A Brief History of Halloween
Halloween has a rich history; time prohibits me to go in-depth, but a brief overview is necessary. Over 2,000 years ago, an ancient Celtic festival, known as Samhain, took place from October 31st-November 1st. It was a time to bid farewell to the harvest season and prepare for winter. It was also during those days where the Celts believed the veil between the realm of the dead and the living weakened. Bonfires and sacrifices took place to ward off evil spirits; people wore animal heads and skins to confuse the spirits who crossed the veil and to prevent them from destroying their crops.
By 43 AD, the Roman Empire took over the Celtic region and Samhain. For the next 400 years, Romans called the day to commemorate the dead “feralia.” It wasn’t until 609 AD, when the Catholic Church solidified itself, that Pope Boniface IV dedicated May 13th to honor Christian martyrs and have a feast.
Many years later, Pope Gregory III moved the day of commemoration to November 1st to blur over the pagan festival and “Christianize” the days of October 31-November 2. The Catholic version of Samhain and Feralia became “All Saints Day,” and the day before it, October 31st, became “All Hallow’s Eve" or "Hallowe'en" (hallow means "to make holy;" Pope Gregory III wanted to take away the pagan feasts and make these two days holy instead. Halloween was intended to convert many pagans and to give a "holy" version of honoring the dead.)
It soon spread to America in the original 13 colonies, and “a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge” (1). By the mid-1800s it took off and dramatically evolved to become more about community gatherings and get-togethers for fellowship and fun. From the 1850s to 1950, “Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything ‘frightening’ or ‘grotesque’ out of Halloween celebrations. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century” (1). Halloween became a secular holiday geared toward the youth–full of trick or treating, fun costuming, and friendly gatherings. Of course, in recent years, the frightening and grotesque returned, but the distinct American version of Halloween is what is mainly celebrated in many parts of the world today.
Where Do We Stand?
There are many traditions that we have adopted with pagan roots that we don’t realize at all or have a problem with—for example, the days of the week and months of the year are attributed to various gods and pagan practices; the US Medal of Honor badge has the goddess Minerva adorned at its center symbolizing war/justice/law; the celebration of New Year’s Day has pagan roots; and ancient Egyptians (deeply polytheistic) introduced the concept of wedding rings.
We can assure ourselves when it comes to these examples that we think nothing of paganism and understand it has evolved or changed. With various countries and cultures adopting original pagan festivals and symbols comes rebranding, commercialization, evolution of traditions, or all three combined. Certain holidays today, though historically pagan, have taken on a new meaning that diminishes its original intentions–it becomes something different and, for many, non-pagan and community-centered.
Let’s apply the biblical principle of freedom to eat foods once sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8). Originally for polytheists in Corinth, their meat was sacrificed and dedicated to their gods. For mature Christians in Corinth, they now understood idols/false gods were nothing in this world and so they could eat meat. Their past pagan roots of certain foods did not disturb the reality of their freedom and new life in Christ because the gods they once worshiped were false and didn’t truly exist (8:4-6). For other Christians with a younger faith, their conscience still convicted them as they struggled to understand pagan gods don’t actually exist, so they avoided meat altogether (8:7).
Likewise, if one’s conscience is convicted when it comes to Halloween, they’d do well to avoid the holiday for conscience's sake, while keeping in mind the consistency of considering other holidays they may celebrate or traditions they do that have “pagan roots.” If another person wants to participate in Halloween, it is a liberty that is neither beneficial nor detrimental to their faith (1 Corinthians 8:8; 10:23), so long as they don’t glorify or take pleasure in the evil/demonic things added to the holiday. To celebrate or not to celebrate the holiday is a personal choice that should not be made a salvation issue.
A moment of transparency for me (I have shared this with only a few close people): before coming to Christ, I was Agnostic and was becoming deeply involved in witchcraft. I did tarot reading, was learning about crystals, and believed nature was Mother and I her child. I ordered a Wiccan book, started to hate “the Judeo-Christian God,” and was on my way to giving myself over to it. I loved this pagan-based belief system. This was a struggle for me after coming to Christ (and, very occasionally, it still is).
I’m sharing my testimony to say there are things about Halloween that are demonic that need to be avoided (entertainment of gruesome murders, pagan witchcraft, and Ouija boards/seances to name a few), and there are things that are pure fantasy and about imagination that are not wrong (eg. dressing up as fantasy characters, trick or treating). Wisdom, proper discernment, and intentionality must be employed.
At the end of all this, Christ reigns supreme and we should not lose focus on Him and the unity we have with each other through Him. Our liberty to celebrate should not be used to judge those who don’t celebrate (and respect to the person convicted must be employed. Our relationship to a brother/sister in Christ supersedes the liberty [1 Corinthians 8:9, 11-13; 10:32, 33] ), and our liberty to not celebrate it should not be used to condemn those who do.
(1) “Halloween 2022,” History.com Editors. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween. Accessed October 18, 2022. A&E Television Networks, November 18, 2009.