by Joshua D. Owen
Is Halloween a Pagan festival with roots in the Celtic celebration of Samhain? If so, the answer to the article title would be a simple no, a Christian should not celebrate Halloween. Yet, what if this backstory is an oversimplification or even a misrepresentation? What is the meaning of Halloween? And what is its history?
The name Halloween is a contracted form of the words All Hallows’ Eve (evening). That is the night before All Saints’ Day, just as Christmas Eve is the night before Christmas. “Hallows” is synonymous with “saints” or “holy ones.” Christians will recognize the word from the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy name,” or “Make/show Your name holy.”
So, what is All Saints’ Day? In the first three centuries of the Church there were many martyrs. The genuineness of their faith was proven on crosses and flaming stakes, in coliseums with wild beasts, and in Roman dungeons where their bodies wasted away. While their persecutors understood their deaths as weakness, the faithful considered martyrdom the ultimate witness to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. Because they drew strength and courage from the martyrs, early Christians commemorated their sacrifices by celebrating the days on which they sealed their testimonies with their blood. As the years passed, the number of martyrs grew due to persecution. Instead of trying to observe the anniversary of every martyr’s death, many began to celebrate their martyrdoms on a fixed day each year. For many, this day was May 1.
In AD 607 Emperor Phocas presented Pope Boniface IV with the Pantheon Temple in Rome. This temple was originally erected in honor of Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony in 27 BC, and had been dedicated to Jupiter and other Roman deities. The Pope cleansed the Pantheon by removing the statues of the gods. Then he dedicated it to “all saints” who were martyred in the first three centuries of the Church’s history. In May of AD 609 a festive procession accompanied the bones of many martyrs collected from various cemeteries into the church. This commemoration of the martyrs’ faithfulness was a declaration of the victory of the risen and exalted Jesus Christ over all powers physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal. What was once a Pagan temple, built for the veneration of Roman gods, was now a memorial to saints who overcame because they “loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).
Meanwhile, the gospel of Jesus Christ was advancing among Barbarian tribes from France to Britain. One of these tribes, the Celts, had a day on which they remembered their dead, November 1. Their day of remembrance was, however, one of dread. They divided the year into two parts: summer and winter. They believed that the spirits of the dead would pass over in the realm of the dead on Samhain, or the first day of winter. As summer passed to winter, so the living, they surmised, passed into death. They feared these spirits as evil menaces. So, to escape the malignity of the spirits they sought to appease them with treats and to hide from them by disguising themselves as ghouls and goblins so as not to be recognized as someone to be harassed.
The Church recognized this fear of death and evil, and responded by turning that same day into a day of hope. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to November 1, to point to Christ as the One who “having disarmed all principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross” (Colossians 2:15). This was no longer to be a day of dread, but a day to remember how God made the saints victorious through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
No longer were treats to be offered to evil spirits to appease them, but to the poor in exchange for prayers. People no longer dressed to hide from evil spirits. Instead, they dressed to mock the evil spirits as defeated foes. Halloween is not the devil’s special day; it is a celebration of his defeat. The German Reformer, Martin Luther, once said, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” The devil is delighted when he is feared. But he hates to be taken lightly, because that wounds his pride.
So, should Christians celebrate Halloween? Perhaps the better question is, can anyone who is not a Christian truly celebrate Halloween? The Christian conscience is free from all man-made traditions, including extra-biblical holy days. But there can be value in remembering the martyrs and other faithful Christians who have gone before us. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Should you choose to celebrate Halloween, here are some suggestions for Christians to make the most of it:
· Read a biography about a Christian who overcame by being a faithful witness.
· Talk to your children/friends about Christ’s victory over the forces of evil.
· Think about the saints in your own life who have gone to be with the Lord.
· Pray for the persecuted church. Yes, the church is still persecuted in many parts of the world.
· Look for opportunities to present a Christ-centered perspective on the conflict of good and evil.
· Eat candy (in healthy moderation of course)! And give some away!
· For Protestants, look for a Reformation Day party to learn more about the Protestant movement. It is, after all, the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, posted on October 31st 1517.