Halloween is fast approaching, and if you are like most Christians you probably see October 31st in one of two ways. Either it’s a night so rife with diabolical undertones that no Christian should have anything to do with it, or as just another secular and commercialized holiday on which to have a little harmless fun before a holy day, such as on New Year’s Eve or Fat Tuesday. This is unfortunate, because those two views represent a false set of choices where the former is based on facts whose veracity has come under suspicion, and the latter is rooted in the overall None-ishness of our contemporary culture where far too many Christians have essentially “gone native” in relation to their surrounding culture.
The truth is that Halloween or All Hallows Eve is part of another one of the Church’s tridua which used to be called “Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, or Hallowmas”, which included All Hallows Eve (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2). Its observance grew out of the veneration of the martyrs in the early Church, but was made into a feast day in the 8th century by Pope Gregory III, and later made obligatory for the whole Western Church in 838 A.D. by Pope Gregory IV. Thus, since the Hallowtide Triduum was established prior to the time of the Protestant breakup, it can and should be celebrated by all Christians, and with a little imagination and a lot love of our faith, a golden mean can be found between the two extremes of misconceptions people have about Halloween.
The Origins of this Hallowed Mess
For most people, any connotations they have surrounding Halloween, unsavory or otherwise, were ingrained into them as children. However, like most of the traditions we grew up with, we tend to reflexively follow them along well-worn familial paths without ever questioning whether or not those who laid those paths down knew anything about where they were going. This is certainly the case with Halloween, for as we shall see there have been three historical currents that are at the root of almost all of the ecclesiastical (as opposed to urban) legends which have been attributed to Halloween.
The first current also began on an October 31st when Martin Luther, upset with legitimate abuses of certain Church practices, began to challenge the theology behind those practices and eventually the authority of the Catholic Church as whole. However, in rejecting the Church’s teachings, he also rejected the expressions of those teaching in the form of religious practices such as the veneration of saints and their relics and purgatory, which deals specifically with the Hallowmas of his time. Furthermore, his theological grievances ended up becoming embroiled in the political squabbles of the time, which led to another round of iconoclasm in the 16th century in European Protestant communities. An extreme version of that rejection of Catholic beliefs and practices made its way to the New World with the Puritans. Thus, except for areas such as the South which had been settle by Catholic Spain and Maryland, the Catholic faith was suppressed in many parts of the of the original thirteen colonies. This enmity towards “Papism” or “Romanism” would flare up from time to time right up until today, usually in conjunction with mass immigration from predominately Catholic countries such as Poland, Italy, and of course (related to Halloween) Ireland. And it was the Irish who were seen as bringing with them the residual practices of a their pagan past.
The second current of thought which by far has had the strongest influence on how many Christians view Halloween, came from the 19th century. It was Free Church of Scotland minister Alexander Hislop who, in his 1858 book The Two Babylons: Papal Worship Proved to be Worship of Nimrod and His Wife, made the claim that the Catholic Church had grafted elements of Babylonian mystery cults into its practices and teachings during the time of Constantine in order to consolidate his political power. Later came works such as Gerald Massey’s 1883 book The Natural Genesis where notions about similarities between Christ and the Egyptian god Horus came from, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough written in 1890 which was the first real work on comparative religion and their supposed common origins. Today, whether it is in places as varied as Jehovah Witness booklets, the non-fiction study guide to Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, or the ubiquitous Jack Chick tracts that many a child received in their trick-or-treat bags, it is from those sources that almost all of the information concerning Halloween’s pagan origins come from.
The last current which attempted to draw connections between ancient pagan practices and Halloween is from the “pagans” themselves. The 19th century also saw the rise of the Spiritualism movement and Theosophy, and it from this time period that ideas and practices of the modern New Age movement and Neo-Paganism draw their origins. Beliefs such as that the Church establishing All Saints Day to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was said to be a time where people reveled in costumes, went from house to house, and where bobbing for apples and carving jack-o-lanterns were part of its celebration.
So what are we to make of all this?
Getting Back to the Truth, the Light and the Way
In terms of Halloween being rooted in pagan rituals and festivals, actual historical research over the years has shown how all of the primary sources where modern Christians (knowingly or not) derive such assertions were poorly sourced and in some cases just made up by the Dan Browns of the 19th century. The Church for her part, has been a pretty meticulous record keeper from the very beginning, especially when it has come to the major heresies and other religious abuses that have cropped up over and over again in her long history. Thus, if the emperor Constantine or any of the popes had really tried to engaged in some sort of unholy power play to pervert the Christian faith into some syncretistic fake, rest assured someone would have written about it. However, since no such primary source documentation can be found, even from outside the Church, proving the claims of Halloween’s pagan connections is an uphill battle.
Moreover, the pagan origins claims also fails for two others reasons. Firstly, it is a violation of the Genetic Fallacy in logic, where something’s original intent or use is considered in place of its current use. Thus as in the case of wedding rings and the origins of the word “Friday”, the use or utterance of them have nothing to do with their original intentions and thus in no way conflict with our Christian faith. Secondly, even in the cases where the Church repurposed or “baptized” certain pagan places or practices such as when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the all the Martyrs in 609 A.D., why should that pose a problem? Besides there being a precedent to Boniface IV’s actions in the 1 & 2 Maccbees when the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated after it had been turned into a temple of Zeus by the Greeks, the fact that something profane can be baptized and given over to the Lord is precisely the point of the spreading the Gospel and calling all to repentance and conversion. Insofar as we are all temples of the Holy Spirit, it is through baptism that “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, by grace you have been saved.”(Eph 2:1-5) Likewise, the same would apply to physical places which can be exorcised after all, not to mention there would be no reason to venture out into the world if no place could ever be consecrated to God.
