Every year around this time, the ritual begins anew. The weather cools off, the leaves change color, and Christians start arguing about Halloween.
Many people love this night. It gives them an excuse to host parties, kick off the holiday spending season, and provide economic stimulus for the dental industry. Others use it as an excuse to flirt with things much darker than plastic skeletons and creative jack-o’-lanterns. Too many adults use Halloween as an excuse to throw out common standards of modesty.
What is the history behind Halloween? What’s all the decoration and tradition really about? Is there something spiritual behind all the ghoulishness?
Back when I was a kid, a series of comic-book-style tracts went around claiming that Halloween was a pagan holiday called Samhain, when ancient druids used to carry out human sacrifice under a full moon. That story, as even modern pagans who love Halloween admit, is mostly made up.
The very name “Halloween” means “holy evening.” It was a throwback to when Catholic Christians prepared for the Feast of All Saints on November 1st. A few years back, Kirk Cameron urged Christians to make the most of Halloween’s Christian origins, and to throw “the biggest Halloween party on (the) block.” Not only is it a great way to make fun of the devil, he argued, but it offers Christians a wonderful opportunity to proclaim Jesus’ victory over sin and death to our neighbors.
Our Christian forebears might have agreed. In his book, For the Glory of God, historian Rodney Stark argued that Christians in the early centuries of the Church frequently reacted to pagan practices like fortune-telling, alchemy, and even sorcery, by not taking them seriously. Augustine, for example, myth-busted astrology by pointing out how twins born under the same star sign were often very different in personality. St. Boniface taught that “to believe in ‘witches’ is un-Christian.” Pope Gregory the Great even advised a missionary to Britain to destroy idols but to re-purpose pagan temples for Christian worship.
A few years ago, Steven Wedgeworth offered a third perspective in an article at The Calvinist International. After providing a helpful overview of the history of Halloween, he concluded that though there are echoes of paganism and Christian re-purposing in Halloween, the holiday of today, especially the costumes and trick-or-treating, is a recent invention. Like the commercialized secular Christmas, Halloween as we know it has more to do with department stores than druids.
No matter what day it is, Paul’s instructions in Philippians 4 should guide our celebrations. Christians should think on “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable.” Axe-murderer get-ups and sexually provocative costumes fail to pass that test. And, we should consider his teaching on meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8. Idol worship is always wrong, but eating meat sacrificed to idols is a matter of conscience.
If you are unable to participate in Halloween with a clear conscience, there are plenty of other things to celebrate this time of year, from Reformation Day to All Saints Day, to the beauty of fall’s changing colors, to, as always, the sovereignty of God and the victory of Christ over everything. And, if kids will be knocking at your door on Halloween night, you can always put on a wool tunic and nail 95 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to your door.
If you and your kids do enjoy a little spooky stuff, just remember, as Paul Pastor wrote over at Christianity Today, “monsters should point us to God.” “No story worth listening to,” he says, “lacks a villain. And no villain worth fighting lacks monstrosity.” No story has more monstrous villains or darker darkness than Scripture. We do have an enemy, an enemy of our souls. At the same time, Scripture describes evil as not just “out there,” but also in our own hearts.
And yet, evil does not have the final say, neither in the world nor in our own hearts. Evil is a real foe, but because of Jesus Christ, evil is a defeated foe. So, fear not.
(This commentary is an updated version of one that first aired on Oct. 31, 2014)
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