The History of Halloween Part 2

Halloween and the Middle Ages

What do Christians do with a holiday when pagans refuse to stop practicing it? This was the dilemma that faced Christians in the Middle Ages. (It is also the dilemma facing Christians today with 40 million children going door-to-door each Halloween.)

In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and build a church around it.

In terms of quickly adding people to the Christian faith, this was a brilliant concept and it became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary work. In many cases, church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native holy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples.

In 835 Pope Gregory IV decided to move the practice of All Saints’ Day to November 1. This was possibly done to correspond with the Celtic practice of Samhain. The Mass that was said on this day was called Allhallowmas (“the mass of all the holy ones”). The evening before All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallow e’en (“the evening of all the holy ones”). So you see the name “Halloween” is actually Christian, not pagan. It is derived from All Saints Day.

The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. The powerful symbolism of fairies, elves, and the traveling dead had a strong tie with the people and they were not satisfied with the new Catholic feast honoring dead saints. When people continued some of the beliefs and practices associated with Samhain, the church increased the rhetoric against Samhain. They branded the earlier religion’s practices as evil, and began to associate them with the devil. As representatives of the rival religion, Druids were considered malevolent worshippers of devilish or demonic gods and spirits. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures (like elves and fairies) persisted, while the church made attempts to define them as being no longer merely mischievous, but wicked. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be Satanic.

How did witches become connected to Halloween? Once the Druids were branded as evil by the church, their practices were looked at as “witchcraft.” Followers of the old religion were persecuted, went into hiding, and were branded as witches who worshipped Satan. This is why European witchcraft became connected with Satan, whereas witchcraft in other areas of the world is animistic in nature. October 31 became known as a witch holiday. It was called “The Witches’ Sabbath” by witch hunters and eventually European witches began celebrating October 31 as one of their four great Sabbaths held during the year.

Of course, in some ways from a Christian standpoint the church’s response makes sense. Doesn’t the Bible view the worship of other gods as deception by demons (1 Corinthians 10:18-22)? Yes, but the Bible also says that Satan often preaches in Christian churches (2 Corinthians 11:13-14). Pagans don’t have a monopoly on evil, demonic deception, or harmful practices. As a Christian (in spite of a good, pure, and holy God) I often do evil things and fall into deception. Christians can also do very hurtful things in the name of Christ. (Some of the worst hate mail that I get comes from Christians who don’t agree with me about baptism or giving or eternal security or grace or Halloween.)

I’m not sure that anything is gained by calling pagans, Satanists or demon worshippers. It’s easy to view yourself as God’s agent and to brand people with strong labels. Then you can justify not relating to them in grace. You can begin to hate and fear them. And eventually you can persuade yourself that as agents of Satan they deserve persecution (i.e. the inquisition and witch burnings). This goes against everything that Jesus taught about reaching out to pagans (1 Corinthians 5:9-13) and loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), and showing mercy to them (Luke 6:27-36). The truth is that sometimes Christians end up acting more like Satan, than pagans do.

Once the practice of Samhain was viewed as not merely wrong, but “trafficking with Satan,” it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Practitioners of the old religion began associating medieval Satanic elements with Halloween. You can see this association in many symbols and traditions of Halloween. Want to hold a Halloween party? Be sure to use black and red crepe – the devil’s colors according to Medieval superstition… Decorate with a large spider – one of the devil’s followers… And don’t forget the black cat. Christians during the Middle Ages believed that every witch had a personal demon sent by Satan who gave them their powers. This personal demon was called a familiar. The familiars, which lived with their witches, usually existed in the form of some animal — often a black cat. This is a superstitious practice of medieval Christians, however, and should not be attributed to the ancient Celts. (Domestic cats were apparently not introduced to Northern Europe until post-Julius Caesar, and didn’t really “catch on” until after AD 1050.)

