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What’s Really up With Halloween?

by Steve Case

My earliest memory of Halloween has a definite focus on candy—lots of candy. It seemed that all I had to do was say “Trick or treat” as I traipsed from one door to another, and people would add to my stash. It’s true that my mother stored the candy in a high cupboard, and I got to choose one large piece or two small pieces after supper (for weeks).

Why did people hand over the candy? Was it my pirate costume? They didn’t seem to be afraid of me. I never thought of a “trick” to play on them if they didn’t give me the “treat.” And I never thought of doing this any other night of the year.
Another early memory of Halloween brings to mind the stunned feeling I had when a group of teenage boys grabbed my sack of candy and ran. After returning home, crying and candyless, I received a reprieve to go out again and get at least a few sweets.

Later, as a dad, I took great pains to make sure my cute little daughter didn’t dress up as a ghost or corpse or witch. One year she dressed up as Jael—the Bible character who drove a tent peg through the head of Sisera (see Judges 4:17-22). I figured that was much more “family-friendly” and godly than something satanic. Like her dad, she just wanted the candy.

But Halloween goes back much further than our lifetimes. Some place it several thousand years ago, in what is now Ireland and Great Britain. The ancient Celts followed the seasons and marked the end of the summer and the beginning of winter. As the days shortened and many plants looked barren following the harvest and leaf dropping, the stark gloom and longer periods of darkness became associated with death. They hoped large bonfires would keep the evil spirits away, even though bugs swarmed, which brought many bats.

October 31 became the festival in which all who had died the previous year would come back to visit their homes. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of ghosts, witches, demons, and other fearful supernatural elements for this annual event. Recognizing that humans have no power over the change in the seasons, some considered this prime time for contacting the spirits to appease them and maybe even discover insights beyond human limitations.

You might not think of these kinds of things, but those people did. Or maybe you don’t consider them in the context of death or the harshness of winter, but other things might raise similar questions. Some have to face the breakup of a family, a failure at school, luck or fate, or something else that seems to affect you even though you can’t seem to do anything about it yourself.

During the Middle Ages a common Christian practice was to substitute Christian holidays for pagan ones. For example, Christians replaced the pagan December holiday of Saturnalia for Christmas. Christians also transformed the spring equinox fertility festival to commemorate the resurrection of Christ with what we now call Easter.

A similar type of change happened with the pagan practice of the October 31 festival. Christians made it All Hallows’ Eve, later shortened to Halloween, and it commemorated the martyrs, people who had died for their faith. Instead of being fearful of all who had died the previous year, this religious replacement focused on the positive by remembering godly people who had given their lives for their faith. They also began a practice calling “souling”; this involved going door to door and praying for those who had died in exchange for “soul cakes” and other treats. Some considered this to be a form of begging. It reminds me of trick-or-treating, or asking one’s parents for some cash for the weekend.
But substituting Christian holidays doesn’t always remove all of the pagan practices or associations. Sometimes you end up with a mixture that becomes part of one’s current culture, with no differentiation between pagan and Christian. Many of our current Christmas and Easter practices have more to do with their pagan roots than their Christian ones (Christmas trees, Easter egg hunts, etc.).

Halloween made its way to America following the Great Potato Famine in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. More than 2 million Irish left their homeland, half of them moving to America. They brought with them their October 31 festival with its combination of pagan and Christian practices.

Some consider this background to be the root of Halloween. Others think of its current practice, primarily in North America, as creating a life of its own. The first half of the twentieth century has little mention of Halloween or its current practices. But following World War II, radio and television incorporated it into the American culture, and the practice has become an annual event for children and families with trick-or-treating and parties.

In this early part of the twenty-first century North Americans continue to celebrate this as an autumn activity that precedes Thanksgiving and Christmas. Americans are sure to endorse it because its commercialization leads the average American household to spend about $80 for candy, costumes, and decorations for a total of $8 billion. Is that satanic? Christian? Or simply American?

Most people today simply participate to one extent or another because it has become part of our culture. Little children dressed in cute costumes, walking in groups from door to door, with parents standing down the walkway to supervise, certainly aren’t implementing satanic takeovers . . . but what are they doing? The more important question is: what are you doing?

Instead of just going with the flow, take a moment to be mindful of how you will relate to Halloween this year. Followers of Jesus actually follow Jesus—including what they do or don’t do on Halloween. This overview of the origins of Halloween could inform your current practice. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to relate to Halloween as a Christian, not merely mindlessly following the crowd.

Next week we’ll look at how a Christian could and should respond to Halloween based on its background as well as its present practice. We’ll ask what difference this makes (if any), such as:

Will you dress up in a costume this Halloween?

If you do, what type of costume will it be?

Will you get a bunch of candy?

Will you give a bunch of candy?

Are you going to open yourself up to satanic influences and powers?

Would it be good to boycott Halloween?

Is this the ideal time to focus on spiritual warfare and the unseen world?

Where is God in all of this?

I’m hopeful that you will give this some serious thought. Maybe you can talk it over with a few other people, too. Use what you’ve just read as a starting point for some dialogue that will then lead to action—the kind of action Jesus would take in the same setting.

Pastor Steve Case writes from Carmichael, California. He’s Insight’s On the Case columnist and director of Involve Youth.

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