It's that time of year when you begin to see various articles and debates online about Hallowe'en, and whether it's something that Christians should have any part in.

To some people the answer is a straightforward “no”, while others say it falls into the realm of Christian freedom and personal discernment. But what about if you're unsure or somewhere in the middle of those two positions, how should you decide what is the right thing to do?

We can all see that the modern celebration of Halloween is focused quite heavily on darkness and evil beings. Here in the UK it's not quite so prevalent; it seems more like an excuse for adults to dress up and have a party as much as the kids do (although with more alcohol involved). American society has really taken the holiday to its extremes with some of the decorations I've seen online and on TV and films, to the point that suicide and murder victims left in public view have been mistaken for scary props!

Origins of the holiday

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Has Hallowe'en always been like this though? Let's take a look at its origins to see where this holiday comes from to help us decide whether we should partake or not.

Did you know that Hallowe'en actually started out as a Christian holiday (Holy Day)? “Hallowe’en”, or more precisely, All Hallows Eve (from the Old English hallowed meaning “holy”), is an ancient holiday in the Christian calendar to mark the day before All Saints Day on November 1st.

All Saints Day is a day to celebrate and remember the martyrs and all those who have died and gave their lives for the Faith. Originally, this yearly festival began in the 7th century when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon, a Roman temple to the gods. This then became a church called St. Mary of the Martyrs, and the date of the consecration, May 13th, was to be celebrated annually thereafter as the Feast of the Holy Martyrs. This was then later changed to November 1st by Pope Gregory IV in 835 AD to commemorate the dedication of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to all of the saints. The feast day was then extended and made universal to include all the saints who had died, not just martyrs, since there had become too many to individually commemorate. And thus, All Saints Day was born.

This isn't even the earliest time that martyrs were remembered as a formal event, as the practice goes way back to at least 135 AD which we can read about in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. In it the believers are said to treat the bones of Polycarp as “more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold”.

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The next reference comes around 250 AD. In Epistle 36 of Cyprian, he states that the Church should take note of the days in which the martyrs are killed:

Finally, also, take note of their days on which they depart, that we may celebrate their commemoration among the memorials of the martyrs … there are celebrated here by us oblations and sacrifices for their commemorations

There's also other early references to this practice in sermons by Ephrem the Syrian (373 AD) and John Chrysostom (407 AD), so we can see from the existing historical documents that celebrating the lives of martyrs and “saints” has been long observed within the Church, with the first record being in what is now modern-day Turkey.

Aren’t there pagan roots?

There is often a lot of references to Hallowe'en being an ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in, a Gaelic word meaning “end of the summer”), originating in Ireland over 2000 years ago. The story goes that this was always the time when the Celts celebrated their dead, and as Christianity spread, the Pope “replaced” the pagan festival with a “Christianised” version to try and convert people easier. But there are a few issues with this version of events, and the historical timeline that it’s meant to follow.

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For starters, if it truly were an ancient Celtic festival, then the historical documents we have from the early Church should show that the initial celebrations of All Hallows Eve/Saint Day originated in Irish and Celtic populated countries. The ancient documents we looked at previously by Cyrian and about Polycarp et al. show us that these practices began in the area of Turkey and Syria, even if not widespread at the time. By the Middle Ages, the Pope was declaring this a Church-wide festival in May, which began in Rome (and again when the date was moved to November 1st). So we can see even from a brief look at history, Hallowe’en celebrations originally had nothing to do with anything remotely Celtic.

As far as Irish and Celtic origins go, we have still in existence a few Irish sources from around 830 AD which tell us that there was a feast “of all the Saints of the whole of Europe” on April 20th (Martyrology of Tallaght) This should offer us some evidence that the Irish Christians celebrated All Saints Day (and the eve before) around the time of the original decree by Pope Boniface IV, as the news of the new date of November 1st had yet to reach Ireland from Rome. Plus there’s also evidence that the name “Samhain” didn’t appear until the 10th century in Irish folklore (Ronald Hutton’s 1996 book Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain).

In another book, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, by Nicholas Rogers, he states that:

Festivals commemorating the saints as opposed to the original Christian martyrs appear to have been observed by 800. In England and Germany, this celebration took place on 1st November. In Ireland, it was commemorated on 20th April, a chronology that contradicts the widely held view that the November date was chosen to Christianize the festival of Samhain. (p.22)

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Hopefully by this point you can begin to see that any supposed pagan connection to the original Christian celebration, and remembrance of the martyrs and saints, is either completely fabricated to discredit the Church, or is entirely coincidental. To read a more in depth overview of the history of these events, I recommend this article by a Lutheran pastor, Joseph Abrahamson: Hallowe’en: A short history.

What about “Trick or Treat”, costumes and pumpkins?

These aspects of the Hallowe’en festivities do have mixed history, with some coming from Christian tradition in the Middle Ages, to others being older, Irish folktales.

Trick or treating comes from an old Middle Ages tradition called “Souling”, where children or poor families would go around knocking on people’s houses offering prayers for their departed (who were assumed to be in Purgatory), in exchange for “Soul cakes” – which were essentially doughnuts. This was common all year round for the poor, but obviously more popular during holiday times, and was often accompanied by a song or poem as well as prayers.

Carving vegetables goes back to older times, but it was usually a turnip that was made into a lantern, and not a pumpkin. There is apparently an old Irish legend about a man named Jack in connection to pumpkins (hence, “Jack o’lantern”), though the connection to Halloween is much more recent. The same for dressing up in costumes, haunted houses and the phrase “trick or treat”. All of these things originated in the early 20th century and eventually become commercialised throughout America and Britain, ingraining themselves firmly into society.

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Hallowe’en then, as a holiday of dressing up as something ghoulish, carving faces into pumpkins, and trying to scare people in return for some sweet treats, is all a relatively secular and modern invention, with the more supernatural aspects hijacked by neo-paganism and claimed to be the older and ancient practices.

In conclusion

If you're going to church on Oct 31st and/Nov 1st to light candles in remembrance of the dead and to celebrate the lives of martyrs who gave their lives for the Faith, then great — you are keeping within ancient Christian tradition. But if you are dressing up as ghouls and depictions of evil and darkness, celebrating death over life, then you are partaking in something contrary to Christ and wholly secular, with possible pagan undertones.

If we are to have anything to do with the modern/secular version of Hallowe’en, then it should be as an opportunity to share the Gospel and be a light on a night of darkness, giving out the Good News rather than trying to scare people, sowing seeds of Truth rather than tooth decay.

As an alternative, October 31st is also Reformation Day, as it marks the day in which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle church doors in 1517, and this year (2017) marks the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. So if you’re Protestant, you can always celebrate that instead.

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For “what fellowship does light have with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14). We should do what we can to be “in the world, not of it” (Jn 17:14-16) and to “abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:22) so that we may be a good witness to the eternal life that Jesus has given us, that victory over death and evil!

Have something to add to this? Leave a comment below.


Further Reading/Sources:

 

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