How about the jack-o’-lantern? People in England and Ireland carved out beets, potatoes, and turnips to use as lanterns (not just on Halloween). The hollowing out of a turnip to serve as a makeshift lantern was simply a clever way to solve a technical problem in the absence of available metal. According to an 18th century Irish legend, jack-o’-lanterns were named for a man named Jack, who could not enter heaven because he was a miser. He could not enter hell either, because he had played jokes on the devil. Hence, Jack is a damned soul doomed to wander in darkness until Judgment Day. This legend is recent and does NOT go back to ancient times. If it was ancient, we would find it in literature, the Christian art of Western Europe, pagan carvings, or somewhere in graphic representations. It is notable by its absence. After this legend reached America, pumpkins began to be used, rather than turnips, to represent Jack’s lantern. The purpose of the lantern was to ward off evil, not participate in it!


The Present Day Celebration of Halloween

Halloween celebrations (of any kind or form) did not become popular in the United States until the late 1800s. It appears to have arrived after 1840, when large numbers of immigrants arrived from Ireland and Scotland and introduced elements like Mischief Night, beliefs about elves and fairies, and practices such as jack-o’-lanterns. (Many of the Halloween customs that they brought to America probably did not enter Irish and Scottish culture until after 1750.) The practice does not come from ancient times, but modern. It must be said that “Halloween” as we know it in America, with all the folk stories and urban legends attached to it, is a distinctly American phenomenon, with the “Trick or Treat” bits occurring after 1930.

Halloween is celebrated in many countries today, but this is actually a result of secular American influence:

…the trick-or-treat and masking customs on 31 October in England and Finland have been introduced from the United States and Canada (Halloween and Other Festivals of Death, p. 162).

Does anyone today celebrate the Celtic holiday of Samhain as a religious observance? Yes. During the mid-1900’s, a new interest in pagan religion occurred in Europe and the United States. As a result, paganism as an organized religion has attracted large numbers of people. Many followers of various pagan religions, such as Druids and Wiccans observe Samhain as a religious festival. They view it as a memorial day for their dead friends, similar to the United States’ national holiday of Memorial Day in May.

Modern pagans (and non-Satanic witches) would vehemently deny that their celebration has anything to do with the demonic horrors depicted in such films as Friday the 13th. To them, Halloween is one of the four greater Sabbats (holidays) held during the year. Halloween for them is a time of “harvest celebration. It is a time of ritual, a time for ridding oneself of personal weaknesses, a time for feasting and joyful celebration. It is also a time for communing with the spirits of the dead. It is still a night to practice various forms of divination concerning future events.”

Contrary to popular belief Halloween is not the most important celebration for Satanists. Most Satanists celebrate their own birthdays as their most important “unholi”-day, which is to be expected from adherents of a religion who believe that the highest form of religion is “worship of self” (The Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey). Some of the stories of Satanic ritual abuse that are passed around in Christian circles may have no basis in fact (like those found in Rebecca Brown’s book “He Came to Set the Captives Free”). According to Christian researchers Bob and Gretchen Passantino (see their well-researched book entitled Satanism by Bob and Gretchen Passantino, Zondervan, 1995):

“The actual incidence level of satanic-associated crime is very low, and on Halloween consists mostly of petty vandalism and desecration of graveyards and churches; satanic graffiti; raucous rituals including drug and/or alcohol use and sexual promiscuity; and very rarely sexual violence or animal killing. The most well-known documented criminal activity associated with Halloween are the “Devil’s Night” fires that were rampant in the Detroit area. These destructive bonfires were not religiously inspired, but were a convenient excuse for out-of-control juveniles to act destructively, often in their own communities.

It is not true that satanists look for “Christian virgins” to rape during Halloween rituals. A young Christian is much more likely to be in danger of a drunk driver, or a party that gets out of hand with drug or alcohol use than of satanic abduction. Occasional anti-social, criminally committed individuals or small groups that also practice self-styled satanism commit crimes on Halloween, but they invariably betray a pattern of sociopathy at other times as well.

It is not true that poisoning or sabotaging of Halloween treats is a significant risk if parents take sensible precautions. Most horror stories are unsubstantiated rumors that quickly cross the country, gaining embellishments, and unnecessarily frightening parents. If parents are careful about restricting their children’s treats to ones from people they know and trust, or from a formal program run by a church, community group, or merchant association, they should be fairly safe. In many communities, local hospitals and/or police stations will screen treats free of charge.”


How should Christians react to Halloween?