But What About the Pagans?
When it comes to modern day pagans making the claim that Halloween is actually their holy day and it is Christians who are the interlopers and appropriators, you still have a few problems. One, it was the Church that brought literacy to the very ancient cultures whose rituals these modern pagans are laying claim to, thus (as even some of them will openly admit) there is no real historical evidence that their claim is true. In fact, as far as can be historically ascertained, there is little information about actual pagan practices during Samhain, whereas there is at least some data to show that the establishment of All Soul’s Day was the movement of a preexisting Christian holiday from one date to another.
Moreover, as Fr. Steve Grunow at Word on Fire has pointed out concerning the pagan rituals supposedly undergirding Halloween,
“Those cults have long since passed away with the cultural matrix that once supported the world views that were the conditions for their possibility. You can’t just reinvent those cults without the culture that supported them.”
What this means for modern pagan-wannabes is that just as when we grow up we no longer deal with the world in the way we did when we were kids, like being afraid of monsters under the bed or having an imaginary friend, those of us in the modern West have a view of the cosmos that is too sophisticated for anyone to truly believe in the pagan gods of old. It’s just not possible, anymore than you could seriously go back to having an imaginary friend again. And any attempt to do so is indulging in a modern day form of Romanticism at best (which interestingly enough occurred during the same time period in which the books which gave us all the aforementioned false narratives concerning Halloween were published) and externalized navel gazing at worst.
Now having said that, do I reject the notion that there are no demonic forces out there? That we are as St. Paul says, not “contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” on a daily basis? Certainly not. Nor do I believe for one moment that those who engage in any New Age or Neo-Pagan activities are not trifling with powers they don’t really understand and which are best left alone. After all, there are some ancient gods such as Mamom, Mother Earth, and Moloch who have certainly stood the test of time and are drawing huge crowds under their sway in our contemporary world. However, all I am saying is that all of this needs to be tempered with one basic fact that all to often gets left out of this perennial debate.
As Hendrick Berkhof has pointed out in his book Christ and the Powers, when St. Paul refers to the “Powers” and “Principalities” and “Dominions”, he is envisioning an,
“invisible weight-bearing substratum of the wolrd, the underpinnings of creation. By no means does Paul think of the Powers as evil in themselves. They are the linkage between God’s love and visible human experience. They are to hold life together, preserving it within God’s love, serving as aids to bind men fast in His fellowship; intermediaries, not as barriers but as bonds between God and man.”
In other words, they are the unseen scaffolding that God uses to uphold and keep all of creation from falling into chaos, but in our fallen nature we were “unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists” and thus failed to “recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works” (Wis 13:1) Thus, we ended up treating these Powers as gods, but through his death and resurrection Christ “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.” (Col 2:15) In this way our Lord, who is “the way, the truth, and the life”, has illuminated the proper ordering of all creation and has laid bare the falsity and futility of pagan worship for all to see.(Rom 1:19-20)
From this perspective then, when you take your eyes off the Cross and forget that Christ was victorious over death, you run the risk giving too much attention or deference to the Powers he conquered. Again, this is not to say that these Powers have no sway over the world, but we must learn to recognize the fine line between putting on the whole armor of God and fighting the good fight, and falling prey to the ridiculous satanic panics that crop up from time to time- especially around the time of Halloween.
And when I say “ridiculous” I am referring to ideas and beliefs that lead to moral panics, where people are seeing demonic activity in every nook and cranny like energy drink cans and leaked emails. The kind of ideas that exemplifies the worst stereotypes of Christians as unthinking and superstitious people, and makes people want to shun any and all religious connotations with Halloween. They will end up just saying what I used to say years ago when I was still making my way back into the church, when I asked lady friend of mine if she and her son wanted to join me with mine on Halloween night, and she told me she was a Christian and didn’t “celebrate” Halloween. I said, “Well, neither do I, I just go trick-or-treating.” To me it was just harmless secular fun, nothing opposed to my lukewarm faith but certainly not aiding it either. And at the time, that’s the way I wanted to keep it, lest I get entangled in what I thought were rather spurious claims about Halloween.
However, as has hopefully been shown, there is no reason to take that attitude, and plenty of reasons to embrace Halloween and the rest of Hallowtide (a word we really need to bring back) as a legitimate expression of anyone’s Christian faith. It is after all a celebration of the victory over the one last enemy of our human condition.
I will close with the words of a silly but profound video that I have shown my kids every year, although not without a lot of translation of its Shakespeare-esque argot, but which highlights why we should indeed be working towards putting the “Hallowed” back into Halloween,
“These ‘forces’ of darkness, if such can be called are banished by brilliance, by blazing enthralled. So the Bible begins with this fore-resolved fight; For a moment the darkness…. then “Let there be Light!” First grief in the gloom, then joy from the East. First valley of shadow, then mountaintop feast. First wait for Messiah, then long-promised dawn. First desolate Friday and then Easter Morn. The armies of darkness while doing their worst, can never extinguish this Dazzling Sunburst. So ridicule rogues if you must play a role; But beware getting lost in that bottomless hole. The triumph is not with the forces of night. It dawned with the One who said “I am the Light.”