I’m a Christian. I grew up in a culture in the Deep South which publicly quasi-condemned Halloween; I say “quasi-condemned” because many of the folks I knew would publicly take a stand against any celebration of Halloween, then participate in a “Fall Festival” on October 31st and allow their kids to dress up and compete for candy at a church party.
I’ve got news for you: if you’re doing this, you’re celebrating Halloween.
Some folks went so far as to only allow their kids to dress up as Bible characters. Well, if you’re dressed up as a Bible character you’re dressed up as a dead person, unless you’re going as Jesus, which most conservative Christians would probably consider blasphemy (if you’ve never seen someone from the Deep South interact with a Latino named ‘Jesus’ for the first time, you should). So you’ve got your kid dressing up as a dead person, then participating in all of the rituals that make up 95% of what any American kid does – that’s celebrating Halloween.
Now that we’ve divided everyone pretty cleanly into two camps (those who do celebrate Halloween in some way and those who don’t at all), let’s examine the case for each. The contemporary case for why Christians shouldn’t celebrate Halloween is outlined here pretty well – these are all issues I heard presented and discussed repeatedly while I was growing up. I’ll summarize his main points, but I think it’s important to understand where I’m coming from. Most folks who write blog posts like I’m in the process of doing here are advocating for why you should do exactly as they do. I’m not. I think there is room under the cross for both camps, and I’ll outline why. My point is to simply tell you what our family is doing and why so you have the opportunity to increase your understanding of the holiday and the quandary faced by many Christians, and then decide for yourself what you need to do.
Dr. Hammond, in the above article, begins by stating that Halloween finds its roots in the Druid festival of Samhain, the lord of death. Here’s where we find our first error: Samhain isn’t a Celtic god and never was. This is a common error among Christians and stems from an 18th century writer who incorrectly claimed this to be the case; it was quickly picked up by Christians and the error has been propagated ever since. The only mention of a Samain or Sawan in Celtic mythology was of a (very minor) Gaelic hero (not god) whose major claim to fame was that a bad guy stole his magical cow.
Dr. Hammond goes on to discuss the evil of animal and human sacrifices. For the animal portion, this was practiced by every ancient culture and the Bible records it as being required by God, so it’s hard to say that animal sacrifices thousands of years ago are inherently evil in and of themselves. The Bible also roundly condemns human sacrifice, but since Dr. Hammond is attributing these alleged human sacrifices to a druid ritual for a god that never existed and offers no actual evidence that these occurred, one has to doubt the validity of his claims.
The next claim he makes is that the origin of trick-or-treating allegedly involved going door-to-door and requesting contributions for sacrifices (which may or may not have been made) to a pagan god (who never existed). I actually couldn’t find independent verification of this anywhere as the origin of trick-or-treating, but did find a couple of other explanations:
- Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval Christian practice of souling, when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2). It originated in Ireland and Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy.
- Guising at Halloween in Scotland is recorded in 1895, where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.
That’s slightly less nefarious than presented by Dr. Hammond.
He goes on to discuss how jack-o’-lanterns were used as a “signal to mark those farms and homes that supported the druids’ religion, and thus were seeking the “treat” (of favorable treatment by demons) when the terror of Halloween began. The World Book Encyclopaedia says: “The apparently harmless lighted pumpkin face of the Jack-O-Lantern is an ancient symbol of a damned soul.” Well, that’s a pretty significantly evil fact – if it’s true. I looked up what the World Book Encyclopaedia had to say about these (allegedly damned) pumpkins, and found not only no mention of druids or symbols of damned souls, but rather several variations of folks who had been released from purgatory (i.e., Christian tales, albeit with erroneous theology) and wandered around with lit pumpkins or turnips. However, much of this seems to have been written in retrospect; Wikipedia outlines a good many potential sources for these tales, but summarizes that “despite the commonly held belief that the carving of the Jack-O’-Lantern was an ancient Irish custom, no scholarly research into Irish mythology and customs includes a contemporary reference to such a practice being present during Samhain.” (On a side note, it’s interesting that if you do a Google search for that exact phrase allegedly from the World Book Encyclopedia you’ll find literally hundreds of Christian sites spreading the rumor – but you won’t find anyone who can actually point you to where the World Book Encyclopedia actually says it.)
