Believe it or not, but Halloween is the third most money making holiday of the year behind only Christmas and Easter. But, lately, there has been quite the debate amongst Christians as to whether we should celebrate it or not. And, it is a fair question. After all, Halloween has some dark and satanic connotations to it. But, on the other hand it is a commercial holiday that is divorced from those same dark connections and is just a day to have fun, enjoy a scary movie, and binge eat candy.
In my experience the move to not celebrate on Halloween comes from the more fundamentalist denominations or groups of American Evangelical Christianity. Maybe that is because I grew up in Oklahoma. But, outside of the strict Baptist family down the road I never knew anybody that did not celebrate it except for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Lately, I have seen more historical/liturgical denominations dealing with the issue.
Not too surprisingly the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has no official position on Halloween.
The LCMS has not officially spoken to the observance of Halloween in any of its resolutions or statements. Frankly, opinions differ in our church regarding the appropriateness of Christians observing Halloween customs. Those who oppose the observance of Halloween by Christians argue that its origins are pagan and that emphasis on the Occult in our society finds expression in various kinds of Halloween symbols, parties and activities. Others argue that, generally speaking, current Halloween customs have little to do with pagan roots in the minds of most, and that there is no harm done in permitting our children to enjoy such customs.
www.lcms.org/faqs - Contemporary Issues PDF
But, as we look at some of the issues that position can be understood.
What’s In A Name?
Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallows Eve or All Saints’ Eve. Much like Christmas Eve signifies the day before Christmas, All Hallows Eve signifies the day be All Hallows Day (or All Saints/Souls Day). "Hallow" means to make holy or sanctified (Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…). All Saints Day is a Christian holiday where those who have gone before us in the faith (the “hallowed” ones) are honored as examples to follow (at least for Lutherans). There is a reason Martin Luther picked October 31st to nail the 95 Theses attacking indulgences and false ways of earning God’s forgiveness to the church door in Wittenberg, because the next day people from around the countryside would be coming to church.
In the Middle Ages, people had a profound sense of the demonic. Just think of Luther’s Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress:” “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us.” People believed that the demons were especially active on the eve of All Hallows. People carved gourds with ugly faces and set them out to guard their homes. This was similar to the practice of carving grotesque gargoyles on the drain spouts of cathedrals to ward off devils. People paraded in the streets dressed up in costumes and masks to confuse the demons and confound their schemes.
https://blogs.lcms.org/2010/dancing-on-the-devils-grave-10-2010 accessed Oct. 19, 2016.
As you can see, the people during Martin Luther's time took this stuff very seriously. Partly because the church at the time never left them with the sure assurance of God's forgiveness.
Despite common belief to the contrary there is quite the spirited debate amongst academic circles (anthropologist, theologians, and sociologist) of who, exactly, started Halloween.
Cultural belief is based on the research of one Sir James Frazer. Frazer was almost obsessed with making a connection between all Christian Holy Days (holidays) and a pagan equivalent. The fact that many people do not know his name but espouse this belief is actually quite astounding. He is one of the founding fathers of comparative religious studies. He also posited an evolution of religion theory. His theory in short is based on three stages. First came primitive magic which was replaced by religion which in turn would be replaced by science. A common sentiment expressed by many atheists today and at the heart of militant atheists’ arguments against religion. But, to continue this line of thought would take us too far afield of the topic at hand.
Sir James Frazer researched the Celtic beliefs of Ireland and Scotland. What he found was Samhain. The only issue is that until Frazer’s work nobody had ever heard of this Celtic god of the dead. There is some, but not much evidence that this day has been a Celtic holy day since ancient times, but not necessarily tied to Samhain. However, it can very easily be the case that this holy day was created after the influence of Christianity into the area.
Christians started honoring the saints very early on. The stoning of Stephen made it into the Book of Acts. Paul writes to the Thessalonians of those who were “asleep in the Lord.” John’s Revelation revealed the martyred at the foot of the throne and the throng of believers filling Heaven. All Saints’ Day, specifically, came into being when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs on May 13, 609 A.D. Let us fast forwarding a few hundred years now:
In the British Isles, it is known that churches were already celebrating All Saints on 1 November at the beginning of the 8th century to coincide or replace the Celtic festival of Samhain. James Frazer suggests that 1 November was chosen because it was the date of the Celtic festival of the dead (Samhain) – the Celts had influenced their English neighbours, and English missionaries had influenced the Germans. However, Ronald Hutton points out that, according to Óengus of Tallaght (d. ca. 824), the 7th/8th century church in Ireland celebrated All Saints on 20 April. He suggests that 1 November date was a Germanic rather than a Celtic idea.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Saints%27_Day accessed Oct. 19, 2016.
As you can see in the above quote, you have the modern cultural belief, but also a rebuttal.
