It is the month of Halloween: of ghosts and goblins and children dressing up in scary costumes or pretending to be whichever superhero they lionize. We will see devils, ghosts, witches, zombies, walkers, vampires, skeletons, superheroes, Harry Potters, aliens, and whatever else people can dream up and whatever costumes and make-up that commercial businesses can produce. In my vicinity, party stores will devote much of their shelf-space to Halloween supplies at this time of year.
When I was a child, Halloween was considered pretty innocuous. Today, however, even as fewer people claim to believe in life after death, nevertheless a focus on death seems to be growing. More people profess to being witches and warlocks and practicing the dark arts. There is a “religion” for wiccans, based on pre-Christian traditions of northern and western Europe. Followers practice witchcraft and nature worship. So, today, Christians do not dismiss the celebration as harmless but many believe it to be antithetical to Christianity, an anathema, a slippery slope into the demonic against which we must protect ourselves and, especially, our children.
As a church, should we say, “NO!” to this “sinister” celebration? Should the ghoulish parade through our churches, our parking lots, or our minds?
Concerns about Halloween are not new to the church. Perhaps the past can provide some instruction.
Doubtless, our modern-day imagination of Halloween characters far exceeds that of even fifty years ago. Thanks to television and modern technology , we imagine characters today, like zombies and walkers, that never invaded our imaginations so vividly in the past. But the early church certainly grappled with a similar phenomenon – a preoccupation with death – as it expanded into northern and western Europe where ancient Celtic traditions and practices were influential.
As it moved through Europe, Christianity confronted established customs that were so entrenched that new converts found them to be stumbling blocks to their faith. The organized church would commonly move a distinctively Christian holiday to a spot on the calendar that would directly challenge the pagan holiday. The intent was to counter pagan influences and provide a Christian alternative.
In pre-Christian England and Ireland, the Christian religion came face-to-face with the Celts, people who practiced polytheism, sacrificed animals and humans, worshiped a variety of supernatural beings, believed animals had healing powers, and followed rituals to commune with the spirit world.
Very early in its existence, the church was setting aside feast days to celebrate its martyrs with worship and prayer but, by the fourth century, it was celebrating all saints, not just martyrs. By the seventh century the feast of All Saints was practiced regularly. The Christian feast day was called “All Hallow’s Day”; hallow meaning something holy, sacred, to be honored. The day before was a day of fasting to prepare for the feast; it was called “All Hallow’s Eve” which became Hallows E’en and finally Halloween.
In the eighth century Pope Gregory III moved All Saints’ Day to Nov. 1st. to counter the pagan practice of Samhain (pronounced sow-en), a Celtic festival celebrating the harvest, death, and the coming of winter. Celts believed that ghostly wanderers, spirits of the dead, roamed the countryside, tormenting the living and damaging crops and homes. The Celts set out food to appease these spirits.
In Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, author Lesley Bannatyne writes:
Villagers were also encouraged to masquerade on this day, not to frighten unwelcome spirits, but to honor Christian saints [in] processions in which parishioners dressed as saints, angels and devils. This religious masquerade resembled the pagan custom of parading ghosts to the town limits. It served the new church by giving an acceptable Christian basis to the custom of dressing up on Halloween.
We can see fragments of these practices in the celebration of Halloween today.
Today, some Christians would complain that the church never fully accomplished its intent to remove pagan practices and that they continue today. People against celebrating Halloween say that it threatens the Christian message, especially when the church tolerates it.
I don’t believe we’re going to make Halloween go away by railing against it. Better that we hold up the reality of Christ and continue to shine a light that helps people realize that Christ has overcome the world and its superstitions. 1 John 5:4-5 says, “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Colossians 2:15 says, “God defeated the spiritual rulers and powers. With the cross God won the victory and defeated them. He showed the world that they were powerless” (Col. 2:15).
Satan still has power in this world, but not over Christian believers. James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
We, Christians, must redirect people’s focus to life, not death. Believers who have gone before us are not dead. To the contrary, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
On All Hallows Eve (Halloween), we turn our “eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of this earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”
In Closing I Say,
Lift High the Cross