In a previous essay (read here) I outlined the benefits of inculturation and why this is a major factor to understand how Christianity spread into Pagan Europe so quickly and so effectively. If you haven’t read that essay yet, I strongly advise you do so before continuing here. For convenience sake, I’ll provide a link here. When you’re done with that, hit the back arrow key on your browser and continue on below.
So in review, the gist of inculturation is to take what is good and wholesome (or at least harmless) from a Pagan culture, and preserve that as part of a new Christian culture. This is inculturation. As we learned from the New Testament (once again, see my previous essay on inculturation), the Apostles had no intention, whatsoever, of exporting Jewish culture along with the gospel to the Pagan ethnos. (The Greek word ἔθνος or ethnos is where we get our English word “ethnic” or “ethnicity.” It appears as “nations” in many Bible translations.) Rather, their intention was to form new cultures, by blending the gospel with the Pagan ethnos.
We have to understand that there was no such word as “Paganism” in the ancient world, certainly not in the way we think of that word today, and nobody referred to the religion(s) of the ancient world as “Pagan.” That word came later, and was invented by Christians to describe the ethnic religions of the Middle Ages that were not Christian. It comes from the ancient Latin word paganus which simply meant “civilian” or “villager” and could refer to literally anyone during the days of the Roman Empire, even a Christian! Back then, religion was intimately tied to ethnicity. The god(s) you worshiped determined who you were culturally, ethnically and racially. You don’t just walk into a non-Jewish town and start telling people they need to be culturally Jewish to be saved. That would not play well in ancient Antioch, Corinth, Athens or Rome.
The Apostles weren’t the first Jews to make missionary attempts into the Pagan world. The Pharisees had been at it for at least 100 years prior to the advent of Christianity. Their technique was very different, and their success was limited. The Pharisee approach, knowing how closely religion was tied to the ethnos, simply sent hundreds of young virile men out into the world with the intention of finding young Pagan maidens, sweeping them off their feet, and making them into Jewish brides. Once you have a dozen or so Jewish men, and their recently converted brides, in a given location (like Athens or Rome), you have the makings of a new synagogue there. It makes sense when you think about it. When it comes to converting to Judaism, it’s a lot easier for women than it is for men. This is true even today. Circumcision is required of all male converts. Now that’s a commitment! While female converts need only take a ceremonial bath, which is really quite painless. So from a Jewish perspective, it’s a lot easier to get women to convert than men. The ancient Pharisees understood how deeply religion was tied to ethnicity in the ancient world. While getting converts was easier among women, because the requirement was less stringent, and women will often do anything for the love of a man, the offspring of this young couple would be considered ethnically Jewish by the father. While the mother’s conversion to Judaism would insure they were legally Jewish according to rabbinical law. Thus, both legality and ethnicity were satisfied, ensuring that the children would identify as Jewish in every way. They would abandon all Pagan customs of their former ethnic heritage and become both legally and ethnically Jews. The spread of Judaism continues much in a similar way today, even though there are no concentrated missionary efforts like there were in ancient times. There is certainly nothing wrong with spreading one’s religion this way. It’s perfectly ethical and reasonable, if what you’re attempting to accomplish is mere colonization.
