THE HALLOWE'EN QUESTION: Candies and costumes? A Holy Christian Feast Day? Occult rituals? (And what does an 8th century Pope have to do with it!?)
I have never been trick-or-treating. My family completely abstained from Hallowe’en celebrations – with the exception of a couple of school costume-parades. In her early adult life, my mother heard several different Christian speakers talk about real-life horrors of Hallowe’en. She heard of animal and child sacrifices. Mom heard one woman talk about her life as a witch before she met Jesus. As a result of personal testimonies, other stirrings in the news about evil forms of supernatural activity and a deep conviction that God was a holy God and wanted her to have nothing to do with any kind of evil or pagan celebration, our family took a hard line against most Hallowe’en events. We made our own traditionsinstead – like ordering pizza! October 31 was the night of the year when we feasted on the delicious restaurant-made stuff. Dad would bring home a television and VCR from school (we owned neither) and Mom would rent a Christian cartoon movie from the Christian bookstore. At dusk we turned out our lights and went down to the basement for our own non-Hallowe’en feast. My parents made their decision about how to participate in Hallowe’en based on their convictions. Most of my friends went trick-or-treating and many of them decorated their houses and yards. At times I felt a bit excluded from the massive candy haul, but I am thankful for the way my parents raised me and don’t feel like I missed out on anything.
To this day, Hallowe’en has been a tricky issue for the church. For some, Hallowe’en is a fun celebration and cultural opportunity for children to dress-up and go around their neighbourhoods to gather sweets. For others, Hallowe’en is referred to as ‘the devil’s birthday’ and is closely associated with the occult. Throughout history, this festival has taken different forms and held a variety of meanings. In each generation, Christians have to choose how to respond to Hallowe’en and we are in the same position today. As the church, does it matter what we do or don’t do? And what is Hallowe’en even about? Let’s take a quick walk down memory….or history lane… before attempting to consider possible ways for us to respond.
Hallowe’en is a unique festival with a strange blend of secular, pagan and religious roots. Over the centuries and even in the past few decades, the nature of this celebration has evolved dramatically. Its name comes from All Hallow’s Eve – which is the night before All Saints or All Souls Day – an ancient holy feast day (November 1). In the first centuries of the early church, special feast days were set aside to commemorate Christian saints and martyrs – to remember the lives they lived and the deaths they died. It became a day when Christians honoured and prayed for the deceased.
Even before that, November 1st had been known as ‘Samhain,’ (“summer’s end”) a pagan Celtic New Year celebration after the final harvest. Celebrations began at sunset on October 31st when household fires were extinguished. Families cleaned house to get rid of the old and make way for the new and villagers lit large bonfires to offer crop and animal sacrifices to Celtic deities. The dead were honoured and sometimes called back. Divination and other kinds of fortune-telling would take place. In Hallowe’en, Rogers describes Samhain as a ‘borderline festival’ as it “marked the boundary between summer and winter, light and darkness.” The air was thin between the living and the dead and supernatural activity was common.
According to some sources, the church co-opted this pagan festival in the mid-eighth century when Pope Gregory III moved the All Saints feast day to November 1 – the same day Samhain was celebrated. A hundred years later, Gregory IV ordered the universal observance of All Saints Day. That’s one way to try to Christianize a festival! We should note that All Saints Day is celebrated on different days of the liturgical year in different churches, so the influence was not entirely universal. Despite that, All Saints and All Souls Day grew as a holy medieval festival across modern-day Europe over the following centuries. Also known as Hallowmas or Hallowtide, it became one of the holiest feast days of the year – inspiring special masses, prayers, and musical pieces. This celebration remained a time when the dead were remembered and when the space between heaven and hell, life and death, was thin.
Over time different customs were added. In Italy, houses containing the bones of the dead were opened and decorated with flowers. Sometimes cadavers were hung along the walls and dressed in garments. Across Catholic Europe, families would lay out food for their deceased – whose souls were expected for a visit on All Souls day. Similar practices exist today such as ‘El Dia de Los Muertos’ in Mexico. In many towns in England, rich villagers gave cakes to poorer townspeople who went door to door offering to say prayers for the deceased in exchange for the treats. This practice was called ‘souling.’ Other customs grew in popularity and fostered superstition. Young people used divination and fortune-telling to figure out who they would marry.
Just to recap and make sure I haven’t lost you in the details, we’ve now arrived in the 1500s.
