Christians and Halloween: The Lordship of Christ Over The Seasons
Appendix from "Re-enchanting Time: How the Lordship of Christ Changes Timekeeping"
Is Halloween just a continuation of Samhain? Are Christians accidental Pagans by participating in things such as trick or treating and dressing in costumes? Should Christians partake in celebrating Halloween?
These types of questions are questions that I seem to be receiving more of the longer I’m in the ministry. Christians seem to be truly confused on the topic of Halloween.
Usually, around this time every year, I share a short article called Concerning Halloween by James B. Jordan. I have always appreciated Jordan’s brief, reasoned defense for why Christians can consider celebrating Halloween. However, this year I wanted to take a stab (get it?) at writing my own that is a little more contextual to the questions and objections I’ve received. I also want to engage with some of the more recent things I’ve come across over the years as well.
So, to begin, we must answer the question: Is Halloween just a continuation of the pagan harvest festival Samhain (Pronounced SOW-in, not SAM-hain)?
The short answer is no.
Samhain was an ancient festival with Celtic origins that marked the end of the harvest year and welcomed in the dark half of the year. It has traditionally been celebrated from October 31st to November 1st.
The ancient Celts believed that during this season the point or veil between the seen and unseen realms became thin. Because of this thinning, this meant that the spirits could easily cross between the realms and could enter our world. For this reason, the Celts would offer up food and drink to the spirits, and occasionally an animal was sacrificed to appease them as well. It was also believed that the souls of the departed were believed to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. In some cases, a place setting of food or drink was put on the dining table in anticipation of the visit.
While it is clear that Samhain and Halloween share at least some connection points such as dates, an emphasis on disguises or costumes, and harvest decoration, that’s about all they have in common. No one celebrating Halloween is celebrating for the purpose of welcoming in the dark half of the year. Nor are they making sacrifices to appease spirits because of the metaphysical belief that the veil between the seen and unseen realms is thin.
All Saints Hallows Eve
So then, if Halloween, as we know it today, isn’t necessarily a continuation of Samhain, then where does it find its origins? The answer, surprisingly, is with Old Mother Church. Halloween was never a pagan festival. It has always been distinctly Christian. Indeed, even the name “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve” which was the night before “All Saints Day.”
Steven Wedgeworth brilliantly notes this in further detail in his essay Halloween: It’s Creation and Re-creation. He writes:
“Halloween, as its name should make clear, has a distinctively Christian genealogy. Nicholas Rogers, in his book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (a title more sensational than its text), explains: “…[Samhain] did not offer much in the way of actual ritual practices… Most of these developed in conjunction with the medieval holy days of All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day” (22). The name “Halloween” is, as is well known, a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve,” the night before All Saints’ Day, but we have to take into account the series of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day to form the entire picture. Each of these days, in slightly different ways, celebrated the Christian departed and established the memorialization of the dead as a key part of Halloween.”
Not only are Samhain and Halloween different in terms of origins (Samhain being of Pagan origins and Halloween being of Ecclesiastical origins), but also the intention behind the practices on the days are different as well. Again, while it is clear that Samhain and Halloween share at least some connection points such as dates, an emphasis on disguises or costumes, and harvest decoration, the intention behind the practices is entirely different. And that’s important. The intention is always important.
James Jordan in his essay Concerning Halloween expands on the intentions behind the practices of the Christian Holiday of Halloween. He writes:
“The Biblical day begins in the preceding evening, and thus in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. Christmas Eve is most familiar to us, but there is also the Vigil of Holy Saturday that precedes Easter Morn. Similarly, All Saints’ Eve precedes All Saints’ Day.
The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: On October 31, the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.
What is the means by which the demonic realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thinks the devil really looks like this; the Bible teaches that he is the fallen Arch-Cherub. Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us.
(The tradition of mocking Satan and defeating him through joy and laughter plays a large role in Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is a Halloween novel.)
The gargoyles that were placed on the churches of old had the same meaning. They symbolized the Church ridiculing the enemy. They stick out their tongues and make faces at those who would assault the Church. Gargoyles are not demonic; they are believers ridiculing the defeated demonic army.
Thus, the defeat of evil and of demonic powers is associated with Halloween. For this reason, Martin Luther posted his 95 challenges to the wicked practices of the Church to the bulletin board on the door of the Wittenberg chapel on Halloween. He picked his day with care, and ever since Halloween has also been Reformation Day.
Similarly, on All Hallows’ Eve, the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ.”
Once one begins to understand the origins of Halloween, it becomes quite clear that there’s nothing sinister happening here. Subversion and appropriation? Sure. Seeking to view the seasons in light of the Lordship of Christ? Absolutely. But, accidental paganism? Not a chance. These things are two entirely different beasts, with two entirely different purposes, and two entirely different origin stories.
The Lordship of Christ Over The Seasons
Now at this point, I want to anticipate some arguments I am likely to receive and offer some counterarguments. A first argument that some have argued is that while it’s okay for God to mock His enemies, it’s unbiblical for Christians to mock Satan. Jude 1:8 is a proof-text for this position. The text says:
“Despite that, in the same way also these men, because of their dreams, defile the flesh and reject authority and blaspheme majestic beings. But Michael the archangel, when he argued with the devil, disputing concerning the body of Moses, did not dare to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” But these persons blaspheme all that they do not understand, and all that they understand by instinct like the irrational animals, by these things they are being destroyed.”
