Halloween is an evil, highly dangerous, satan-centred, occultic obscenity with its roots in godless paganism. Just stack all the devilish words you can find into a single sentence and you may be approaching a fair description of Halloween. Or so we are told. Christians often regard the denunciation of Halloween as a test of biblical soundness, Christian boldness or spiritual insight. And why should we stop to think about this when there is an evangelical bandwagon waiting to be boarded?
But there is a major problem with this sound Christian belief in the evil of Halloween, and that is, that Halloween is fundamentally a Christian celebration. It is the evening (e’en) prior to All Saints (‘All Hallows’) Day. Just as on Christmas Eve, Christians prepare for the day on which they celebrate the birth of Christ – so on the eve of All Saints’ Day, they would be reminded of the Saints of Christ who have died in the faith. A time to be reminded about our own walk with Christ, our own future with Christ, and in the meantime our utter mortality.
However, in the modern era, our human mortality became rather embarrassing. With faith in human progress, belief in scientific advance and the assumption that ‘Man is the measure of all things’, such a blatant reminder about our human frailty seemed dated. The Christian celebration of Halloween fell into a state of disrepair.
Tracing the history behind Halloween does indeed lead us to ancient pagan fertility worship associated with the final harvest of the year. The history of how Christian worship transformed this pagan festival into Halloween is a long and complex one. But if we are appalled that the roots of the Christian Halloween lie in pagan worship rites, then we ought to be equally offended at the Christian celebration of Easter and Christmas. The pre-Christian history of both these festivals is thoroughly pagan, but we are happy to ignore this. Perhaps witches and pumpkins are easier to condemn than Easter eggs and Christmas presents.
Associations with witchcraft are hardly to be encouraged, and in extremely rare and misinformed circles, some shallow attempts at witchcraft are made by amateur pagans on Halloween. Of course, even to tinker around on the borders of occultism is dangerous. But before we make too much noise about it, we might reflect on the fact that at Christmas it is not extremely rare for self-avowed Christians to engage unwittingly in pagan rituals of idol worship that inflicts far greater damage on society. Satan rubs his hands with glee when Christians discern his activity in the obvious dark fringe-lands of witchcraft, occultism and Halloween, while they utterly fail to perceive his major activity in the great idols that captivate our entire society.
I suspect that God is a lot less troubled by the skeletons, ghosts and ghouls than by the white-bearded, pot-bellied, red-coat: the idol of shameless greed, family-worship and western selfishness that we affectionately call ‘Father Christmas’. I’m not suggesting we cancel Christmas - not only because my kids would promptly visit upon me a swift reminder of my own mortality – but because through all the tinsel-wrapped, alcohol-soaked, ‘biblically justified’ consumerism that Christmas has become, there is still something important to be celebrated.
But the same might also be true of Halloween. In an age where our mortality is desperately begging for scientific progress to overcome it, that is, an age where we struggle to take death seriously, the Christian celebration of Halloween might offer an opportunity for counter-cultural witness. In an age where J.K. Rowling receives complaints about the death of a child in her Harry Potter books, where our children - so it seems – need to be protected from knowing about the harsh realities of death, might not Christians have something to say? Without taking death seriously, we cannot take resurrection seriously. Without taking resurrection seriously the Christian faith loses any substance.
Baptists of course, have not made much of celebrating saints’ days. But what we may take from the Christian tradition of Halloween is a stark reminder of our mortality. Not necessarily in pessimistic doom and gloom, but in the sense that taking our own death seriously helps us to orient our present life properly.
I’m not suggesting we affirm the current practice of Halloween as perfectly healthy any more than I would affirm the same of our current Christmas celebrations. But we do need to think a little more before laying into an unsuspecting and bewildered mother who has allowed her child to dress as a skeleton and go apple-bobbing at a Halloween party, with the hard-hitting anti-Halloween Gospel. Such well-meaning rhetorical blanket-bombing is not only quite misinformed but deeply hypocritical. That is, unless we lob the same condemnations at those who celebrate Christmas.
A responsible contemporary celebration of Halloween might raise awareness of how taking our own mortality seriously has a necessary role in pursuing counter-cultural, socially-active, practically-concerned holiness. After all, that is why the saints are to be remembered. Unfortunately, if we are too busy riding our Halloween-bashing bandwagon we are unlikely to be counter-cultural in any meaningful way, or to have any interest in holiness, or ‘hallow-ness’. In which case, the true meaning of Hallow e’en is destined to remain beyond our interest, our experience and our understanding.
(Published in BT, 2005)