After the Protestant Reformation, many Catholic practices were abandoned. In North America, many Anglicans maintained traditions of All Saints Day, while Puritans banned Saints days and rejected many customs as pagan and abhorrent to a holy God. Hallowe’en celebrations took a variety of forms in different communities across Canada and the US in the 1800s, and gradually its celebration was popularized and commercialized – helped by the growth of Hollywood in the 20th century and newly created Hallowe’en movies.
What has Hallowe’en become today?
Today, Hallowe’en seems to be an industry. Costumes, yard decorations, treats, special candy-carrying vessels, face paint and additional decorating accessories enable children and adults alike to adorn themselves elaborately! Houses and entire front yards are turned into haunted spectacles with fear-inducing scenes that you might find in a scary movie. My hometown has a competition in October called ‘Haunt your Home.’ A local law firm awards $2500 cash to the top 4 decorated houses in town. The whole town gets so involved that some parents have to figure out new driving routes to navigate their children away from grotesque and frightening scenes on peoples’ front yards. It seems to me that our ‘innocent’ cultural celebrations have gone too far when parents have to re-route their daily drive in a small town to avoid public displays of what might otherwise be found in a legitimately rated horror film to help prevent their children from having terrible nightmares or other fears that overwhelm them.
With all this being said, we haven’t even touched the topic of racy, hyper-sexualized costumes, excessive-to-the-point-of-being-harmful-drinking, and the seeming excuse or legitimization of all kinds of behaviour simply because ‘it’s Hallowe’en.’
This festival really has taken all sorts of twists and turns since its early days of being either a pagan harvest celebration or Holy Feast Day!
What about the occult?
Trick-or-treating is not the only thing that happens on Hallowe’en night. October 31 is also a sacred night for Wiccans; many modern day witches still celebrate Samhain today. Satanists consider Hallowe’en as a night when amateurs dabble with a measure of darkness – the kind that they spend their lives seeking and participating in.
As I researched Hallowe’en, I caught a glimpse of this darkness, but have not dug deep. I could not bring myself to study the details of witchcraft, the occult, black magic, spells, and some of their suggested practices which include animal and human sacrifices.
There are stories about prayer ministry and inner healing and deliverance that required great time and attention because the affected person or their ancestors had been involved in the occult. This is serious business – not just a walk in the park. The unseen things of this world exist. Spirits and demons are real. And they have power. But we are the children of the God who has defeated death and tells us that He has overcome the world. In the New Testament we are reminded over and over again that this power is within us and from the beginning of the story to the end, we are exhorted: DO NOT BE AFRAID.
At the very same time, God is adamant that we recognize the powers of the occult and not participate in it. He has given clear guidelines and instructions about staying away.
9 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you.13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 18:9-13)
Given these clear instructions, we might ask the question: what is really going on at Hallowe’en? Is it a dark festival of supernatural activity that God has clearly instructed us to avoid? Is it a simple night of costumes, candy and revelry – even a missional opportunity for us to be present in our neighbourhoods? Is it a forgotten and transformed Holy Feast Day that needs to be redeemed? How do we respond?
Among us are individuals and families who have: grown up trick-or-treating; abstained from all aspects of this festival; and come from parts of the world where the North American version of Hallowe’en does not even exist! And so each individual and family needs to decide for themselves how they will respond – and we need to do so in a way that continues to love each other well. Whether we like it or not, Hallowe’en is a complex day with its history and practices rooted in both pagan and holy festivals. We cannot deny that the occult and its practices are also heightened on October 31.
So sit down with your friends or family and start the conversation. If you are willing to let your family life be shaped by those around you, then ask others about their response to Hallowe’en – what does their participation or non-participation look like? Do they have any particular convictions around this holiday? Maybe this is the year for you to take more time to consider the traditions that you are cultivating in your home.
Throwing a Hallowe’en party for your city block or apartment building might be a wonderful way to invite the neighbourhood kids into your home to have fun! (See below for a link to an article that suggests specifics ways you can be missional this Hallowe’en).
Or perhaps someone in your family has been involved in the occult or the evil that is connected to this celebration leaves you deeply convicted to distance yourself from any kind of festivity. Then do so with courage! You might be better off abstaining from this festival and taking some time to pray for those who are still under the influence of the occult, and putting your energy into another kind of celebration that Jesus invites us into.
No matter what your response this year, I will hope and pray that as we talk and decide how to live, Jesus will give us the strength and courage to live in this world and not of it: whether that means participating, abstaining, or trying to redeem and come up with alternatives for this complex day.
Here are some additional resources to consult as you consider your and your family’s response to Hallowe’en:
Hallowe’en is for mission
What Christians should know about Hallowe’en
What Does the Bible say about Hallowe’en