Trick or retreat?
Growing up in South Africa, our only exposure to Halloween was TV and movies. Halloween was considered an American and European holiday. Nothing changed in our shops in October. Sweets did not go on sale. Costumes were not seen on the shelves. Trick or treating was unknown.
Today, the popularity of Halloween in South Africa is rising. Halloween costumes can be purchased throughout the month of October, and while the average South African neighbourhood does not lend itself to trick or treating, there are certain closed communities in which the practice has become commonplace.
As South African Christians, our exposure to religious objections to Halloween came from books, but the debate had no real significance to where we lived. That is changing. Today, South African Christians are beginning to ask the same questions that American and European Christians have asked for decades.
A Facebook friend recently linked to an open letter written by an ex-pagan, pleading with Christians to avoid Halloween celebration. She writes of her experiences celebrating Halloween as a pagan and finds the entire holiday utterly incompatible with Christianity. She is not alone.
On the other hand, there are those who are quite comfortable as Christians celebrating Halloween. How should we think about the matter?
Many trace Halloween’s roots to the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, which was celebrated from 31 October to 1 November. Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the commencement of winter. Winter was considered to be the darker part of the year, and Samhain was consequently considered the time in the year in which evil spirits could more easily enter the human world. The souls of dead relatives were generally invited to visit their family homes, but there was also great fear of malevolent spirits entering homes, and so certain practices were established in order to ward off these spirits. Bonfires, for example, were thought to have cleansing and protective properties and so were lit and sometimes used in divination rituals.
Samhain celebrations included celebrants dressing in costumes and going from house to house collecting food. It was considered good luck to give food to the visitors. The guisers often resorted to playing pranks on the houses they visited, and illumination for these guisers was generally provided by candles places inside hollowed turnips, with grotesque faces carved into them.
In 609, a holyday was introduced to the Christian (Catholic) calendar in which the saints were honoured and prayer was made for recently departed souls who had not yet reached heaven. This holyday was known as “All Hallows’ Day.” The night before All Hallows’ Day was All Hallows’ Eve. Over time, “All Hallows’ Eve” was contracted to Hallowe’en or Halloween. This holyday was originally celebrated on 13 May, but in 835, at the behest of Pope Gregory IV, it was moved to 1 November (the same date as Samhain), which meant that Halloween fell on 31 October.
By the end of the twelfth century, the holyday had become an obligatory celebration across Europe. It came to involve such traditions as ringing bells for souls in purgatory. Souling—the custom of baking soul cakes for christened souls—had likewise become common. On All Hallows’ Eve, groups of poor people—often children—would go door to door collecting soul cakes as a means of aiding prayers for souls in purgatory. It was also believed that the souls of the dead roamed the earth until All Hallows’ Day, and so All Hallows’ Eve provided one last opportunity for disgruntled souls to take revenge on the living. In order to avoid being recognised and being taken revenge upon, people would disguise themselves by wearing costumes. During this celebration, households often burned candles in every room in order to guide the souls back to visit their earthly homes.
Many, though not all, Protestants objected to this holyday during the Protestant Reformation, rightly considering purgatory to be biblically unfounded.
Scholars today are divided on precisely how to trace the history of Halloween. Is it rooted in the pagan festival of Samhain or the Catholic holyday of All Hallows’ Day? Traditions typically associated with Halloween today can be traced to either. In both customs, costumes were donned, people went from house to house, and candles were burned. Some, in fact, understand the placement of All Hallows’ Day at the same time as Samhain to be an effort to Christianise a pagan holiday.
I’ve read a good number of opinions in recent weeks on a Christian approach to Halloween. There are those who, like the ex-pagan cited above, are convinced that the holiday is utterly incompatible with Christianity because of its pagan roots. On the other hand, there are those who are rather critical of anyone who might question celebration of Halloween. And then there are those who are somewhat ambivalent and consider it entirely a matter of conscience.
Those who argue for the celebration of Halloween typically reject the notion that it can be traced to Samhain. Some admit pagan roots but claim that it was Christianised a long time ago and so any pagan element has long since been removed. Many argue that there are far more obvious and threatening forms of evil to oppose than harmless Halloween.
Surprisingly, many proponents of Halloween encourage Christians to use it as an opportunity to mock the forces of darkness. Anderson Rearick, for example, cites the support of Martin Luther, who 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.” Similarly, he quotes Thomas More: “The devil . . . the proud spirit cannot endure to be mocked.” He concludes, “Christians should instead celebrate Halloween with gusto. If we follow the traditional formula of having a good time at his expense, Satan flees.”
Alan Rudnick agrees: “By laughing, mocking, and even ‘cartooning’ evil by goofy costumes we can take a posture of triumph with Christ.” Mark Reynolds likewise believes that Halloween affords Christians opportunity to “mock death and the Devil with the joy of the Lord.”