From this proof-text it is argued that Michael the archangel did not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against Satan because doing so would be blaspheming majestic (some translations say glorious) beings. Rather than rendering a blasphemous judgment, he said “The Lord rebuke you!”
However, the problem is that this argument is a misunderstanding of the kind of mockery that is taking place at Halloween. We do not render mockery as autonomous beings apart from God. That would be blasphemous in that it would put us in the position of God. It would be a denial of the Creator/creation distinction. It also would be blaspheming majestic beings, as Jude says.
The mockery that occurs at Halloween is a mockery that is rooted in our union with Christ (Rom. 5:1–5) and what He has done. He has disarmed the rulers and the principalities and has put them to open shame, triumphing over them (Col. 1:15–23). Because of our union with Him, we are not participating in an autonomous mockery but a covenant mockery that is united to Christ. We are essentially saying the same thing that the archangel Michael did – “the Lord rebuke you!”
A second argument offered (and the most common objection to Christians celebrating Halloween) is that Christians should have nothing to do with anything that may have pagan overtones or connections. However, there are various problems with this.
The problem with this argument is that it seeks to abandon things to the Kingdom of Darkness. It gives too much ground to the enemy. This is not the way that Chrisitianity has historically functioned. Because of Christ’s Lordship over everything, Christians have always sought to bring all things under His feet. Even pagan thought, if it could be redeemed.
The way that Christianity has historically done this is through the paradigm of bless, baptize, or burn. In practice, when Christianity encountered pagan thought that was true, it blessed and accepted it, for all truth is God’s truth. When it encountered pagan thought that could be redeemed and used to extend the Lordship of Christ, it baptized it and accepted it. When it encountered pagan thought that could not be blessed or redeemed, it burned it and did not accept it.
Commenting further on this paradigm in his book Back to Virtue, Peter Kreeft writes:
“From the beginning there were three different attitudes on the part of Christians to the pagan world in general. (1) Uncritical synthesis, (2) critical synthesis, (3) criticism and anti-synthesis. Christian thinkers accepted either (1) all, (2) some, or (3) none of the Greek ideals. . . The greatest and mainstream Christians like Augustine and Aquinas, took the second way . . .”
An example I’ll point to here can be found with the Apostle Paul addressing the Areopagus at Mars Hill in Acts 17:22–34.
In this scene, Paul makes his way to the Areopagus, stands in their midst, and beings preaching to the men of Athens. Paul says as he was passing through considering their objects of worship, he found an altar with the inscription TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Paul, then, took this category of the unknown God, baptized it, and proceeded to tell them that The One whom they were worshiping without knowing was the True God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth — the God of Israel. He then critically synthesizes and quotes a the semi-mythical poet Epimenides and the Stoic philosopher, Cleanthes to drive his points home even further. Christ is Lord not only over Hebrews, but the Greeks too. It’s just like their own poets said — “in Him we live and move and have our being, and we are his offspring.”
A third problem with this argument is that engaging with things that may have pagan connections does not make one an accidental pagan. This is just plain superstition. Let's say for the sake of argument that Halloween is pagan (it’s not, as I’ve already demonstrated). Even if it were, one cannot accidentally become a pagan anymore than one can accidentally become a Christian. Things just don’t work that way. As I said above, intentions matter.
I hope after these few examples that it’s clear that if Christians should have nothing to do with anything that may have pagan overtones or connections, then Paul’s sermon at the Aeropagus would not exist. But it does exist. And it’s because of this Christians over the centuries have taken the call to extending the Lordship of Christ seriously. This is a vocation we must pick back up. The crown rights of King Jesus must be proclaimed over every area of life — even the seasons. And, for these reasons Christians can feel confident in baptizing pagan ideas and concepts they come across for the purpose of extending Christ’s Lordship over every area of life.
So then, that leaves us with the question: Should Christians celebrate Halloween? Ultimately, I believe the answer is a matter of conscience.
Personally, I have no issues celebrating Halloween. Not only do I believe that it’s a practical and effective way of extending the Lordship of Christ over the seasons, but I also believe that it’s also a great way to live a life that’s on mission. Halloween is one of the last communal holidays we have in our culture. It’s not often that folks from the neighborhood come to our doors anymore. So, we view it as an opportunity to model gospel-hospitality and to ask the question “do you know why we’re celebrating this as Christians?”
This question leads us right into the heart of the Gospel message — that Jesus took on flesh, that He lived the perfect live we could never life, that He died for our sins, that He rose again from the grave on the third day, and that He also vanquished the Kingdom of Darkness by triumphing over His enemies and putting them to open shame. As people who are united to Jesus, we’re called to take part in this victory. It’s not just Jesus’ victory. It’s ours too!
So, with that in mind, let's tell our families the Christian history and meaning behind Halloween. Let’s dress up. Let's mock the enemy. Let's sing imprecatory Psalms (Psalm 2 is a good one). Let's remember the great cloud of witnesses made up of the saints that have passed on to the unseen realm before us. Let’s model hospitality to our neighbors. And let's invite them into the celebration too.
Let's be Christians that do what Christians have always done for centuries, which is take ground for the Kingdom.