This year I’m celebrating Halloween by researching its history! I’ve been involved in multiple discussions over the past month concerning whether it is appropriate for Christians to celebrate Halloween. Does Halloween bring glory to God or is it a heathen pagan holiday that should be avoided? I had my own personal feelings concerning the matter but they were embarrassingly void of any substantive historical knowledge. Since I had multiple discussions on Halloween during October, I felt that I should honor my curiosity by developing a more informed opinion on this controversial topic.
Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason recently invited Angie Mosteller onto his weekly radio program to discuss the historical background of Halloween and speak to the question of whether Christians should celebrate it. Angie Mosteller is an intelligent and resourceful woman who earned her Masters in Theology from Biola University and started a website titled ‘Celebrating Holidays’ where she has dedicated her efforts to examining the historical and theological elements of the holidays that we all love to celebrate. The historical insights communicated in this article can largely be attributed to the hard work of Mosteller’s studies. I encourage anyone who is reading this article to visit her website for a more thorough examination of Halloween and I strongly urge everyone to purchase her short pamphlet that addresses the major issues many Christians have with Halloween.
The name ‘Halloween’ cleverly combines the words ‘All Hallows Eve’, which identifies the evening before All Saints’ Day on November 1. The word ‘Hallow’ means ‘Holy’, which can be specifically found in Matthew 6:9, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”. Various churches celebrated All Saints’ Day on different dates prior to Pope Gregory III (in office 731-741 A.D.) officially declaring November 1 as All Saints’ Day as a date to spiritually reflect on the holy men and women who have died. Eventually, Pope Gregory IV (in office 827-844 A.D.) officially extended All Saints’ Day to all Christians by placing it on the calendar in 835 A.D.
Strangely enough, we find that Christians are possibly more at fault for the sinister tone of Halloween that many Christians vehemently oppose today. At around the same time All Saints’ Day was made official; November 2 was named All Souls’ Day and eventually spread throughout the entire church over the following centuries. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright points out in his book, ‘For All the Saints?’,
“Purgatory . . . provides the rationale for All Soul’s Day. This Day . . . assumes a sharp distinction between the ‘saints’, who have already made it to heaven, and the ‘souls’, who haven’t, and who are therefore still, at least in theory, less than completely happy and need our help to move on from there.”
To gather further insight into the purgatorial state that Wright is referring to, we can look to the dogma that was established on purgatory by the 1274 Council of Lyons,
“If they die truly repentant in charity before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for (sins) committed and omitted, their souls are cleansed after death by purgatorical or purifying punishments . . . . And to relieve punishments of this kind, the offerings of the living faithful are of advantage to these, namely, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, alms, and other duties of piety . . .”
Theologian Thomas Aquinas described purgatory as an experience of pain, punishment, and torment in his famous Summa Theologica.
The teachings of a purgatorial reality were likely the fuel that caused imaginations to run rampant concerning death and the afterlife, and many superstitions and fear developed among the Christian community. The Roman Catholic church began selling ‘indulgences’ to people who lost loved ones so that they may rest assured that their deceased relative may spend less time in purgatory.
On October 31, 1517, theologian Martin Luther wrote “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” which came to be known as “95 Theses” that objected to the church selling indulgences. The most noted theses are,
1. Indulgences were being used for financial gain – “when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest avarice and greed increase” (thesis 28).
2. Indulgences were giving people a false assurance of salvation, leading them to overlook true repentance and contrition – “It is not in accordance with Christian doctrines to preach and teach that those who buy off souls, or purchase confessional licenses, have no need to repent of their own sins” (thesis 35) and “the very multitude of indulgences dulls men’s consciences” (thesis 40).
3. Indulgences were said to have power over the dead and the ability to free souls from purgatory – “There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest” (thesis 27) and “when the church offers intercession, all depends in the will of God” (Thesis 28).
