Every year around this time, the ritual begins anew. The weather cools off, leaves change color and Christians start arguing about Halloween.
And many people love this night. It gives folks an excuse to host parties, kick off the holiday spending season, and it provides economic stimulus for the dental industry. Others use it as an excuse to flirt with things much darker than plastic skeletons and creative jack-o’lanterns. But what is Halloween really about? Is there something spiritual behind all the ghoulishness?
“Halloween is a satanic holiday,” say some. “It’s a celebration of death,” insist others. Back when I was a kid, a series of comic-book style tracts went around claiming that Halloween was really a pagan holiday when medieval Druids used to carry out human sacrifice under a full moon.
I was surprised to learn that even modern pagans who love Halloween admit that this story is mostly made-up. As one self-professed pagan blogger at Patheos writes, “Halloween…feels like a pagan holiday, and it’s been categorized as one for several decades now…I sympathize,” he says, “but claiming that Halloween is ‘100% pagan’ is not a tenable argument.”
The very name “Halloween” means “holy evening”—a throwback to when Catholic Christians prepared for the Feast of All Saints on November 1st.
The history of the spooky costumes is unclear. Some sources say they date back to when Christians would dress up like demons—not for fun, but to disguise themselves from the marauding forces of darkness hoping to crash their celebration of their church’s heroes. Other sources say the costumes were originally about mocking Satan and his minions.
Kirk Cameron, who just finished a film about the history of Christmas, takes that view and is urging us to make the most of Halloween’s origins. How? Well, if you’re a Christian, he says you should be throwing “the biggest Halloween party on your block.” Cameron argues it’s a great way to make fun of the Devil and proclaim Jesus’ victory over sin and death to your neighbors.
Steven Wedgeworth, a pastor writing at the Calvinist International, gives a third perspective. In one of the best overviews out there on Halloween’s history, he concludes that neither story gets it all right. There are definitely echoes of paganism in Halloween, and All Hallows Eve had a major influence, too. But the holiday of today—especially the costumes and trick-or-treating—is a recent invention. Like the commercialized secular Christmas, he writes, Halloween as we know it has more to do with department stores than druids.
Well here’s my take: What Paul wrote in Philippians 4 should guide all our celebrations, no matter the day. Christians should think on “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable.” It’s hard to imagine that axe-murderer get-ups and sexually provocative costumes pass that test. And we should also consider his teaching on meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 9. Idol worship is always wrong, but eating meat sacrificed to idols is a matter of conscience. If you can’t in good conscience participate in Halloween, there are plenty of other things to celebrate this time of year: Reformation Day, All Saints Day on November 1, the beauty of fall’s changing colors, and as always, the sovereignty of God over everything.
Now if your family is anything like mine, you’re more likely to find characters from Disney’s “Frozen” than a band of nightmare monsters in your living room. But if you and your kids do enjoy a little spooky stuff, don’t worry. As Paul Pastor writes over at Christianity Today, “monsters point us to God.” “No story worth listening to,” he says, “lacks a villain. And no villain worth fighting lacks monstrosity.”
And there’s no story with more monstrous villains or darker darkness than the story of Scripture. It’s an evil that’s not just “out there,” but it’s in our own hearts. And yet this evil in the world and in our hearts is a defeated evil because of Jesus Christ.
And so, wherever you land on Halloween, don’t fear. Any real evil out there is a defeated foe.
John Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint, a radio commentary that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million.