Ask someone on the street what Halloween is all about, and they’ll likely tell you that it’s a holiday observed on October 31 that involves costumes and copious amounts of candy. And they would certainly be right.
Within the United States, Halloween is one of the largest consumer holidays—second only to Christmas in terms of retail revenues.1 In fact, a quarter of all annual candy sales in the US occur at Halloween.2
A short drive through almost any suburban neighborhood in late October will confirm that Halloween decorating has become a big business. A stroll through your local grocery store shows that suddenly Halloween versions of your favorite treats have taken over. Come October, almost all candy is available in the shape of jack-o’-lanterns and ghosts.
But ask a conservative evangelical Christian about Halloween and you could get a very different answer. You might hear about a pagan holiday that glorifies evil and darkness, a day that represents a real and present danger to children.
While some Christians warn against Halloween, many are unaware that the holiday’s origins include Christian—not just pagan—roots. Understanding its origins can help you decide how you will (or won’t) celebrate Halloween.
The Christian History of Halloween
The word “Halloween” is a derivation of Hallowe’en, which is short for All Hallows’ Even or All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day.
Designated by the Catholic Church, All Saints’ Day is intended for the collective observance of all departed saints, both known and unknown. Celebrated on November 1 since the eighth century, All Saints’ Day is a solemn observance focused on heroes of the faith.
Legend has it that in 1517, Christian reformer Martin Luther chose All Hallows’ Eve as the date to post his acclaimed “95 Theses” challenging the Catholic Church on the chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany. Though Luther wasn’t trick-or-treating, his timing was likely no coincidence. Ever since that day in 1517, Halloween has also been known as Reformation Day.
At this point, it’s important to mention the Day of the Dead holiday (also known as Día de los Santos Difuntos in Mexico), which is celebrated in parts of Latin America and the United States. Similar to All Saints’ Day, Day of the Dead is set aside to remember and pray for family members and friends who have died.
Though observed from the night of November 1 to November 2, unlike Halloween, Day of the Dead does not involve costumes. Instead, the central focus is on the altars built to honor the dead. People place offerings—such as the traditional bread of dead, tequila, sugar skulls, candles, incense, flower of cempasúchil, and most importantly, photos of the loved ones who have departed—on these traditional altars.
The Pagan History of Halloween
Halloween’s pagan roots predate its Christian history, but it is not unique in this aspect. Christmas, Easter, and the idea of worshipping on Sunday all also have connections to paganism. These qualities are simply more obvious and linger more persistently in the case of Halloween.
Some historians tie Halloween’s origins to the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-win), which marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark winter months. Spirits of the dead, demons, and witches were believed to walk about on the eve of Samhain, doing mischief and destroying crops.
To counteract this imagined evil, Celtic priests built bonfires and made sacrifices. When the Romans came to the Celtic territories soon after the death of Christ, they mingled their own harvest ceremonies with those of the Celts.
Early Christians then responded by designating the evening before All Saints’ Day as All Hallows’ Eve in an “attempt on the part of Christianity to overwhelm the tradition of ghouls with the truth of the gospel.”3 Since this time Halloween has been an amalgamation of pagan and Christian influences—a curious mixture of good and evil.
The practice of dressing up and going from house to house for treats began in the mid-1800s in America, and the trick-or-treat tradition continues today. Fall festivals, bake sales, neighborhood gatherings, and even church events for children are also quite common Halloween events.
“Between decorative lights and lawn ornaments, elaborate costumes and loads of candy, the average American spends a pretty penny on this fall holiday,”4 but in recent years Halloween has taken a somewhat darker turn. Costumes have become increasingly risqué and provocative since the 1970s, to the point where creativity sometimes takes a hit in favor of bared skin.5
At the same time, events like New York City’s Village Halloween Parade feature themes that invite “wildly creative public participation.”6 The 2014 parade theme, for example, is the Garden of Earthly Delights (you can imagine that this doesn’t improve some people’s impression of the holiday). Parade organizers describe it as “not a safe place where the 'wild' is kept out; it is a safe place where the wildness of imagination is invited in!”7
Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?
Whether you view Halloween as an opportunity to dress up the kids in costume and canvas your neighborhood for candy, or as an evil holiday to be avoided at all costs, you will find plenty of support for your position.
Evangelist Pat Robertson famously called Halloween “a festival of the devil,”8 insisting that participation by Christians is wrong. Other evangelical leaders express the hope that “all Christians [will] think biblically and carefully about any holiday, any event, and how they might be salt and light in it.”9
Jesus, after all, “disarmed the powers and authorities [and] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them” at the cross.10 By actively resisting some of the more questionable Halloween activities and being a loving neighbor (perhaps even the one who gives the best candy!) to the families in your area, it is possible to make a positive statement on what many view as a negative night.
Episcopal priest Justin Holcomb maintains that “an informed understanding of the history of Halloween and the biblical freedom Christians have to engage cultural practices . . . leads to the conclusion that we can follow our conscience in choosing how to approach this holiday.”11
- Katie McGlynn, “The History of Halloween Plus 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Holiday!” Huffington Post, last modified May 25, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/30/the-history-of-halloween_n_321021.html.
- Hank Hanegraaff, “How Should Christians Respond to Halloween?” in The Complete Bible Answer Book, Collector’s Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008).
- Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know About Halloween,” The Gospel Coalition, October 31, 2013, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-halloween-and-reformation-day-2/.
- Village Halloween Parade, http://www.halloween-nyc.com/index.php, accessed October 7, 2014.
- Patrick Waldo, “Pat Robertson: Halloween ‘A Mistake for Christians’” Huffington Post, last modified May 25, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2007/10/31/pat-robertson-halloween-a_n_70633.html.
- John Piper, “What Are Your Thoughts on Halloween?” Desiring God, January 5, 2010, http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-are-your-thoughts-on-halloween.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Colossians 2:15.
- Justin Holcomb, “What Christians Should Know About Halloween,” The Gospel Coalition, October 30, 2013, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-christians-should-know-about-halloween/.
- Photo Credit: Luis Felix / Stocksy.com.