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Deathly hallows: A Christian response to Halloween

October 2018 | by Gary Clayton

Every Halloween, rubber skeletons, plastic skulls and various grisly, ghostly and ghoulish items appear in the windows of pubs, clubs, shops and shopping centres. But, strange as it may seem, they don’t — ironically — feature in the window displays of the local funeral director. I wonder why that is. Actually, I’m pretty sure why!

Showing skeletons and ghosts rising from the grave is hardly a good advertisement for places where the dead are supposed to be prepared for burial or cremation. Doing so would, I think, be a little too close to the bone — no pun intended.

In other words, it’s apparently okay for people to play with the idea of a ghostly afterlife at Halloween, but showing this sort of thing in the window of a funeral parlour would bring the reality of heaven and hell — life, death and resurrection — a little too close to home.

Romans 1:18-19 warns that: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them’; the writer of Hebrews 9:27 making it clear that ‘people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment’.

So, despite Romans 1:20, ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse’, people not only try to suppress the truth about God but spend most of their lives avoiding having to think about what happens after death.

Celtic roots

The exception, of course, is Halloween, when people do so in a kind of Scooby-Doo, Hotel Transylvania, Meet the Addams Family kind of way. The real issues of eternity with or without Christ are conveniently sidestepped and though the focus is on death, there are no — and I mean this literally — redeeming features.

Indeed, though many might see Halloween as a bit of harmless fun, its roots are deadly serious, and no laughing matter. ‘Your enemy the devil,’ warns 1 Peter 5:8, ‘prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’.

Halloween has its origins in an ancient Celtic festival which marked the beginning of winter. Known as Samhain in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, and Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, the period 31 October to 1 November was a time when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off malevolent ghosts.

The festival marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. For the Celts, it was a time that was associated with darkness and death. They believed that on the night that marked Samhain (‘summer’s end’), the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and the ghosts of the dead returned to earth, causing trouble and damaging crops.

To commemorate the event, the druids built huge bonfires — the people gathering to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the participants wore costumes made of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell one another’s fortune.

Roman festivals

Later, when the Romans had more or less conquered the Celts, Samhain was combined with a number of Roman festivals held in honour of the dead. The first, Feralia, was an ancient Roman festival which commemorated the passing of the dead. It was part of Parentalia, a nine-day festival that honoured — not parents, as the name suggests — but dead ancestors. Part of the festival involved placing offerings and gifts at the graves of deceased family members in order to appease them.

The second, held on 13 August, honoured Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards. The fact that Pomona’s sacred symbol was known to be an apple possibly explains why, even today, people still ‘bob’ for apples on Halloween — a throwback to Samhain and to Roman superstition and fortune-telling.

Another Roman festival, Lemuria, took place on 9, 11 and 13 May. It was held to placate the spirits of dead ancestors who emerged from their graves to visit the homes in which they once lived. Again, people gave offerings to deceased relatives to ensure they didn’t haunt them!

However, following the Roman Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in 312 AD, the influence of Christianity gradually spread — eventually supplanting the older Celtic rites and deities. But although it replaced the pagan practices of Samhain and the various Roman festivals, it also ended up blending in with them.

Papal influence

In 609, Pope Boniface IV established the feast of All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas) in honour of the Christian martyrs of the western church. The evening before All Saints’ Day — All Hallows’ Eve — eventually became known as Halloween (‘holy’ or ‘hallowed evening’).

Then, in the 8th century, Pope Gregory III expanded All Saints’ Day and moved the observance from 13 May to 1 November — the day the Celts originally celebrated Samhain — with 31 October now All Hallows’ Eve.  But, as an attempt at Christianising or rebranding pagan practices, it hardly succeeded. As Galatians 5:9 reminds us, ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough’.

Apart from moving a supposedly Christian feast (All Saints’ Day) to the date of a pagan one (Samhain), the Roman Catholic world eventually gained another festival. 2 November, the day after All Saints’ Day, became All Souls’ Day — a day to honour all those who had died and to pray the departed out of purgatory. The scriptural injunction, ‘Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them’ (Ephesians 5:11), was long forgotten.

Modern incarnation

No wonder the 21st century incarnation of Halloween has decisively reverted to its ungodly pagan roots. On 31 October, unquiet spirits are still said to ‘rise’ from the dead and — with souls allegedly needing to be prayed from purgatory — there doesn’t appear to be any rest for the wicked!  In 2018 — as in other years — Samhain/Halloween remains a time as fruitless as the Roman Feralia or that of a bad harvest for the supposedly fruit bestowing goddess Pomona.

