflects the name of a pagan cultural festival originally associated with the season.

Modern churches practice All Saints' and All Saints' Sunday (the first Sunday after November 1) and remember all those who have gone before us in the faith and our spiritual connection between all the "saints" of earth and those that have gone to heaven. We celebrate in the spirit of the book of Hebrews 11 and 12 and remember the "cloud of witnesses" that give us energy to carry on the work of the gospel.

An interesting twist on all this is that the name "Halloween" is actually derived from its later association with All Saints, formerly called "All Hallows" during Medieval times. October 31 became called "All Hallows Eve" and the name was later shortened to "Halloween."

The Christian and Halloween

You and your family can decide what is appropriate for you as Halloween is celebrated in our culture, and I don't propose a singular solution. You may want to consider alternatives, some of which may be subtle (dressing up in "good character" costumes not associated with evil, displaying harvest pumpkins, or having family parties). I would certainly suggest using the holiday to teach children about the triumph in Christ of good over evil and the joy and celebration of All Saints. Churches, too, could consider some form of an alternative witness through festivals, food drives, or trunk parties rather than participating in the darker side of Halloween. In any case, it is always important for God's people to resist all serious association with the scary, the superstitious, and anything that gives credence to the occult.