Growing up, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. When I became a Christian, I was somewhat surprised when I found out that many Christians did not like Halloween. Blaming the holiday’s pagan origins, they seemed to think that it was necessarily evil. Well, trick-or-treating never influenced me toward evil – it was just fun! Anyway, since most Christians begin their answer with a (sometimes dubious) history lesson, I will include one here as well.
In summary, no one seems to know for sure.
Some say it has Pagan origins. Halloween’s origins are often said to go back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, one of two main feasts including Beltane at the beginning of summer (May 1st), with Samhain at the end of summer (November 1st). During the Samhain celebration, it is said, they wore costumes to hide from, or blend in with, the spirits. In order to please the spirits, they would leave choice food outside their houses so that if any hungry spirits came by, they could take the food and leave in peace (i.e. Trick-Or-Treat). Bonfires, apples, witches, cats, jack-o-lanterns, etc. are all said to derive from these early pagan customs and beliefs.
Although some elements might have overlapped, the historical connection is suspect. The customs associated with Halloween in America today developed over many centuries and different cultures – too far and too late to be of pagan origins. This does not mean that there has been an appropriation of the festivities of Halloween by modern pagans, but modern paganism was born in the late nineteenth century. It tries to find its legitimacy in mimicking certain ancient religious rites, but it is copying from long dead beliefs combined with new ones.
In the 7th Century, Pope Boniface IV introduced “All Saints’ Day” (or “All Hallows Day”) to honor the memory of saints in heaven. It was observed on May 13. In the 8th Century, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to November 1st, making the evening before – October 31st – “All Hallows’ Eve”. Modern Halloween festivities are of recent development, thus, the modern American Halloween may be seen as a corrupted Christian tradition (possibly an evolution from divergent European and American practices such as the French “Dance of Death” during the Black Plague, or the English Protestant celebration of Guy Fawkes (yes, the “V for Vendetta” guy).
If this is the case, where did the pagan myth idea come from? Some say it was an urban legend promulgated by various American Protestants groups used to distance the culture from Catholicism.* The ironic result being that as the Church began backing out of Halloween celebrations, it left the holiday in the hands of those who wished to use it as a pagan festival! Thus, Halloween became pagan.
Many of Halloween’s modern traditions are as shrouded in mystery as its historical origins. Again, there seems to be a mix of both “Christian” and “Pagan” elements in their origin stories.
Jack-O-Lanterns, for example, are often said to have originated from an Irish legend about a man name Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil into promising him that Jack would not go to Hell. At his death, Jack discovered that heaven did not want him either, so he was condemned to wander the earth forever carrying a carved turnip as a lantern. People began doing the same (with turnips and, later, gourds such as pumpkins) to ward off evil spirits and ghosts. This, of course, fits in well with the Celtic Fall festival of Samhain when spirits were said to be allowed to roam the Earth. Costumes arose in response to these wandering ghosts as well. People wore them to fool the ghosts into thinking the living were already spirits.
Trick-or-Treating has a more dubious history. Some believe that part of the Samhain festival involved leaving food for ghosts, and that costumed participants would help themselves as well. Others think it arose in the Scottish practice of Scottish practice of providing food for the poor on All Souls’ Day. Others see it as a development from German-Americans custom of having children dress up in costumes and see if their neighbors could guess who they were (and receive treats of they could not). Candy as treats is a more recent phenomena. Up until the 20th century, toys, money, and snack food could be expected. In the 1950’s, candy companies got in on the holiday.
Other elements such black cats, bobbing for apples, etc. are tied to past festivals and superstitions regarding witches and devils. What is important to note, though, is that much like the practice of placing terrifying gargoyle statues over churches in order to scare off evil spirits, many of the traditions tied to these elements are often designed to ward off the evil associated with them. That does not necessarily tie into today’s beliefs / practices – but if original intent matters as much as the anti-Halloween camp believes it does, then the positive elements ought to be part of the equation as well.
Celebrating Halloween Today
Like other Christian holidays (holy-days), Halloween might have some pretty sketchy origins or development. But if we allowed questionable origins or accretions to forever taint certain activities, then we would quickly run out of things we are allowed to do. For example, some argue that Christmas trees are evil because they have a pagan origin. Well, even if they do, that meaning has been lost and almost no one today has that pagan significance in mind. Further, many people participate in Christmas who do not celebrate Christ’s birth – and just as Christmas means nothing more to them than exchanging gifts, Halloween need mean nothing more than getting to wear a costume and getting free candy. Participating in Halloween does not make one a pagan any more than participating in Christmas makes one a Christian.
For some reason, though,people will often grant evil the power to forever stain certain actions – but not goodness. Shouldn’t good have the power to overcome evil? The early church thought so – and that is why it took over some pagan festivals and transformed them into Christian holy-days. Most Christian parents allow their kids to go to costume parties, eat candy, play games, make things out of food, etc. So why not on October 31st as well? Further, churches often offer “harvest festival” celebrations or “Trunk-or-Treat” nights as an alternative to Halloween – yet with many of the same practices. So they seem to implicitly recognize that simply dressing up and getting candy is not evil per se. Only if Halloween is necessarily a celebration of darkness and evil is there a moral problem.
Parents need not be overly concerned about practices that are not bad in and of themselves, but rather we should make our decisions based on the meaning we give them. Unless we affirm occult power to the calendar (which is exactly what real occultists would like us to do!), then I can’t see much reason not to let my kids participate in an activity on Halloween that I would allow them any other time of the year.