However, the Apostles had no interest in limiting themselves this way. They understood the gospel in completely different terms. To them, the issue wasn’t about making Gentile Pagans into Jews. For them, it was about converting the ethnos into worshipers of Jesus Christ, and spreading Christ’s Kingdom into the world. The Jewish religion served merely as a contextual reference, and a means upon which to build Christian theology and morality. It was not intended to be the cultural framework for the Christian religion. Culture was flexible, as was language and ethnicity. The one God, who is the God of the universe, could not be tied to a specific ethnic group. As nature teaches us, God is the author of diversity. So the Christian religion would embrace the diversity of the ethnos (nations and races). This of course led to much more rapid success in missionary activity. While the Pharisees were hamstrung by the legalities of Judaism and the slow nature of biology (making Jewish families), the Apostles spread the Christian faith at breakneck speed across the Roman Empire. Pagan Gentiles converted to Christianity, with no need for self-mutilation, and were simultaneously able to maintain the cultural distinctions that identified them with their respective ethnos. A Greek could remain a Greek. A Roman could remain a Roman. And both converts to Christianity could maintain those cultural ties that identified them with their various ethnicity. The Roman Christian could validly say: “Yes, I am a Christian, but I’m a Roman too! I may not worship the gods anymore, but I embrace the food, clothing, art, music, customs and language of my Roman ethnicity.” Such versatility caused Christianity to spread like wildfire in the ancient world, leaving the Pharisees far behind.
So what does this all have to do with Halloween? It has a lot to do with it actually, because you see, many of today’s Protestants (particularly some Baptists and Evangelicals) are pushing a form of Christianity that is very Pharisaic in nature. They’re trying to create a culture that is “Biblical” and by “Biblical” they typically mean devoid of anything that can’t be directly tied to the Bible. While some of them attack Christmas and Easter, a much larger number attack Halloween as somehow un-Christian or anti-Biblical. This shows a lack of understanding, not only about how the Apostolic principle of inculturation works, but of history itself.
While Halloween itself has no direct link to the religions of the ancient world, there are some indirect connections to various ethnic customs that come to us from Northern Europe. Some of those customs were attached to ancient ethnic religions (Paganism or Heathenism) but Halloween itself is a purely Christian invention.
The Pagan Celts of the ancient world, located primarily in the British Isles, celebrated a festival called Samhain. It was celebrated around October 31 to November 1. It marked the end of the harvest season when cattle were brought out of pasture and slaughtered for winter meat. Bonfires were lit for celebration. Because this time followed the Autumn equinox (September 22-23) it was seen as a time when the veil between the physical and spiritual realms was most porous, allowing spirits and fairies to cross into our world easily. Sacrifices were made to them by leaving food and drink outside, while feasting and merriment carried on indoors through the night.
The Catholic Church, employing the Apostolic principle of inculturation, sought to preserve the cultural aspects of the Celtic ethnos, while at the same time inserting a proper Christian understanding of life, death and the afterlife into the Samhain celebrations. Thus, the feast of All Saints Day, or “All Hallows Day” was moved from May 1 to November 1, so as to coincide with the Celtic Samhain celebrations. The word “Hallows” is just an old English way of saying “holy” for “saints.” We are familiar with this word in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Thus, in the English-speaking world, the old Celtic festival of Samhain turned into “All Hallows Day” (November 1) and the night before came to be called “All Hallows Eve” (October 31). Over the years, the phrase shortened into the slang vernacular “Halloween.” In keeping with the Apostolic principle of inculturation, codified at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), the cultures of the Gentile ethnos were to be preserved, but placed into the context of a proper Christian theology and morality.
Now, what is that context?
When people pass from this life to the afterlife, their souls are weighed at their particular judgement before God to determine if they merit heaven or hell. If they are in Christ, the merits of Christ are applied to them and they will inherit heaven. Some may require purgatory first, but if they are in Christ they will eventually be in heaven. If they are not in Christ, they will be damned to hell. All Saints Day, or “All Hallows Day,” remembers all those who have merited heaven throughout history. There is no remembrance day for those damned to hell. So “All Hallows Day” is strictly to celebrate everyone in heaven. The Catholic calendar is filled with particular feast days for various saints and martyrs, but there are so many saints and martyrs in heaven, it would be impossible to list them all or have a feast of celebration for each one. There are likely millions! So to remember and celebrate all the rest, including (hopefully) our loved ones who have gone before us, the feast of All Saints Day (All Hallows Day) is celebrated. Thus, All Hallows Eve (or Halloween) was intended to be a celebration of life on earth, and eternal life in heaven.
