On those infrequent occasions when modern man considers the landscape of religion throughout the world, he is likely to think of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a smattering of smaller faiths. These religions, the “big five”, encompass the beliefs of more than two thirds of the world’s population, though there are innumerable sects and denominations within each. It was not always so.
Of these, before 500 BC only Judaism and Hinduism existed, and even they were different in many respects from the religions by those names today. Instead the world was a bubbling cauldron of tens of thousands of tribal and regional religions. The Greek pantheon, which became the Roman pantheon, the Celtic religion, and the later Norse pantheon, are among the most well known today in the West. Even after the advent of Buddhism in the early 5th century BC, Christianity in the first century AD, and Islam in the 7th century AD, these tribal and regional religions played an important role in the lives of their followers.
No one knows where the holiday today known as Halloween originated, but there is widespread agreement that it came out of the cauldron of Christian and pagan influences in Europe in the Middle Ages. Some link it to the Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end) while others to the Roman feast of Parentalia (the festival of the dead). The name “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve”. The common belief was that the souls of those who had died wandered the earth until All Saints Day on November first, when they would be taken to purgatory. All Hallows Eve, therefore, was their last chance to take revenge on their enemies. To avoid recognition, however, the souls would disguise themselves. Those targeted by the souls of the dead could do something good for them and perhaps avoid retribution. Also, the poor would go from house to house in the Middle Ages on All Saints Day receiving food in exchange for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day, November second. From these practices followed the modern customs of dressing in costume and “trick or treat” on Halloween.
During the Reformation, Protestants objected to Halloween as “Popism” and tried to eliminate pagan influences from the Church. The Puritans in New England opposed the holiday but later Scottish and Irish immigrants brought it with them into the New World. Subsequently celebrating Halloween became widespread in America among all social classes and ethnic groups.
Like all things, holidays take on the color of their surrounding culture. The lives of medieval men and women were surrounded by death. The healthiest could and often did perish in an instant, and as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote in Leviathan “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” As a result Halloween was heavily influenced by death, its main images being skeletons, corpses, and ghosts, or dealers in death, such as witches, demons, and even the unlucky black cat.
Halloween in America today is less about death, which seems distant in a land with good public health, excellent medical care, and where people die in hospitals instead of at home. Rather Halloween is more about sex. A quick look at almost any costume catalog reveals sexy pirate, foxy lady, sexy wench, sexy gangster, Aphrodite, nurse knockout, passionate princess, and a host of revealing costumes for women and even young girls. Men’s and boy’s costumes are more about violence and arrogance, with outlaws, commandos, and fictional superheroes as standard fare. There are, of course, still the historic Halloween standards of witches, ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and other bloody, rotting and scary costumes. And in the interest of fairness, many children and even a few adults dress up as animals, fruits, vegetables, (modest) princesses, and other fun and wholesome choices.
Christians today sometimes eschew Halloween entirely, sometimes participate wholeheartedly and without discretion, and sometimes celebrate a variation, such as “fall festivals” common among church groups. The Bible does not categorically state what the Christian response to Halloween is, since Halloween is a much later development. Nonetheless it does provide principles to guide our conduct.
First, believers in Jesus Christ should never fear. Some people feel that pumpkins, black cats, and other images of Halloween are so associated with this holiday that Christians must not be associated with them at all. This is false; the God who made pumpkins and black cats allows people to use, and even misuse, what He has given them, and uses their actions for His greater plan. Other people fear the images of death. This must not be, because death is a result of our sin and must be faced, and also because Jesus Christ conquered death once and for all at the cross. Still others fear the magic and what they perceive as demonic influences. Evil spirits undoubtedly have significant influence on the world, as do good spirits, and their influence is not confined to Halloween. However, Christ won the final victory, and if our eyes are on Him, we have nothing to fear.
Second, believers in Jesus Christ should avoid sin at all costs. Most everyone fears death, but few fear sin. This is remarkable because sin leads directly to death, and not just physical death, but spiritual death as well (James 1:14-15). When sin is wrapped in such an alluring package as a scantily clad, beautiful young woman, we fear it even less. While sex between husband and wife bears the imprimatur and magnificence of heaven, the same act between anyone else will result in eventual destruction (Proverbs 7). But sex is not the only good thing which if misused becomes sin. Power and pride, so laudable when directed rightly, so lamentable when directed wrongly, and so prominent a theme in the men’s Halloween costumes, can also lead to sin (Habakkuk 1:11).
Our family enjoys decorating, carving pumpkins, going to fall festivals, dressing up in costumes, and eating treats on Halloween. God made, either directly or through the handiwork of man, every pumpkin, every treat, and even every costume and decoration. He will use it all for His perfect purposes and His glory. Our responsibility, not just for Halloween but for every day, is to avoid the twin dangers of fear and sin. In so doing, we can enjoy all of the abundant life that He gives those who love Him.