Tracy Krebs, a former colleague of mine began a recent blog post this way: “As soon as the leaves begin to turn, the anti-halloween-bloggers start popping up on my fb feed…” It is true that the changing colors of the leaves prompt those both for and against the celebration of Halloween to dust off their opinions and post them anew. It is not a topic I have ever engaged in with effort. When asked, I will share what I think. When challenged, I will respond. And I took the blog post of this former colleague, shared on Facebook, as a challenge. Her post was titled, “Can I love Jesus…and Halloween?” Tracy makes it clear that she thinks the answer is yes. I disagree with her on that. But it is precisely because of some erroneous explanations she gives for her position that I feel the need to respond.
She begins her post with a quick overview of the origins of the holiday we now know as Halloween. She correctly traces the beginnings to the Celtic celebration of Samhain, when the Celts “believed that the veil between the spirit realm and physical realm was at it’s [sic] thinnest and that ghosts of the dead (along with other spirit realm entities) wandered among the living” (Tracy’s words). She goes on to say that the Celtic people lit large bonfires in their fields and put candles in their hollowed-out gourds to guide these spirits and left food and wine on their doorsteps to appease them. Furthermore, they had large feasts “during which they purposely honored their dead relatives; speaking fondly of their memories, appreciation and love for them; and, yes, since they believed they were close by for a few hours, would usually try to commune with them” (again, Tracy’s words).
There are a few problems with this. First, supposing it were an accurate description, this practice is not harmless or biblically acceptable. Deuteronomy 18:9-11 says,
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There 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 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.
Notice several things from this passage: (1) some practices—read religious practices, holidays, celebrations and traditions—of heathen nations are abominable to God; (2) consulting with the dead—which would include communing with, to borrow Tracy’s word—is also an abomination to the Lord. 1 Chronicles 10 makes it clear that Saul suffered serious consequences from the Lord for consulting with a witch—a medium—to summon the spirit of Samuel. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that communicating, communing or consulting with the dead is permissible, let alone encouraged.
But notice that I said “supposing it were an accurate description,” when referring to Tracy’s overview of the origins of Halloween. The reality is, it is not. History.com, in its overview of Halloween, starts off the same way Tracy does: “Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.” After that, however, it takes a dramatically different route than Tracy does:
In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
By this explanation, the Celts were not honoring their dead relatives, recalling fond memories or attempting to commune with them. Far from it. They were actually making sacrifices to Celtic deities, dressing up in weird costumes and telling each other’s fortunes, which could be “a source of comfort and direction” during the winter. Notice, as well, that the ghosts and spirits that were believed to return were not stopping by for a friendly visit; instead, they were “causing trouble and damaging crops.”
The problems with Christians celebrating such traditions should be immediately evident. First of all, it is not possible to make predictions about the future with any accuracy or legitimacy. James 4:14 says “you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” Second, fortune telling and other such predictions cannot be counted on for direction or comfort. Scripture makes it abundantly clear, in a plethora of passages, that believers are to find their comfort and direction in and from the Lord and His Word. Third, of course, is the offering of sacrifices to pagan deities, something repeatedly condemned in the Bible. And fourth is the trust that was placed in the flame from the “sacred bonfire.” Psalm 9:10 says, “And those who know your name put their trust in you,” speaking of the Lord. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” It is not distorting the passage at all to say, speaking of the Celts, “Some trust in sacred bonfires and pagan traditions.”
Immediately after her description of Samhain, Tracy writes:
This is not unlike the many other cultures around the world that have a day of honoring the dead. Is setting aside a day to honor the dead a bad thing? I don’t see how it is. The Catholics religiously honor their dead and pray for them. Ireland, Scotland, England, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Nepal, the Philippines, and many others cultures current and through history commemorate their dead with a holiday. (Actually, why DON’T we do that?)
