There is a fair bit of ambivalence over Halloween in the Christian church. Some Christians see it as a harmless bit of costume and candy fun. Others believe it trivializes — or worse, celebrates — a satanic holiday. You might be interested to know that some of the more fundamentalist modern pagans (Wiccans) also refuse to observe Halloween because it trivializes their beliefs.
But All Hallows’ Eve, which later also became Reformation Day, is a moment to celebrate and point to the Light that shines in the darkness of the world (John 1:4).
A Brief History of Halloween
The origin of Halloween is a bit murky. But it likely has its oldest roots in the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win” or “sow-in”), when the Celts of Ireland, Britain, and northern France celebrated the end of harvest and the beginning of their new year on November 1. They believed that on the last night of the year (October 31), the spirits of the dead would haunt the living, so they would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to appease and ward off spirits. If they had to leave the house, they would wear masks to fool the ghouls.
In the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV moved the “All Saints Day” feast from May 13 to November 1. If his purpose was to subsume the Celts’ Samhain festival, he certainly succeeded. In the Middle Ages, vigils were commonly held the night before high church feast days, so it was natural that one be held on the eve of All Saints Day. It came to be known as All Hallows’ Eve (hallowsis Old English for saints), or as the Scots pronounced it, Hallowe’en.
Young people dressing up in costumes for fun on Halloween emerged in sixteenth-century Britain. It was called “guising.” These fun-lovers would go house-to-house singing, reciting poems, or telling jokes in exchange for “treats.” The tradition of “trick or treating” as we know it began essentially as a revival of guising among Irish and Scottish immigrants in late nineteenth-century North America and was fully embraced by American pop culture by the end of the 1940s.
Spiritual Darkness and the Fear of Death
If there remains a connection between our trick-or-treating traditions and the old pagan Samhain superstitions, it is very weak. But what is not weak is the human fear of death. That is as strong as ever. The ancient Celts sought to hide from death on October 31 using masks, and modern, enlightened Americans hide from it using entertainment — all the time.
Written by Jon Bloom
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