  • “Halloween is the most dangerous day of the year — when Satanists and witches snatch children off the streets and sacrifice them in Satan’s name!”
  • “We don’t worship other gods or honor the dead on Halloween. Halloween is nothing but a secular time of fun and games — an excuse for the kids to dress up and overload on sugar!”
  • “I love to see the children, out in the neighborhood streets with their parents, dressed in funny clothing, having a wonderful time …. and mocking the Devil with laughter.”

These are three examples of very different Christian reactions to Halloween. Allow me to offer some opinions.

1.    Occult and Satanic Elements:

Deuteronomy 18:11 says: “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, one who calls up the dead.”

One of the present realities we must be aware of is that in recent decades, pagan, cultic groups, and some Satanists have claimed Halloween as a “holy day.” As Christians we must avoid any action forbidden by our Lord. We should never seek to know the future through horoscopes, divination, or astrology. We should not seek to talk to or call up the dead (necromancy). We should not pray to other gods. We should not seek “power” over other people by the use of spells or supernatural forces. The practice of pagan witchcraft is specifically prohibited in both the Old and New Testaments (Leviticus 19:31; Acts 19:18-20; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 22:15). Witchcraft (whether pagan or Satanic) is dangerous and harmful. We are to submit to God and resist the devil; not form alliances with him (James 4:7). The Bible certainly makes it clear that we should not participate with pagans in speaking to the dead on October 31 (or any other day)!

2. Non-Satanic elements:

Although some devil worshippers have adopted Halloween as their “holiday,” the day itself did not grow out of Satanic practices. Halloween has some weak connections to Celts celebrating a new year, but most of present day Halloween customs are neither pagan, nor Satanic. Here is a table of practices and dates as they are connected with Halloween:

practice
divination
necromancy
black cats, spiders
tricks & pranks
costuming
pumpkin carving
trick or treat
slasher movies
earliest date
ancient
?
Middle Ages
?
early 1900s(?)
after 1750s
1930s
1950s
source
pagan Celts
Celts or Medieval witchcraft
Medieval superstition
Irish Mischief Night
?
Irish
Boy Scouts & others
Hollywood
original intent
pagan religious practice
pagan religious practice
fear & easy labels
“those nasty fairies”
stop pranks(?)
ward off evil
stop pranks
make money
Biblically forbidden
yes
yes
no
if destructive
no
no
no
yes – Phil 4:8

Most holidays contain evil, neutral, and good elements as part of their celebration. Christians must discern one from the other and make decisions that glorify God and cause no harm to their personal walk with Christ. Christians seem to have no trouble making these distinctions about Christmas, but we utterly fail to do the necessary thinking when it comes to Halloween. In my opinion, present day Halloween has some evil elements (divination rituals, communication with spirits), some neutral elements (sorry, costumes didn’t come from evil Druids involved in human sacrifice), and some good elements (asking for candy was an attempt by the Boy Scouts of America to calm the abuse of the holiday!).

As W.J. Bethancourt III says: “Each Christian must decide for themselves whether dressing up in funny clothes and asking for candy from the neighbors is ‘satanic’ and ‘necromancing’ or not. Allowing your children to dress up as mass-murderers and as villains from the Hollywood slasher movies may or may not be ‘satanic,’ but it certainly is stupid. Making such creatures objects of ‘hero-worship’ might not be giving the kind of message to a child that necessarily enables them to become sober, productive adults.”

Costuming children as ballerinas or cartoon characters or Bible heroes seems far removed from Satanism or any practice of paganism.

What I have tried to show is that much of the association with witchcraft and Satanic elements has actually come from Christian misinformation attempting to “demonize” this holiday. There is no evidence that the original Celtic celebration was Satanic. Much of the information on Halloween that Christians preach and write about is plainly based on shoddy research. While Christians should absolutely avoid pagan practices, Christian hype tends to make us overreact to benign folk elements of Halloween. We appear like zany buffoons to the world when there is no necessity for doing so. Furthermore, our groundless retreat from all elements of Halloween leaves a vacuum that wicked elements delight to fill.

October 31st is only a day on the calendar. Halloween, like any other day, is only as evil as one cares to make it.