Some modern Protestants (particularly Evangelicals and Baptists) will assert that All Hallows Eve was introduced by the Catholic Church in an attempt to blend Christianity with Paganism, so as to coerce Pagan Celts into becoming Christian. History tells a different story. By the 9th century, when the feast of All Saints (All Hallows) was moved to November 1, the British Isles had already been thoroughly Christian for nearly four centuries! Four-hundred years is a very long time, and that’s almost how long the Celts had been Christian before the Catholic Church decided to move the feast of All Saints from May to November. However, that also tells us something about how Christianity permeated through the British Isles in the early medieval period. Celtic Pagans, who converted to Christianity, in keeping with the Apostolic principles of inculturation, were not told to give up their celebrations. They were told to give up their beliefs in false gods and superstitions — yes! — but not their celebrations, bonfires, merriment and the time-honored custom of putting food and drink outside. Instead, they were just told to worship Jesus Christ in the Holy Trinity, follow his teachings, and go about their merry way as they always had. As centuries passed, Samhain took on a more cultural aspect rather than a religious one. It was seen as just something Celtic people do as part of their cultural ethnos, and not part of worshiping false gods and superstition. The introduction of All Saints Day (All Hallows Day) was a way the Catholic Church gave the celebration religious meaning again, so as to preserve its continuance throughout the ages. Remember, the Catholic Church is in the business of preserving ethnic customs, not destroying them.
Throughout Europe, Halloween became a very popular celebration as part of the All Saints Day triduum. The Germanic tribes took a special interest in it, particularly in Britain. All Hallows Eve (Halloween) marked the beginning of the celebration with bonfires and merriment, followed by All Hallows Day with solemn religious celebrations, followed by All Souls Day (November 2) when all the souls in purgatory are remembered and prayed for. In some places, the custom of lighting candles on tombstones took hold. In other places, candles were lit on outdoor shrines to Our Lord. The custom of leaving food and drink outside gradually morphed into beautiful displays of gourds, pumpkins, leaves, mums and lanterns. In time, the lanterns were merged with the pumpkins to make Jack-O-Lanterns. This had a dual purpose. Some of it was purely artistic expression. Some of it had to do with a lingering superstition (not necessarily Pagan or Heathen) of warding off evil spirits. In more recent centuries, it’s purely art.
In North America (where many Celtic and Germanic people migrated in recent centuries), the customs of All Hallows Eve followed. However, in the British colonies in particular, the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) took precedence. Guy Fawkes was an early 17th century Catholic rebel in Protestant England who tried to blow up Parliament in what came to be called the Gunpowder Plot. For centuries afterward, English Protestants celebrated Guy Fawkes Day as an opportunity to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes and the pope, while lighting fireworks in a celebration of anti-Catholic revelry. However, during the American Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered that all Guy Fawkes Day celebrations cease, so as not to offend America’s newly found, Catholic, French allies. The colonists responded by moving their celebrations to All Hallows Eve (Halloween), making them more general and non-specific. Protestants, however, generally don’t celebrate saints in heaven, namely because they usually don’t keep the practice of praying to Saints or honoring their legacy with statues and icons. They definitely don’t pray for the souls in purgatory either, so none of the Catholic meaning behind the celebration was all that interesting to them. Instead, they decided to embellish the celebration with the telling of scary stories. So, throughout the 19th century, All Hallows Eve (All Saints Eve), a purely Catholic celebration by this time, came to be associated with ghosts and goblins in the Protestant world. This was particularly the case in the United States, which also added the custom of childhood mischief to the observance. Children were encouraged to prank their neighbors with generally harmless things, such as smearing soap on the windows and such. Occasionally, these pranks turned into not-so-harmless vandalism.