Today, many of the activities we associate with Halloween — trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, wearing costumes, bobbing for apples and eating sweets — are all centuries old.  In parts of Britain, Ireland, Flanders, southern Germany and Austria, the tradition of going house-to-house collecting food or money can be traced as far back as the 11th century.

During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called ‘soul cakes’ in return for a promise to pray for the souls of their dead relatives.  The custom of ‘souling’, as it became known, obviously replaced the ancient practice of leaving food and wine out to appease or placate restless spirits.

Dressing in costumes

Another tradition involved ‘guising’ or dressing up. Because it was thought that ghosts came back to earth on Halloween, people wore masks when they left their homes after dark in the hope that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. Some went from house-to-house dressed as fearsome beings.

In 1895, in Scotland, there’s a reference to costumed people carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips and visiting homes in return for cakes, fruit and money. Today’s trick-or-treaters (the earliest known use of the phrase was first recorded in America in 1927) do something similar. However, rather than praying for the souls of the dead, they demand what a friend once referred to as ‘money with menaces’ — a case of, ‘Give us some sweets or we’ll throw eggs at your house!’

Though it’s a somewhat less malign version of the old mafia practice of making someone an offer they can’t refuse, for those whose houses or cars do get egged, it isn’t — as we discovered to our cost — quite so benevolent! Today, in the USA, Halloween is the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas — with Americans spending billions of dollars annually on celebrations.

Christian response

So how do we, as Christians, respond to all this? What do we do when it comes to Halloween? Some Christians, of course, have nothing to do with it. Others organise a Light Party, which can offer a more wholesome alternative to Halloween, as well as presenting the gospel.

That would certainly be far better than what we did when my wife and I first moved into our home in Bromley — which was to park the car round the corner, draw the curtains, turn off the lights, lie on the floor and pretend we weren’t in!

Later, when we became parents and some friends from school invited Christopher and Emma to a Halloween party, it was an excellent opportunity to explain why, as Christians, we didn’t believe it was right for our children to take part.

So, if children come to your door or people ask what you’re doing about Halloween, it’s probably a good time to hand them a tract that tells the truth about Halloween, gives the good news about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and explains why people no longer need to fear death. You could even give them candy to act as a ‘sweetener’.

Bible passages

If you get into a conversation with neighbours or friends about some of the things Halloween highlights, you could always direct them to Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 26:19, John 5:28 and 6:54, Acts 24:15, 1 Corinthians 15:20 and 15:51-53, or 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16, which all refer to the resurrection of the dead.

Of course, there’s also the Matthew 27:51-53 account of what happened after Jesus’ resurrection: ‘At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people’. That should certainly get people thinking — along with the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44)!

Or what about Jesus’ words in John 5:25-29: ‘A time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live… when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out — those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned’?

Contemplating death

The issue of life, death and the afterlife are good things for people to contemplate — which is why Satan attempts to replace the reality of judgment and the resurrection with an unhealthy interest in undead creatures such as vampires, zombies, ghouls, ghosts, Egyptian mummies and evil spirits.

God exists and there’s an eternal treat in store for those that love and follow him. Halloween, on the other hand, tricks people into taking an inappropriate interest in superstition, witchcraft and paganism.

It ‘converts’ the real issues of life and death into a bit of supposedly innocent fun that conveniently sidesteps the fact that, whether we like it or not, we all have to face God in the end. The good news, however, is that God’s Spirit is at work and Jesus, the light of the world (John 8:12), continues — in the words of 1 John 3:8 — to ‘destroy the devil’s work’.

Spreading the light

An example of this occurred last year, when a light aircraft belonging to Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) flew Gerhard and Brigitte Stamm, along with two other missionaries, to bring light to the remote Bikaru tribe in Papua New Guinea.

Before the team arrived, the superstitious villagers hung lanterns under their huts to ward off the evil spirits that ‘wanted to kill them’. However, thanks to the missionaries’ effective witness, a number of Bikaru ended up believing in Jesus.

So, with God’s light having entered the hearts of a once terrified people, the villagers removed the lights that previously ‘protected’ them.  Fear of the dark is something that affects all cultures, but Jesus, the light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5), is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

As followers of the Lord Jesus, we have no need to fear the devil, the darkness or the evil one’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11). Samhain’s successor need hold no terrors for us — nor the ungodly Roman festivals that preceded Halloween.