I am on the side of Tim Burton when he says that the two best holidays of the year are Christmas and Halloween. Sure, Easter is great, Thanksgiving is tasty, but for me there’s just nothing else that comes close to Christmas and Halloween. (And if you don’t believe me, stop by my house sometime. Still don’t believe me? Ask to look in my basement.)
What is this sacrilege I spout, that Halloween could be up there with Christmas in my mind? Well, let me ask you: did you know that Halloween is a Christian holiday? Not pagan, not wiccan, but Christian. Today I intend to reclaim the Christian roots of Halloween. This is not only a day for things that go bump in the night: it is also a holy day. And just because the meaning has been buried like Santa Claus buried Saint Nicholas, does that mean it’s something to not be unearthed and celebrated?
The name Halloween was coined around 1745 by Christians, and it means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening”. It comes from a Scottish term called “All Hallows’ Eve”, which means “All Saints’ Eve”. And since it’s an eve, that means there’s an actual day. That day is “All Saints’ Day.” It was followed by “All Souls’ Day” as well, and the three consecutive days were known as “Allhallowtide”. (1)
These three days basically constituted a version of Memorial Day for Christians where the dead were remembered and celebrated. Hallowe’ en (as “All Hallows’ Eve” was shortened to) was seen as the start of the festivities, and also the day where the veil between our world and the next was thinnest. People would light candles (often placing them in hollowed out pumpkins) to guide wandering souls toward the light of Heaven. Some would also disguise themselves in masks or costumes so that enemies who had passed on wouldn’t see them or pay them any notice. Of course, some say that this wasn’t the only reason for wearing costumes: one account that I very much enjoy says that this went even a little deeper. According to this history, there was another spiritual aspect of Halloween and All Saint’s Day: Halloween was seen as symbolic of the war between Heaven and Hell. All October the forces of the enemy had been rallying, and now, on October 31st, they were making their last great assault on God’s Kingdom. All seemed to be falling into despair until, at the stroke of midnight, All Saint’s Day descended like a guillotine and cut off the vile forces where they stood. In an instant despair was turned to celebration and Jesus stood with the Church Triumphant victorious against Satan and his swarms. In this account, people began dressing up as a mockery of Satan and his demonic forces. This is also said to be where the idea of Satan as a pitchfork-wielding, pointy-tailed walking beet with horns came from: as a way of mocking him and all he stood for. (2)
Even trick or treating has Christian roots. During Allhallowtide – and particularly All Souls’ Day – children would go door-to-door and collect what were called soul cakes that people had baked. Soul cakes were baked for every Christian soul who had gone before and then given to these children who asked for them (who were often poor and hungry). In exchange, though, the children would pledge to pray for the house and the souls of those who had gone on before in that family.
And what about the rumors that Halloween is just a Christianization of the Celtic harvest festival called Samhain, as Christmas is of the Winter Solstice? Interestingly enough, there are many scholars who say it had nothing to do with Samhain and was an entirely separate entity created solely by the Church. The coincidence of timing was merely that – coincidental. However, let’s play “devil’s advocate” for a second and assume that it was a Christianization of the Samhain harvest festival. Christianity is the religion of redemption and new beginnings. Why should we think it strange when a day is redeemed, or even a religious practice? This doesn’t just go for Halloween, by the way: this goes for every holiday. I know people who don’t get Christmas trees because they’re “pagan”. I know people who don’t let their kids hunt for Easter eggs because they’re “pagan”. Are we really that petty? These aren’t old practices to worship pagan gods: they are practices that have been reclaimed and repurposed for the Kingdom.
(Actually, if we really want to get petty, all my years growing up I heard and knew of countless churches who wouldn’t celebrate Halloween because it was evil and pagan, so instead they would throw Harvest Festivals. How ironic is it that these Harvest Festivals held in churches were and are much, MUCH closer to the original pagan harvest festival of Samhain than the holiday they were avoiding, Halloween?)
I think, though, that there’s something even deeper going on here when we talk about the Christian hatred and reviling of Halloween. As I’ve discussed before, we are afraid of death. So why would we celebrate a day so steeped in it? We are afraid of what we don’t know. So why would we celebrate it? And we are incredibly uncomfortable with darkness. But if we never go into the darkness, where are we ever going to shine light?
I’m reminded briefly of the first school book ever taught to children in the United States, “The New England Primer.” To 95% of Christians – and people – today, the primer would be as macabre as any Halloween celebration. On every page of it is knowledge of God, knowledge of Jesus, knowledge of right and wrong, and knowledge of death. The little textbook is soaked in death. That is because when the nation was founded, they weren’t just closer to “our roots”, as many a Tea Party member has told us. They were closer to death. They knew it was coming for all of us, even an unsuspecting eight-year-old child. And they knew that our children had to be prepared for it, and aware of what comes next.
We do no one a favor by breaking away from the world and celebrating our pagan harvest festivals. Let’s instead re-engage with the Christian Halloween. Let’s show a lost culture languishing in the darkness that the light can play there, too. And, by the way, since we’re already talking about death, do you know where you’re going after this life?
God is good, and so are the things he creates and redeems. Let’s reclaim Halloween. It’s ours by birthright, whether spiritually or naturally. Let’s see it once again for what it is: “very good.”
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- Here are links to the fascinating Wikipedia pages (because, as any college student will tell you, Wikipedia is the uncontested most reliable source): Halloween – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween; All Saints’ Day – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Saints%27_Day; All Souls’ Day – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Souls%27_Day ; Allhallowtide – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allhallowtide
- James B. Jordan, American Vision. 2013. http://americanvision.org/9630/halloween/#sthash.h0zBBNWl.kdssBbth.dpbs
Image (c) Can Stock Photo