In an attempt to reform the Halloween mischief of the 19th century, the old medieval custom of baking “soul cakes” was revived initially in Catholic communities and quickly spread everywhere. Soul cakes were small round cakes (sort of like a cupcake) baked to give to poor children as a reward for praying for souls in purgatory. Basically, the practice in medieval England (before the Protestant Revolution) was for poor children to go door-to-door during Allhallowtide (October 31 – November 2), offering to pray for the souls of their neighbor’s loved ones in purgatory in exchange for cake. The practice continued in some Catholic communities in England until the 19th century. In the 20th century, the practice was revived in the United States by weary adults as a way of bribing mischievous children not to vandalize their homes. The custom came to be known as “Trick-Or-Treat.” In time, the cakes evolved into fruit and candy. Eventually, the “trick” part of the custom disappeared, and now it’s all about the candy. This is an example of how American Catholics creatively turned a dangerous, and sometimes expensive, American pastime into a harmless children’s celebration that even little ones can share in. As this happened, children were decked out in costumes of all kinds, so as to add to the entertainment.
The American custom of telling scary ghost stories on Halloween probably comes from old Celtic superstition (not directly Pagan or Heathen but rather just lingering superstition). Americans almost never take anything seriously, and the telling of these ghost stories is no exception. Americans also like to take it to the next level by acting out such ghost stories in the form of plays (like “haunted houses” or “zombie mazes”) which can be found in suburban neighborhoods throughout the continent. Such things as ghosts, witches, goblins and even zombies can be considered part of this American mockery of death. In a way, that too has a Christian spin. If death has truly been conquered by Christ, as Christians believe, then to make fun of death is a way to rob it of its fear and dignity. Death has been emasculated by the resurrection of Christ, and the saints in heaven now reign as proof of this. They shall be resurrected on the Last Day and death shall be left with nothing. According to Christian teaching, even the damned will be resurrected on the Last Day to eternal torment, but they shall not ever die again. In the end, death gets nothing. So is it permissible for Christians to mock death on Halloween? Yes, provided they understand that such things are a mockery of death, not a glorification of it.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Corinthians 15:55-57
During the latter half of the 20th century, however, the celebration of Halloween took a dark and unfortunate turn into a celebration of sin. This was especially the case in the United States. We initially saw this with costumes that took on a more sexy appeal, followed by costumes that glorified murderers. So the sins of adultery, fornication and murder were added to the celebration of Halloween. Along with that came brutal and violent yard displays in suburbia, as well as houses of gore that replaced the traditional haunted houses. This is a tragic turn of events in the celebration of an otherwise wholesome holiday. It’s a totally American phenomenon and coincides with America’s abandonment of traditional Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century. This is something Christians (especially Catholics) should avoid entirely. It is entirely unacceptable to mark the coming of All Saints Day (All Hallows Day) with the glorification of any kind of sin. There cannot be a greater contradiction.
Simultaneously, we have witnessed the retreat of many Protestants from the public square on Halloween. A growing number of Baptists, Evangelicals and other groups no longer celebrate it at all. While some choose to cower in their homes with the front-porch light off, others choose to attend “Halloween alternatives” put on by their religious communities. While it’s understandable that these good folks would not want to participate in anything evil, there is a fair degree of historical misunderstanding on their part as to what evil really is. The celebration of sin is always evil, but the mockery of death isn’t. Nor is the mockery of the occult or Paganism, both of which have been part of the traditional, Halloween, ugly witch-costumes and such. It may not be politically correct, but it’s not sin either. Some Protestants fear the spiritual powers of that night, but when you really stop and think about that, aren’t they just imitating the ancient Pagan Celts, believing the night has spiritual powers to begin with? Odd that some Protestants would imitate Pagans by hiding indoors on a night they think has spiritual powers. Hopefully, most Catholics would know better than that and avoid such superstition. Halloween night has no more spiritual significance than any other night, except that it is the eve before the celebration of all the wonderful saints in heaven, punctuating Christ’s magnificent victory over sin and death. Nothing good ever happens when Christians retreat from the public square. If real evil (the celebration of sin) abounds, it is in-part because Christians have retreated into their homes on a night they should be “salt and light” to the world.