In the Eighth Century, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to November 1st thereby moving All Hallows Eve to October 31st. It seems unlikely that the Pope 1,500 miles removed from Ireland and Scotland would move a Holy Day to coincide and therefore co-opt a pagan holy day that was little known and little celebrated at the time. Especially since Christianity had been established in this area of the world for 300+ years already.
Despite all this evidence almost every cultural anthropologist after Frazer has repeated the claim that Halloween has a pagan origination. Considering how easily people have bought into the idea that Jesus Christ is a rip-off of an ancient Egyptian myth (despite all evidence to the contrary, the fact that the person who came up with this is not an Egyptologist nor has any expertise of any kind in the field, and that every single scholar and researcher has debunked this claim) it should not be a surprise that they are willing to believe something similar about Halloween.
Now, just because Halloween does not have a pagan origination it does not mean that pagan, occultic, or superstitious practices have not creeped into our modern day observation and celebration. The carving of pumpkins to ward off evil spirits comes from Germanic peoples. The same as wearing masks. These, obviously, are not based on Christianity or its practices. After all, Christ has conquered death and overcome Satan. Satan is not the equal of Christ and never will be. He is a fallen angel; Jesus Christ is God. Satan’s power is limited; Christ’s is unlimited. Satan is not everywhere at once, Christ is omnipresent. Satan only knows what God allows him to know; Christ is omniscient.
When we, as Christians talk of Halloween that is were we need to start. Christ has overcome all, even death. Therefore, death and evil spirits cannot avail over us, because we are Christ's and he has overcome them. Just look at John 1, "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." While evil spirits are nothing to take lightly or mess around with, we know that it is not up to us to fight them. Instead, if confronted, we simply pronounce the victory of Christ. Or, if you want to take a Luther approach, just fart at them (I wish I was making that up).
Today, there are two main camps of belief when it comes to Halloween, specifically in America. The first camp is the general public. This is the group that dresses up their children in costumes, grabs a coat, and goes trick-or-treating. Or, watches a scary movie. Or goes to a party, etc. To them Halloween has no religious or pagan connotations and is just a day for fun. A subset of this group are those who just like to create chaos and toilet paper a house or some other form of vandalism, or in extreme cases, arson. They might play up the “Devil’s Night” aspect of Halloween (a thoroughly modern idea, as pointed out earlier) but only as a guise or excuse to create hurt to another. But, again, we are getting off topic. The point is, to this group there is only a tenuous at best, and completely divorced most likely, link between Halloween and devil worship or paganism.
The second group are modern day pagans and Wiccans. They have come to view Halloween as a high holy day in their religions. This is probably due more to the influence of Sir James Frazer on modern day thinking of Halloween than anything. But, that is not what is important. What is, is the religious emphasis they put on the day. Instead of being a day to dress up in whacky costumes and eat candy they view it as a day to contact the dead or practice darker forms of magic in connection with their gods. It should be no surprise that a day connected with honoring the dead would take on darker meanings for non-believers, especially those who practice paganism or Wicca. The meaning of “Devil’s Night” takes on a serious understanding. This is a day to contact the dead and other spirits.
It is this second group that makes Christians nervous about celebrating Halloween. After all, 10There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11or a charmer or medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD (Deuteronomy 18:10-12a). As the next few verses point out, this was the reason God was driving out the current occupants of the Promised Land so that the Israelites could settle it. And, in 2 Kings 17:17, practicing divination is listed as a reason for the Exile. Also, as Acts shows us, divination is only possible by interacting with demons and evil spirits. As a side note, it bothers me extremely that we have a discussion on whether or not to celebrate Halloween but people buy their kids Ouija boards like it is some sort of game (and for that matter, that they are sold in the game section of stores)! The Bible clearly condemns this practice and we expose our kids to some of the gravest dangers they may ever face! Wise up people! So, back on track, should we celebrate Halloween or not?
Should We or Should We Not
All of that just to get here. And, the grand answer is: whatever you feel like doing. Frankly, context is going to be a great factor here. Do you live in an area the hypes up the paganism/Wiccan aspect of Halloween? Then I would suggest that you stay home, pop some popcorn, and have a family night. Or, do you struggle with the connections of Halloween to paganism and devil worship? Then do not burden your conscience. However, if you live in a place where it is just a day for your children to get candy and neighbors to be friendly to each other then feel free to dress up and take the kiddos out.
On a personal note, I am more concerned that a day that started out as a Christian Holy Day is now completely separated from the moorings of faith. Neither of the groups above would likely make recognition that All Hallows Eve was started by Christians to recognize the saints and martyrs that have gone before us in the faith and give us examples to follow in our time on Earth.
Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have a happy and safe Halloween and I hope to see you when we celebrate All Saints' Day.