Redeeming Halloween

Plus A Quick History Of Halloween

‘I can’t wait!  Oh yeah!’

Given the off-the-charts enthusiasm, you might have thought we had just announced our family was heading to Disneyland.  As it turns out, it didn’t take that much.  My daughter had just remembered Halloween – and lots of candy – was almost here.

Not all Christians greet Halloween with such enthusiasm, though.  Some parents don’t allow their kids to participate at all, worried that the holiday is steeped in pagan origins. Others think that’s a ridiculous overreaction and don’t give it a second thought.

Should Christian parents allow their kids to participate?  And if we do, how can we do it thoughtfully?

boo-ya!Creative Commons License debaird™ via Compfight

Pagan Origins?

Like many things, the history of Halloween is long and complex.  But its basic contours are pretty clear.

Halloween has its roots in traditions of the Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France.   Their new year began on November 1st, and served as the boundary between summer and harvest on the one hand, and winter and (happy thoughts) death on the other.

Celtic people celebrated the festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-en’) on the night before their new year (October 31st).  During this time, they believed that the spirits of the dead returned to earth, not only causing trouble, but also enabling Druids (Celtic priests) to make prophecies about the future.  In a culture that was highly dependent on a natural world outside their control, these prophecies seemed to offer certainty as winter set in.

As part of the festival, the priests built massive bonfires, with people coming together to burn crops and sacrifice animals to the Celtic deities.  The people wore costumes and tried to predict each other’s fortunes, too.

Halloween In America

As people from these regions came to the United States, their traditions came with them and mixed with others to take on an American flavor.  Early ‘play parties’ included telling fortunes, stories of the dead, and singing and dancing. The holiday also involved mischief and ghost stories.  During the second half of the 19th century, people started to dress up in costumes, going from home to home asking for money or food.  Young women believed they could make predictions about their future husbands by using tricks of various types.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween in America had lost most of its superstitious and religious underpinnings. Later, from 1920-50, the practice of trick-or-treating was revived and Halloween took on the form we’re familiar with today, with costumes and (lots of) candy.  These days, we spend about $6 billion dollars per year (or $80 per household) on Halloween, making it second only to Christmas in terms of commercial holidays.

Should We Participate?

So what do we do with all this?  Given Halloween’s history, should we participate?

You won’t find the word ‘Halloween’, of course, anywhere in the concordance at the back of your bible.  Or, any passages that address it in a pointed way.  So, we need to leave significant room for discussion and freedom in terms of our practice.

There are though, principles that can guide us.  Let’s look at some of them by asking a few questions.

  1. Is it wrong to participate in something with pagan origins?  This is a fair question, and as we’ve seen, Halloween is steeped in traditions that involve worship of other gods.  But in recent memory, Halloween has become a purely secular holiday with no practical associations with its pagan origins. Furthermore, Halloween also has connections to All Souls’ Day, a long-standing attempt of the church to offer a healthier alternative.  (Although it, too, had elements that aren’t biblical.)  So, our participation in Halloween’s modern incarnation does not in and of itself involve false worship, and we shouldn’t reject it on those grounds.
  2. OK, so it’s not wrong in and of itself, but couldn’t my participation confuse the people around me?  With our secular neighbors, I think the opportunities for confusion are pretty limited.  The only thing our family avoids is having our kids dress up as angels, devils or witches (or similar).  The bible does clearly mention that behind our world lies an unseen, sometimes evil, world that influences it in powerful ways (see 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, 1 Peter 5:8 for just two examples).  Witchcraft in the bible is forbidden because it’s an attempt to exhibit God-like control over our world instead of relying on the Lord (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:10-13).  And when people meet angels in the bible, they generally respond in fear (e.g., Luke 2:10).  You don’t hang out with an angel over a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  So, because of our culture’s tendency for trivializing spiritual things, we try to avoid those aspects of the holiday.  (Which are thankfully pretty minor.)

In a nutshell, then, I think Christians have real freedom to participate in Halloween without guilt or reservation so long as they aren’t glib about things that have spiritual weight.

An Awesome Opportunity

More than that, though, it’s a great opportunity to build relationships with our neighbors, teach moderation, and model generosity.

  1. Building relationships.  When else do you get invited over to the houses of everyone in your entire neighborhood?  OK, so the invitations aren’t exactly personal and you don’t get to go inside, but it’s still pretty cool.  And fun.  If you’re intentional and prayerful, you can have some great (if abbreviated) interactions with neighbors who want to connect.
  2. Not playing into stereotypes.  Fairly or not (probably both), sometimes Christians are portrayed as awkward, isolated and weird in our culture.  There are certainly things to take a stand for, but based on what I see in the bible, Halloween isn’t one of them.  When we participate, we join our local community and avoiding playing into stereotypes unnecessarily.
  3. Teaching moderation.  Remember that $6 billion figure from up above?  Well, $3.5 billion of that gets spent on candy.  That may make your dentist drool, but your chompers and the rest of you can only take so much.  And honestly, I struggle not to over-indulge in my kids’ take-home haul.  (Especially the Reese’s peanut butter cups.)  So, Halloween is a great opportunity to model moderation and help our kids do the same.  As Paul put it, ” ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful… and ‘I will not be enslaved by anything’.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)
  4. Practicing generosity.  Christians have a reputation (some of it fair) for focusing on rules and restrictions. Halloween is a great chance to chip away at that and bless the people around us.  What if we gave away full-size candy bars?  Or were known for having the best candy on the block?  There are other ways to practice creative generosity, too.  In our family, we give our kids (more than) their share of whatever they bring in, then donate the rest.  (One year, for example, we found a program that sent the extra candy to our troops overseas.)

When it comes to Halloween, it’s easy to either write it off, or, just participate without much thought.  With just a bit of thought, it gives us a chance to think more biblically, hopefully landing at a place that’s more nuanced and blesses both us and those around us.

Let’s live it out: Where does your family stand on Halloween?  How does that play out specifically in your practices?  Share it with us in the comments below!