So how can Christians (especially Catholics) regain the Christian meaning of Halloween? It’s not hard really, because much of the symbolism is already there, just hidden beneath the popular culture. The following are some possible suggestions…
- Your church could erect a shrine to Jesus Christ outside the chapel building. It could be in the parking lot, or on the lawn, or wherever visible. Surround the shrine with mums, pumpkins, gourds and candles, while inviting church members to come pray at the shrine on Halloween night. The Swedes have a similar custom as seen in the photo above. The shrine should remain lit and attended for three nights (October 31, November 1, and November 2) to mark the full All Hallows (All Saints) triduum.
- Your church could sponsor a “haunted house” where the message is clearly controlled. Scary ghosts, goblins and zombies would be accompanied by handing out tracts, explaining that Halloween is actually a celebration of eternal life in Jesus Christ, which is why Christians mock death and the occult.
- Your church could light a bonfire, if it happens to be in a safe rural location, just as a way of symbolizing the light of Christ that breaks through the darkness of night. Smaller contained fires could be used in suburban and urban areas where legal and safe to do so. Many suburban families place a small fire pit on their lawns or driveways, roasting marsh mellows, while handing out candy to Trick-Or-Treaters. Fire is fun, and sets the mood for the night, but it can also be dangerous. So if you decide to do it, use caution and common sense.
- If your church owns a cemetery, candles could be lit on the tombstones on the nights of October 31, November 1 and November 2. Invite your church members to participate.
- Get some Halloween-appropriate costumes (ghosts, goblins, zombies, witches, superheros, etc.) that don’t celebrate sin, dress those kids up, and get them out there for some Trick-Or-Treat.
- Avoid all places and displays where sin (usually sex and murder) is celebrated or glorified. People who do such things are misguided and don’t understand the meaning of All Hallows Eve (Halloween). They should not be encouraged.
- Avoid any attraction where the practice of the occult is encouraged or simulated. In addition to violating the first commandment, people who do such things are misguided and don’t understand the meaning of All Hallows Eve (Halloween). They should not be encouraged.
- Chinese lanterns make for wonderful Halloween tradition, symbolizing the flight of souls into heaven.
- Wholesome Halloween and Autumn displays could be placed on the porch or lawn, to include Jack-O-Lanterns, and possibly some scary elements as you see fit. Again, there is nothing wrong with poking fun at death and the occult. Displays that glorify sin (murder and sex) should never be part of a Christian home display.
- Doing your own haunted house or zombie maze is always good fun too, just make sure there is no glorification of sin involved.
- Hand out candy to Trick-Or-Treaters, and include some tracts that explain what Halloween really is — a celebration of life in Jesus Christ, along with a mockery of death and the occult. Your church can help manufacture these tracts. They need not be elaborate. But make sure you always include candy with such tracts.
- For Catholics, attend mass on November 1 as it’s a Holy Day of Obligation for us, and ask all the saints in heaven to pray for your particular needs.
- For non-Catholic Christian communities, schedule a special service for the evening of November 1, with the special theme of celebrating Christ’s victory over death and eternal life in heaven, as well as the New World to come after the general resurrection.
- For all Christians, pray for the dead on November 2, asking God to expedite their journey to heaven, and/or pray for the families of those who have lost loved ones recently. Light candles in their memory and honor. Catholics may attend an All Souls mass too.
As you can tell by this essay, I don’t believe in retreat. I am convinced that evil only prevails in the world when good people do nothing. Christians are never called to retreat. We are called to storm the gates of hell and put the forces of evil into retreat. This comes by being active in the world, our culture, our civilization and the public square. Christening people, time, places and celebrations is what we do as Christians. It’s part of the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom into the world. Cowering in our homes is not an option for us. It never was.