3.    Alternative Celebrations:

I would also suggest using the holiday to be involved in the joy and celebration of All Saints’ Day, thanksgiving for harvest, and the celebration of the Reformation of the Church. Here are two tracts which offer alternatives to the traditional American celebration of Halloween:

Tract 1:

One successful alternative used by a number of churches is a “Faith Festival” in which children dress as their favorite Bible character and gather for a special children’s service with puppets, a Christian film, or something special. This offers an ideal opportunity to explain the spiritual significance of Halloween and to encourage the children to remember Hebrews chapter 11, which features great men and women of faith who have gone before us. The “Faith Festival” can be a time to thank God for His many blessings.

Tract 2:

As believers, we can take this opportunity to provide a creative alternative to this celebration. In ancient Israel, the majority of Jewish festivals occurred at the same time as pagan festivals. God did not simply tell his people not to engage in pagan festivals, He provided an alternative. During every major pagan festival, the Hebrew people would take part in a God-given alternative, a festival celebrating the same general subject but with a completely different focus.

There are many wholesome alternatives for our children: a church Bible costume party, Reformation Day church service, holding a harvest celebration like the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.

4.    Being Positive Without Fear:

Regardless of the position you take regarding your family’s response to Halloween, if you are concerned about the evil associations with Halloween, you can rejoice that you can “resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7) and that through the cross Christ has “disarmed principalities and powers,” and “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15).

I would certainly suggest using the holiday to teach our children about the triumph in Christ of God over evil. This should not be a night that we hide from in fear, but a night (like every night) when a Christian can stand confident in victory, because the One who lives in us is greater, than the one who lives in the world (1 John 4:4). “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them!” (1 John 4:4).

Holding oneself apart from the world is perhaps a good thing, but sometimes this is just an excuse for being afraid. We are reminded to be “in the world” and “sent to the world”, as well as being “not of the world” (John 17:15-18). There are very few times when strangers actually come to your door and ask you to give them something! Our family has used Halloween to hand out Christian tapes to everyone that has come-a-begging! Some Christian children use “trick or treating” by giving a tract in return for the candy they receive at each house. What a wonderful way to spread the gospel! A smile, some candy, a tract and a “God bless you!” will save more souls than hiding in your house with the porch light off.

As a believer in Jesus Christ and thus a child of God, I personally do not give much honor to the celebration of Halloween, but our family does participate in some of the neutral elements of Halloween and we use Halloween to reach people who don’t know Jesus. We also use Halloween to celebrate the victory that I and other saints have over the wickedness of this world.

A good general principle should be to refrain from participating in anything that compromises your faith or brings dishonor to Jesus Christ. Another good principle is to look for ways to become a positive, Christ-proclaiming voice in the midst of a secular and pagan world. Each Christian must be persuaded in his own conscience about how they approach Halloween.


Why Did I Write This Article?

What I’m arguing for is:

(1) Accurate information, rather than falsehood.

(2) A little bit of tolerance toward Christians who choose to participate in “harmless” Halloween activities that have no connection to paganism (like pumpkins, dressing up, or treat-or-treat).

(3) For the Christian community to think about how it is going to handle Halloween — because it is not going to go away. It is more popular than ever. We can redeem it for Christ or we can use fear and scare tactics to hide our light under a basket (Matthew 5:15).

I think we find a close parallel in Christmas. Christmas wasn’t celebrated by the early church until the fourth century. In that century, the church decided to try to redeem a Roman pagan winter solstice festival (the birthday of the unconquered sun). Sometime before 336 the Church in Rome, unable to stamp out this pagan festival, spiritualized it as the “Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness.” In some ways, I think Christians have succeeded in giving December 25 a new meaning.

I really think Pope Gregory had the right idea. Take pagan holidays and assign Christian events or practices to them and redeem them for Christ. Christians have as much right as any other group to lay claim to a day on the calendar (Romans 14:6). What’s the alternative? The alternative is to let pagans, devil worshippers, or Hollywood producers put their stamp on October 31. At the very least, this will mean a day given over to the celebration of (what the Bible calls) superstitions, false gods and goddesses. At its worst, Halloween becomes a Mardi gras of the grotesque, of destruction, of wickedness, and of death, because we weren’t being a preservative for good (Matthew 5:13).

Recommended for Further Study:

Return to The History of Halloween Part 1

Return to Holidays page

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