Halloween: A Distinctively Christian Holiday
October 28, 2015
Death and darkness dominate America's Halloween celebrations. Children dress as ghosts and ghouls, and October is the season for horror films. Many Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, think that this fascination with the macabre must be anti-Christian, but actually Halloween is a Christian holiday. I'm not saying that it's a holiday that every Christian must enjoy and participate in, but I am saying that its celebration is rooted in Christian tradition.
Christians celebrate life and light rather than death and darkness, but we know that life triumphs over death, which means that Christians have historically been comfortable with issues of life and death. Pre-Christian religions, on the other hand, tend to be less comfortable with death, viewing dead bodies as pollutants. Often people burned bodies to symbolize the soul's freedom from the chains that bound it to earth, and Greeks believed that proper burial rites must be observed or disembodied souls might be trapped on earth. The Romans built their cemeteries outside the city so the dead wouldn't corrupt the living. Our Halloween observances owe nothing to those classical pagans who lived in fear of restless shades.
But what of the supposed Celtic pagan influences on Halloween? Both neo-pagans and neo-Puritans love to proclaim that our American Halloween traditions are based on the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. They tell us that at this time of year the ancient peoples of the British Isles celebrated magic rites because the door between our world and the spirit world would open. Celtic occult practices loosed demons on the night of Samhain, which we now observe as Halloween.
Christian parents would need to shield their families from Halloween practices, if this story of Samhain were true, but it's not. The truth is that historians don't really know much of anything about Celtic religion. What gets passed around the Internet as history is mostly speculation and nonsense.
The Celts didn't write stuff down, and the Romans who did write stuff down didn't give us much reliable information about the Celts or their religion. Hundreds of years after the last pagan Celt died, some medieval Christian monks mention a few names by recording some stories of mythical battles, but there's not enough to reconstruct the workings of a pre-Christian religion or even the workings of one single festival. Historians don't even really know if Samhain was an actual festival or just the term used to mark the end of summer. Probably some of these pre-Christian peoples celebrated the end of summer, but this is just speculation and anything beyond it is nonsense. The whole discussion of "what Celts believed" becomes even more pointless when we take into account that the peoples living in France and the British Isles didn't think of themselves as "a people." Roman laziness lumped a variety of peoples into a single category for the purpose of stereotyping.
Our secular Halloween traditions have little to do with paganism--Celtic or Roman--but they have much to do with Christianity.
Too often we Americans forget that Halloween, or "All Hallows' Evening," is actually only the prelude to another holiday, All Saints' Day. This Christian holy day, which has its roots in late antiquity, honors all those who have reached heaven, and originally it was especially concerned with the martyrs.
Pagan Romans avoided the ashes of their forebears, but Christians looked upon the graves of their dead as having spiritual importance. Christian cemeteries were not final resting places; the grave was only temporary. Christians looked forward to the bodily resurrection of their brothers and sisters, and visiting the grave of those who slept in Christ testified to this belief in the resurrection.
The resurrection of Christ had rent the veil that separated the living and the dead. The early catholic church did not merely boast a universality over space, but it also claimed a temporal universality. Could death really separate the saints whether living or dead now that Christ has risen? Christians gathered at the tombs to celebrate because in this way the members of the church who still lived could include in the celebration the members of the church who had died. Heaven and earth were joined, in a sense, when Christians both living and dead simultaneously worshiped the God who would one day reunite them.
All Saints' Day was a nice addition to the liturgical calendar because it gave all Christians the opportunity to celebrate the martyrs' victory over death. After all, not every city in the Roman Empire had a local martyr shrine because not every city had experienced persecution. Why should martyr-less cities lose the blessing of celebrating what Christ has done through his saints?
Feast days commemorating the holy dead often began with an evening vigil, which is why we have All Hallows' Eve. Even in antiquity, the night before the holy day could become quite boisterous with feasting, drinking, singing, and dancing. Augustine of Hippo said that when he was a young man he used the vigil before a martyr's feast to look for a little romance. I imagine that many young men in America will be looking for a little romance at their Halloween party this weekend too.
I'm not suggesting, however, that American Christians ought to embrace the rowdiness that often accompanies Halloween. I'm merely suggesting that any excesses we see in this secular holiday should be understood as growing out of a uniquely Christian experience. The bishops in antiquity often found themselves trying to convince their people to celebrate the martyrs' feasts with more reserve and reverence. The tendency to abuse a celebration isn't unique to our generation, and it certainly doesn't have anything to do with paganism.
Should Christian children be allowed to trick-or-treat? I don't see why not. Much like putting up a Christmas tree, we don't know why or how this particular tradition began. Trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling probably stem from the same Christian motivation. The night before a holy day was a night of fun in which one would visit with neighbors. Perhaps dressing as a ghost or skeleton was a way to honor the dead that would be celebrated the next day. As I said, it wasn't the pagans who were fascinated with the dead; it was the Christians, because it's only the Christians that believed that the dead don't stay dead.
We don't know why the early church began celebrating All Saints' Day on November 1st. Maybe it was to co-opt fall festivals for the church. (It's ironic that many American churches won't celebrate Halloween, and instead they replace it with the obviously pagan sounding "fall festival.") But nonetheless the date makes sense within the overall rhythm of the liturgical calendar. Summer is over and the days are getting darker. What better time to acknowledge that we live in a fallen world? What better time to remember the martyrs who died during the dark days of persecution? But even though things are dark, we celebrate with joy. We can laugh as we dress our children in images of death because we know that death no longer has a hold on God's people. Though things look dark, we mock the darkness and we mock death because we know that we haven't been abandoned to the darkness and that in the darkest days of the year, Christmas will come, and the days will get brighter.
As America moves farther away from its Christian roots, our society starts to resemble the pagans in some ways. We, like the Romans, tend to avoid death. We hide our elderly away in homes to die, and we don't have funerals, rather we have "celebrations of life." For one night a year, secular America becomes honest about the human condition; death and darkness are all around us. Christians should take advantage of the holiday even in its secularized form by mingling with neighbors and reminding each other why we can laugh at death and joyfully ask, "Death, where is your sting?" Our faith in the resurrection is the reason for the season.
Some readers of Reformation21 will still be wary of Halloween after this explanation. Some will say, "But isn't the Roman Catholic cult of the saints an idolatrous syncretism based on Pagan hero cults?" The answer is, no; that's Enlightenment propaganda. Others will ask whether Catholic superstition about the saints is really any better than pagan superstition. I would suggest asking these questions: Do I believe the martyrs should be remembered? Do I believe that the dead will rise again? Do I believe the power of Christ has conquered death? If you answered yes to these questions, then you believe the fundamental doctrines that motivated the historic celebration of All Saints' Day and Halloween.
Collin Garbarino is an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University. He enjoys discussing church history, mystery novels, and Louisiana culture. His favorite conversation partners are his wife and four children