Is Halloween a pagan holiday? Should Christians celebrate it? I admit my October 31 birthday makes me partial to the day. I grew up enjoying some memorable birthday parties. And as an adult, I often joke about being “bewitching” when someone remarks on the date. But those two questions caught my interest, and finding good answers has been challenging. You see, most historians would say Halloween developed from a lot of pagan beliefs, overridden gradually by scientific discoveries and Christian ideas.
The real fear that underlay the holiday’s origin was nothing like the shivers intended by costumed monsters ringing our doorbells or the creators of modern haunted houses. The ancient Celtic people in France and Great Britain, where Halloween started, believed in several gods, including the sun god and the god of death, who ruled the winter. Imagine the people’s fears as the days grew shorter. Was the lord of the dead gaining power over the sun god? Would he call up ghosts and witches? The people believed that October 31, marking summer’s end and winter’s beginning, was especially perilous. That night was said to offer a doorway for vengeful spirits to enter the world of the living. Not a comforting thought.
Now how did we get the unique Halloween customs? The custom of wearing costumes can be traced back to how the Celts wore animal skins and masks at the site of huge bonfires in order to frighten away those evil spirits. People also believed that criminals, such as murderers, came back to earth as black cats after they died. Today’s decorations of paper black cats, witches, ghosts, and skeletons are probably rooted in these ancient beliefs.
When Christianity came to Europe, people began to learn that the One Creator God loved them and offered safety through all the changing seasons and challenges of life. The churches honored the memory of especially good Christians each November 1st, called All Saints’ Day. Since October 31 was the night before the holy day, it became Hallowed Day Eve, or Halloween, removing some of the spooky connotations. However, the idea of ghosts and witches was slow to die out, and the belief that they were especially active on October 31st continued for a long time.
The jack o’ lantern started with an old Irish story about a mean man named Jack. Supposedly, he tricked Satan into promising not to accept him into hell. When Jack died, the tale claimed that heaven also rejected him, so his spirit had to wander the earth. He used a lantern made from a gourd with a candle in it. Pumpkins are easier to carve, so we put a candle in a pumpkin and call it Jack’s lantern, or jack o’ lantern.
What about trick-or-treating? For a while after Christianity came to Europe, quite a few people had the wrong idea about getting into heaven. The common folk didn’t know much about the Bible before its distribution in their language and the invention of the printing press. Not realizing that their entrance into heaven would be certain if they received Jesus as their Lord and Savior, people sometimes tried to accumulate merit by piling up prayers and good deeds, hoping to get into heaven that way. Children went to rich people’s homes and promised to pray for their souls if given a “soul cake.” In an unrelated tradition, the Irish suspected fairies of playing tricks on Halloween. So, trick-or-treating may have evolved from a combination of these ideas.
Now back to the original questions. We’d probably agree that in most people’s minds, the current customs have nothing to do with honoring ancient gods and goddesses, frightening away ghosts and spirits, or helping people try to earn admission to heaven. So this is my conclusion: although a Christian shouldn’t be involved with the dark side of Halloween, we can rejoice that what was once a fearful time has been transformed by a better understanding of nature and the Good News of Jesus. The holiday can actually offer a reminder of the light Christ gives—as well as provide some fun and a ton of candy for children. So I think Halloween is only a pagan holiday if someone tries to make it into one.
What do you think about Halloween?