Halloween has become the second highest-grossing commercial holiday after Christmas. But this festive day also carries a lot of baggage. Scholars Ralph and Adelin Linton write:
Among all the festivals which we celebrate today, few have histories stranger than that of Halloween. It is the eve of All Hallows—or Hallowmas or All Saints' Day—and as such it is one of the most solemn festivals of the church. At the same time, it commemorates beings and rites with which the church has always been at war. It is the night when ghosts walk and fairies and goblins are abroad. . . . We cannot understand this curious mixture unless we go back into history and unravel the threads from which the present holiday pattern has been woven.
The brief account seeks to vindicate Halloween from its "Satanic" and barbaric origins. While the dark side of Halloween may have been overemphasized, Christians must still acknowledge that the holiday originated (at least) in pagan and mythical practices. The extent to which such practices can be categories as "Satanic" is a debate of semantics. Is Roman mythology "Satanic"? Perhaps, or perhaps not.
Regardless, the origin of Halloween is certainly in the realm of non-Christian spiritualism. As such, Christians should be careful in their approach to Halloween.
Halloween for Christians
Christians haven't always been sure what to do with this holiday of apparently pagan origins. Is it unredeemable, such that any Christian participating in the holiday will necessarily compromise their faith? Is it something Christians can participate in as a cultural celebration with no religious ramifications? Or is there the opportunity for Christians to emphasize certain aspects of our own faith within the holiday?
1. Should Christians renounce Halloween as "the Devil's day"?
One of the most famous recent examples of Christian interaction with Halloween comes from Pat Robertson, who called Halloween the "festival of the Devil." As such, he claimed that participating in Halloween is wrong for Christians.
In renouncing this holiday outright, Robertson fails to ask the following question: To what extent does something's evolution from pagan roots entail that its present practice is tainted? As Albert Mohler notes, there's been a shift from pagan ritual to merely commercial fascination with the dark side. Robertson misses that for most people in America, Halloween is about candy. A quarter of all candy sold annually in the United States is for Halloween night! Granted, dressing up as witches and goblins can be a tricky issue, but to think that putting on a scary mask or makeup opens you up to the dark side is a bit naïve.
In addition, there are two built-in problems with a blanket-rejection position. First, those who insist on rejecting certain holidays aren't being consistent. Should we reject other holidays because there's a propensity toward excess? In other words, if people are inclined toward gluttony on Thanksgiving or Christmas, shouldn't those holidays be renounced as well? After all, gluttony is a sin. Second, many times the reject position assumes the evil of the extrinsic world will taint the faith of a Christian. But Jesus says the exact opposite (Mark 7:21-23). The fruit of our lives (whether in holiness or sin) is always inextricably tied to the root of our hearts. If our hearts are prone toward sin in certain ways, we will find a way to sin. Sin indeed corrupts, but the sin is not so much "out there in the world" as is in the heart of every person. The reject position falsely assumes sin is mostly what we do rather than who we are.
2. Can Christians participate in Halloween wisely?
An informed understanding of the history of Halloween and the biblical freedom Christians have to engage cultural practices (1 Cor. 10:23-33) leads to the conclusion that we can follow our conscience in choosing how to approach this holiday.
Even so, how Christians ought to go about relating to or participating in Halloween is still a tricky subject. In order to navigate the waters successfully, one must always distinguish between the merely cultural aspects of Halloween and the religious aspects of the holiday. In the past the church has tried with varied results to subsume the religious aspects of Halloween by adding a church holiday. If we engage, care must be taken. There's a big difference between kids dressing up in cute costumes for candy and Mardi Gras-like Halloween parties, offensive costumes, and uninhibited excess. It's too simple, then, to make a blanket judgment to reject or accept Halloween as a whole. There certainly should be no pressure to participate.
For those still bothered by Halloween's historical association with evil spirits, Martin Luther has some advice on how to respond to the Devil: "The best way to drive out the Devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." Perhaps instead of fleeing the darkness in fear, we should view Halloween as an opportunity to mock the enemy whose power over us has been broken.
Editors' note: For a more detailed retelling of Halloween's history, see the longer version of this article that appeared on Justin Holcomb's website.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He wrote Know the Creeds and Councils, Know the Heretics, and On the Grace of God. Justin also co-authored with his wife, Lindsey, Is It My Fault? and Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.