Setting aside a day to honor the dead is not inherently a bad thing. We do this in the United States with Memorial Day, in particular, and many individuals and families honor the memory of the deceased relatives on their birthdays or the anniversary of their deaths. But there is a difference between honoring them as in remembering them and honoring them as in worshipping or exalting them. And to the Catholic practice, there is absolutely no point in praying for the dead. Once they are dead it is too late; there is nothing to pray for. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (KJV). Some Catholics, of course, go further and pray to the dead, usually saints, and/or ask them to pray for them, to intercede for them with the Father. This, too, is contrary to Scripture. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Tracy continues in her defense of Halloween by writing, “A simple google [sic] search will tell you that when missionaries came to the Celts, the decision was made to join in their pagan holidays to make converting to Christianity less intimidating.” Um, yes and no. The use of the word “missionaries” is a bit misleading here. These were not people who had moved peaceably in amongst the Celts to spread the gospel. Instead, within just a decade or so of the death of Christ, the Roman Empire had conquered the Celtic territory. They ruled the area for 400 years, during which time two Roman celebrations were blended with the Celtic traditions—Feralia, which was a Roman commemoration of the dead, and a celebration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. History.com even suggests that this blending is what originated the still-extant activity of bobbing for apples at Halloween, since the apple was he symbol of Pomona.
In AD 609 the Pantheon in Rome was dedicated to honor all Christian martyrs and the feast of All Martyrs day was established. Originally celebrated in May, this was moved to November 1 by Pope Gregory III and expanded to include all saints as well as martyrs. However, according catholic.org, “In Ireland, the Church celebrated All Saints’ Day on April 20, to avoid associating the day with the traditional harvest festivals and pagan feasts associated with Samhain, celebrated at the same time.” An intentional avoidance of the pagan holiday is quite different than “joining in.” Then following the Reformation, “many Protestants retained the holy day, although they dismissed the need to pray for the dead. Instead, the day has been used to commemorate those who have recently died, usually in the past year, and to remember the examples of those who lived holy lives” (catholic.org). Even now the Catholic church emphasizes that October 31 is not a holy day; “It is important to remember these basic facts: Halloween is a secular holiday that comes the night before All Saints’ Day” (ibid).
It is worth noting that the Catholic celebrations in most parts of the world outside of the U.S. are not anything a Protestant would want any part of celebrating. Just a couple of weeks ago I was part of a group of people having dinner with a missionary in Mexico. He has experience ministering in some of the remotest villages in the country. There, celebrating the Day of the Dead is a requirement, and Protestants not participating face persecution. The people are kept in poverty—sometimes even in debt—by the amount of money they are expected to spend to celebrate their village’s saint.
What about Halloween in America? History.com says its celebration was “extremely limited” in New England due to the Protestant beliefs in those colonies. It was much more common in Maryland—which fits, given that Maryland was initially founded as a refuge for Catholics. Gradually, the celebration spread:
As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.
Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish potato famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.
With the influence of these various traditions it became common practice to dress up in costumes. Then, in the late 1800s, there was an intention effort to eliminate ghosts, witchcraft and such from the Halloween celebrations and make them more about community. History.com says parents were even “encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything ‘frightening’ or ‘grotesque’ out of Halloween celebrations. This would be similar to what many—including many churches—now call Harvest Celebrations. These are fun occasions with food and games and nothing at all related to the dead.
Tracy asserts that joining in pagan holidays is exactly what the New Testament apostles did in order to reach unbelievers, but she offers no evidence and I would challenge her to explain that statement. I know of no such “joining in” that took place.
She goes on to suggest that whether or not Halloween is celebrated as “the Devil’s holiday” comes down to identity and authority. She acknowledges that these is increased demonic and occult activity on Halloween, but she is not afraid of either because of her identity in Christ. Because she identifies as a Christian, claims the authority of Christ and carries the light of the Gospel, she has no fear of the darkness or evil of Satan and his minions. Tracy writes, “So, back to this being the devil’s holiday… Says WHO?? I didn’t give him the right to have a holiday. But every time you say that, YOU ARE! You are coming into agreement with his play to usurp your authority. STOP IT! Don’t give your authority away to that snake.”