The next evil practice described is the “Dance of Death,” which Dr. Hammond describes as the following act: “While people and animals were screaming in agony, being burnt to death, the druids and their followers would dress in costumes made of animal skins and heads. They would dance, chant and jump through the flames in the hope of warding off evil spirits.” Yet again, this claim has absolutely no basis in reality. The Dance of Death is actually a medieval allegory on the universality of death, stating that no one escaped it and it was a human experience we all had to face. In other words, you could summarize what the Dance of Death was all about by saying “Nothing’s certain in life but death and taxes.” In fact, the earliest traditions of the Dance of Death are all Christian, such as visual schemes seen in the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. (Both of the pictures presented below come from early Christian sources.)
The final claim against this ancient Celtic druid festival of Halloween Dr. Hammond writes about is that of Count Dracula (actually Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia), who allegedly created the original “house of horrors” by burning beggars, handicapped, and the sick in a castle. There are so many things wrong with this it’s hard to know where to begin, so let’s just break it down piece by piece:
- Prince Vlad was Romanian, i.e., Eastern European. Using anything he did as support for a druid festival which found its origins exclusively in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man (i.e., the other end of Europe) is just ignorant.
- Claiming that someone who’s favorite method of execution was allegedly impaling people (a very cheap method) would burn an entire castle (worth literally billions) down just to get rid of beggars, but would first go to the trouble to get them all drunk so they wouldn’t resist (when the thousands he impaled were armed soldiers who were very likely well, resisting) doesn’t even meet the common sense test and should have automatically put this in the “pure legend” pile.
- Prince Vlad was actually (and is still considered to this day) a hero. His father belonged to the Order of the Dragon, which was founded to protect Christianity in Europe. Vlad got his nickname when he impaled Ottoman (i.e., Muslim) troops after allying himself with the Catholic forces under Matthias Corvinas in what was essentially one of the first Crusades. This is particularly ironic when you look at Dr. Hammond’s article and see that one of the last pictures he uses in his article in defense of his own position is that of a Crusader, summarizing the stance he believes he is taking in the article.
In the end, the typical Christian stance is, unfortunately, well outlined by Dr. Hammond, and could probably be summarized by the following words: ignorant and devoid of facts.
So is there any reason why a Christian shouldn’t celebrate Halloween? Certainly. In Romans 14 Paul writes regarding how Christians should engage with secular and even pagan practices and in verse 23 he states, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” If you have doubts about Halloween then you should work through them first before celebrating. What is most important is that every manifestation of your life is an expression of faith, and this is certainly no different.
So what about the case for celebrating Halloween? Well, that’s surprisingly simple. You see, a Christian should generally ask three questions about any situation:
- Does God command it?
- Does God forbid it?
- Can it be redeemed?
If God specifically commands it, we should obviously do it. If God specifically forbids it, then we should obviously avoid it. But the vast majority of things we interact with in the 21st century Western world (including Halloween) are not directly addressed in Scripture; we can certainly find principles regarding them, but not specific instruction. So we must ask the third question: can it be redeemed?
Paul says in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Jesus emphasizes this in John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul discusses meat sacrificed to idols, and even in such a situation which would probably make most of us uncomfortable he says this: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”
Here we have a situation where Paul, writing in the context of pagan traditions, says that God is sovereign on earth, everything can be made holy by Him, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving and prayer. This does not mean we are commanded to celebrate Halloween, but rather demonstrates that we have the freedom to redeem it. Allow me to present the following three scenarios and you can decide which one is most glorifying to God.
Scenario 1: On the 31st of October, we hide in our home and turn off all the lights so we won’t be faced with the choice of facing the army of trick-or-treaters coming by our house. We may even leave to avoid the whole thing. Our goal here is to be the light of the world and a city on a hill which cannot be hidden, and so glorify God.
Scenario 2: On the 31st of October, we bravely answer the door each time the bell rings and instruct these six-year-old children that they’re actually serving Satan and pass out tracts. When they ask why we tell them they’re serving a god which never existed and replicating practices which aren’t historically factual and these children and parents leave our house fully convinced that we hold the Word of Truth.
Scenario 3: On the 31st of October, we pull out the old fire pit and set it in the driveway with our camp chairs and a big bucket of candy. We also set up a table with a big pot of hot chocolate and another of steaming apple cider to serve to the parents who come by and have been walking for WAY too long without any reward. We’ve got Christian music playing in the background and we simply hang out and chat, getting to know our neighbors and fellowshipping with them.
Of those three scenarios, which do you think Jesus would do? I think the third one fits the bill best, and that’s the one we’re planning on doing. So if you’re in the neighborhood on the 31st of October, feel free to swing by, put your feet up, and enjoy some hot chocolate or apple cider and some good conversation.