As a consequence of this movement started by Martin Luther, October 31 came to eventually be known as Reformation Day. Under the Reformed view, the existence of purgatory is not understood to be a scriptural reality. While there are many scriptures that can support this claim against the reality of purgatory, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 beautifully articulated a scripturally supported perspective on the afterlife,
“The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none” (Chapter XXXII).
As seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the believer has no reason to fear death. The threat of purgatory during the celebration of All Souls’ Day defeated the original intent of the celebration. Instead of honoring the dead, individuals felt compelled to purchase indulgences for their loved ones out of fear that they were suffering in a purgatorial state. With this historical background in mind, it isn’t surprising to see how these holidays evolved over time in a sinister and grim way.
Despite the historical facts above, many people still attribute the origin of Halloween to the Celtic celebration named Samhain (pronounced sah-win). However, is this conclusion historically reliable? The answer is….most likely not. The name ‘Samhain’ is derived from the Old Irish meaning, “summers end”. The Celtic people of scattered portions of Northern Ireland and Scotland celebrated Samhain to signal a time of preparation for the upcoming winter. The only reliable information that scholars have to evaluate Samhain comes from 10th century folklore, centuries after the church’s establishment of All Saints’ Day. Throughout all of the records that were found in the 10th century Celtic folklore, Samhain was confirmed as an event acknowledging ‘summers end’ but the evidence for Samhain being the primary influence over the Catholic Church’s selection of when and how to celebrate All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day is insufficient.
Why Samhain Shouldn’t Be Feared
Simply because Samhain and All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day are celebrated around the same time of year doesn’t necessarily make the two celebrations related. For instance, I share my birthday with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (which is totally awesome!) but it doesn’t mean that our separate birthday celebrations are connected in any way other than the fact that they are celebrated on the same day. For a second example, pretend my parents officially changed my birthday from May 2nd to May 3rd to correspond with Lumpy Rug Day (yes, it’s a real holiday), would that mean that every subsequent birthday celebration was necessarily a celebration of Lumpy Rub Day? Absolutely not! Lumpy Rug Day is an entirely different celebration than the celebration of my birth. In the same manner, Samhain is an entirely separate celebration than the celebrations of All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day. Separate events that share the same date are still separate events.
Even if evidence were to show that the church purposefully dated All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day on Samhain in an attempt to Christianize it, this fact would not mean that All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day is identical to Samhain. The original naming (i.e. ‘All Hallows Eve’), church history, traditions, etc… are all completely independent of the Samhain tradition and unique to their specific celebration.
As I studied for this article, I realized that Christians have played the greatest role in the long-term development (and corruption) of Halloween. While Samhain often receives credit for being the original inspiration for Halloween, that is not a historically supported claim. While Samhain is historically attributed to the Celts, the evidence for the claim that the modern day celebration of Halloween is based off of Samhain is inadequate in light of the well established church history of All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day and the late dating 10th century Old Irish folklore.
As I said in the beginning of this article, I was motivated to research this topic out of curiosity. My wife and I have met our fair share of people that absolutely refuse to celebrate Halloween because they are convinced that it is a pagan celebration at its core. I can appreciate how some people perceive modern day expressions of Halloween as an act of disobedience towards God. In every decision, it’s important to filter all one’s actions through a Biblical filter. Going to haunted houses and visiting fortune-tellers is obviously not the original intent of All Saints’ Day/All Souls’ Day nor is it a Biblically condoned activity. God speaks against these behaviors and finds occult practices ‘detestable’. Deuteronomy 18:9-13 speaks to this issue,
9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the LORD your God.
For the purposes of clarity, this verse does not mean, ‘thou shalt not dress like Iron Man and go trick-or-treating’. It’s important to keep the original essence of All Hallows Eve in mind by paying homage to our dead. Does this homage include ridding ourselves of Biblically neutral traditions like trick-or-treating or pumpkin carving? I don’t think so, but I respect those that decline to participate to be on the safe side. My family and I are going to participate in these Fall festivities in a way that honors the original intent of All Hallows Eve, and in the process allows my girls to enjoy the memorable festivities of trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving that I cherished as a child.