Then there are those who discourage celebration of Halloween. Some of these, like Motte Brown and his family use the opportunity to celebrate Reformation Day. David Kjos considers Halloween to be indisputably a celebration of evil, even though he is willing to hand out candy to trick or treaters who come to his house.
There are others who believe that Christians should participate in order to engage society with the gospel. Among these are Jeff Vanderstelt and David Mathis. They believe that Christians should be hospitable, providing candy for kids—and perhaps something less sugary for the adults. Christians should engage trick or treaters, complimenting their costumes are and perhaps even seeking to get to know the parents. Halloween is a community issue; Christians are part of the community and should seek to be involved. Who knows what gospel opportunities this might create?
A good many thinkers consider Halloween to be merely a matter of personal conviction. Among these is Travis Allen, who believes that, while Christians should approach Halloween with cautionary wisdom, they should also do so with gospel compassion. “Ultimately, Christian participation in Halloween is a matter of conscience before God.”
Tim Challies takes the same approach, though he appears inconsistently critical of those who do not participate, accusing them of a poor testimony to their neighbours. In what is probably his most helpful article on the subject, Challies writes of several cultural forces that are at play during Halloween. In that article, he does not address whether or not Christians should participate, but does raise some interesting philosophical questions about participation.
Justin Holcomb is yet another writer who considers Halloween entirely a matter of conscience. “An informed understanding of the history of Halloween and the biblical freedom Christians have to redeem cultural practices (1 Cor. 10:23-33) leads to the conclusion that Christians can follow their conscience in choosing how to approach this holiday.” He also sees Halloween as “an opportunity to mock the enemy whose power over us has been broken.”
While this discussion is still somewhat academic in South Africa, it is becoming more of a real issue every year. From a personal standpoint, I think we need to say a few things.
First, don’t ignore the history of Halloween. It really doesn’t matter whether you trace the holiday to Samhain or All Hallows’ Eve; something is still not quite right. Samhain was decidedly pagan; All Hallows’ Eve is decidedly Roman Catholic. That is not to say that we should not be thankful for saints—dead and living—but All Hallows’ Day, as celebrated by the Catholic Church, had a large focus on purgatory and praying to and for the dead. We must be aware of these roots.
Second, I get the impression that a good many of those who are in favour of celebration are heavily influenced by their own nostalgic childhood enjoyment of the holiday. I can understand the sentiment, but the decision as to whether or not to participate should be a matter of principle, not pragmatism.
Third, I do think that we need to consider our participation in light of the fact that it is, in many circles, routinely considered an occultic celebration. I hear many of the arguments against this thinking, but I do think that it is wise to avoid all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Particularly within the church, I think it is probably wise to abstain from something that might present a genuine stumblingblock to others.
Fourth, I do think it is possible to “redeem” pagan holidays and customs. In the same way that Christianity—not without opposition—redeemed 25 December as a Christian holiday over time, it should not be thought impossible to do the same with other pagan celebrations. That is, after all, the power of the gospel. With that said, however, I do think that Mohler is right when he notes that “the issue is a bit more complicated than that.” The incarnation is a biblical event, universally recognised by Christians. The same cannot be said for All Hallows’ Eve. A distinction does need to be made.
Fifth, those who have been redeemed from enslavement to the occult and paganism do well to avoid Halloween celebrations. The open letter that I mentioned above is moving. It shows the power of the gospel to convert those enslaved to the occult, and believers like that writer are absolutely right to avoid anything that might tempt them to draw back to the occult.
Sixth, and finally, while I have already noted that several writers consider Halloween a good opportunity to mock the devil and his forces, we do well to ask what is the biblical justification for that. Luther’s counsel notwithstanding, I’m not convinced that the Bible gives us any reason to think that we can treat the forces of Satan lightly. Even Michael the archangel, when contending with Satan, “did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgement, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you’” (Jude 9). I can think of only one incident in Scripture in which a group of people took the devil head on, and that didn’t end well (Acts 19:13–16). Scripture does not tell us to go on the offensive against the demonic horde—except insofar as we take the gospel to the world, which alone has the power to deliver from the domain of darkness and transfer into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13).
Of course, there is nothing wrong with dressing up in costumes and eating sweets. If that was all that Halloween was, there would be no debate. I am in no way opposed to parents dressing their children in costumes and allowing neighbours to give them sweets. The fact remains, however, that there are deeper questions surrounding Halloween than playing dress-up. There are some serious questions to be asked as to how we celebrate Halloween, should we choose to do so, and what our participation might say to others. We neither despise those who abstain nor judge those who participate, but whether we abstain or participate, we must do so in a principled manner with a clear conscience to the glory of God.