Okay, so she admits that this day sees an increase in demonic and occult activity, but she will celebrate anyway because she does not fear that activity and she knows God is far more powerful than Satan. That does not really make any sense—especially when her celebration includes the décor and costumes commonly adopted by those who are celebrating evil and death. See, whether or not you fear evil, there is zero point in celebrating it. When you dress up as ghosts or goblins or zombies, how are you spreading the Light? Earlier this month the Chicago Tribune published a list of most popular Halloween costumes for 2017—for adults and children—based on the National Retail Foundation’s Annual Halloween Spending Survey. What were they? For adults, they included witch (1), vampire (6), zombie (7), and slasher movie villain (9). For children, witch (6) and ghost (9). Why go there? Even if you, like Tracy, do not fear evil, why celebrate it? Why surround yourself with depictions of it? Why think about it? There is certainly nothing here that would be consistent with Philippians 4:8. 1 Corinthians 13:6 says, “Love does not delight in evil” (NIV). 1 Thessalonians 5:22 says, “Keep away from every kind of evil” (TLB). Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good…” (NIV). Proverbs 8:13 says, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (NIV). None of these verses seem to leave any room for a harmless celebration of evil.
In addition, Ephesians 6:12 says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this [present] darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) places” (AMP). Why, pray tell, would any Christian want to celebrate the spiritual forces of darkness? I agree with Tracy that those in Christ have no fear of being defeated by the forces of evil, but I see no point whatsoever in celebrating them.
To the question of whether or not Christian should stand against the celebration of Halloween, Tracy writes,
Well, what is your commission in the Kingdom? Are you not an agent of Light? An ambassador of the King? Is it not your duty to draw the lost to their Savior? How best would that be accomplished when the lost come out of their homes once a year to walk the streets of your neighborhood? Are you attracting them to their Savior by turning off the lights of your house to let them know they are not welcome? Think about the message you are sending out… “Oh they are ‘Christians’ and they think we are evil and worshiping the devil because we are trick or treating…”
You could argue this point legitimately, I’ll admit. I do know some Christians who turn their porch lights on and welcome trick or treaters to their doors on Halloween. They smile and distribute candy and the children go on their way. I think it is possible to do that without condoning the celebration of evil. At the same time, I think it is equally possible to leave your light off and not participate without sending the message that you think those out and about are Satan worshippers. I also know some Christians who have their light on and give out gospel tracts to those coming to their doors. In my own opinion, this is not an effective means if witnessing, especially if no candy or other treat is given along with the tract. To the recipients this will come across as a trick while they were seeking a treat. It will not prompt them to read the tract and is unlikely to lead to their conversion to Christ. In my opinion, it would be better to leave your light off.
But Tracy has a point when she writes,
For the sake of all that is good, turn on your porch light and WELCOME these people! Put on your best costume and decorate your house better than anyone else! Hand out the GOOD candy bars! Everyone who trick or treats knows that there are a few homes that go above and beyond on Halloween and your night is not complete until you have visited THOSE homes… BE. THAT. HOUSE. Draw them in to you!! You have a unique opportunity once a year to meet, bless and pray for (even if just silently) EVERYONE in your neighborhood on Halloween night. At least turn on your light and be friendly… You are representing ALL of us. Jesus did not shy away from the lost, He went to them. He engaged. (emphasis hers)
I think there can be merit in this. As I said, if you give out a tract along with candy, you may reach someone. You may at least, as Tracy said, have an opportunity to pray for those individuals or meet neighbors you would not otherwise interact with. Here is where she and I differ, though. I would vehemently suggest that if you do this you decorate and dress in such a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with evil. Be your favorite comic strip character or superhero. Stay far away from the zombies and vampires.
Scripture makes it clear that Christian liberty allows for a wide range of choices. Tracy may be within her Christian liberty to celebrate Halloween. I, and others, are certainly within our liberty to abstain. Scripture also makes it clear that not everything we can do is something that we should do, or something that is beneficial or fruitful. That is where I come down. Celebrating Halloween may not be sin (though I do think it could be, depending on the nature of one’s celebration), but I see little if any good in coming from engaging in an activity that is focused on celebrating death and evil. So, I guess the big question for me is this: even if I can celebrate Halloween, why would I?
(Except where otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version).