Is Halloween the devil’s birthday? In a word, no.
Nevertheless, while most Americans think of Halloween simply as a community celebration where they can dress up as ghouls or mystical creatures and dole out candy to little ones, the history of Halloween does have spiritual overtones. Some of those overtones are actually Christian. Others, not so much.
While some Christians drum up fear about the idea of joining in on Halloween celebrations, and while they may have a point that even playing around with occult practice is not only unwise but consistently condemned in Scripture, a closer look at the origin and history of Halloween may help to temper some of the more fantastical accusations levied against the holiday by the more fundamentalist wing of the church.
Origins of Halloween
Halloween finds its roots in an ancient Celtic celebration called Samhain, a festival marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter.
Still celebrated by some groups today, the holiday is observed on October 31, as November 1 marks the first day of the new year in the Celtic calendar. So, to put it loosely, Samhain was like an ancient equivalent of the Ball dropping in Times Square.
Samhain’s connection to our modern version of Halloween is that the Celts believed that on the evening of October 31, the spirits of the dead would rise and walk among us. And when the dead would walk among the Celts, they would attempt to lay waste to the crops, devastating the people as they looked toward the long, cold, dark winter that awaits anyone who resides in the British Isles.
On the flip side, the presence of these souls supposedly made it easier for Celtic priests, called Druids, to commune with the spirit world and predict the future. Their prophecies would bring comfort to many of the people, as they looked ahead to an invariably difficult season.
During the celebration, Celts would dress up in costumes, typically with animal skins and heads, and they would attempt to tell each other’s fortunes as they sacrificed crops and cattle to their deities.
Once the Celts came under Roman rule in AD 43, the celebration was combined with two Roman festivals. One of those celebrations, called Feralia, also commemorated the dead. The other celebrated the Roman goddess Pomona, whose symbol was an apple. This is likely where the fall tradition of bobbing for apples originated.
Halloween Combined With All Souls Day and All Saints Day
Though originally pagan, proto-Halloween celebrations began to take more of a Christian shape when the Roman Empire declared itself to be a Christian nation under the rule of Emperor Constantine.
Under Christian rule, the Samhain celebration was combined with the Christian celebrations of All Souls Day and All Saints Day. These holidays had previously been celebrated in the spring, but the Roman Church intentionally moved them to the end of October and beginning of November so that they would subsume pagan traditions.
All Saints Day, which is now celebrated on November 1, is a commemoration of Christians who have passed away and are in heaven. The holiday most likely began as a yearly commemoration for Christians who were martyred under Roman persecution. Nevertheless, it eventually became a celebration of all saints, particularly as the persecution of Christians within the empire became a thing of the past.
Today, All Saints Day is still celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church, as well as a number of Protestant groups, such as Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Reformed Christians.
The word Halloween is actually a contraction of “All Hallow’s Eve,” which is the evening before All Saints Day (October 31).
All Souls Day, which comes one day after All Saints Day, is the Roman Catholic tradition of commemorating “all the faithfully departed.” In Catholic theology, those who pass on are not immediately granted entrance to heaven but remain in a state of purgatory until their soul is purified for heaven.
This doctrine is rejected by virtually every stripe of Protestant, as Protestants believe that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Nevertheless, All Souls Day is an important holiday for Catholics, a day to which they also refer as Day of the Dead.
In Mexican tradition, this is known as Dia de los Muertos, which is a cultural holiday unto its own. It has its own origin in Aztec culture, combined with Catholic teachings.
For those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos, it is believed that the souls of loved ones return to the earthly plane. Therefore, families build altars with their loved ones’ favorite foods and other items. Further, they believe that so long as a person is remembered, they will always be a part of the community.
Halloween in America
This all may be interesting, but it still doesn’t explain how we got to trick-or-treating. That tradition developed over time as Halloween began to grow in popularity in America, beginning in the 19th century when an influx of Irish immigrants (many of whom were Catholic) brought over the tradition of playing practical jokes on other members of the community on the evening of October 31.
Groups would go around the neighborhood asking for food or money. Failure to supply a treat would result in a practical joke—a trick.
Also during this time, the tradition of carving pumpkins became more popular. The custom finds its roots in an Irish folklore story about a drunkard named Jack, who struck a deal with the Devil wherein Satan agreed to leave Jack’s soul alone when he died. However, when Jack died, heaven wouldn’t take him either, so he wandered for eternity in darkness, holding only a hollowed out turnip with embers inside. The turnip was eventually replaced with a pumpkin.
Later in the century, Halloween became more associated with witchcraft, which led to a decrease in its popularity.
That is, until the 1920s, when communities began having more costume parties on Halloween. However, vandalism became an issue, as some harkened back to the folklore of the dead coming back to wreak havoc. Thus, modern day trick-or-treating became more widely popular, both as an inexpensive way to celebrate as a community, as well as to keep eyes out in the neighborhood for vandals.
Thanks to the baby boom in the 1950s and onward, Halloween became basically a kid’s holiday. In the intervening decades, the holiday has certainly become more commoditized and commercialized.
Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?
Even though Halloween isn’t the Devil’s birthday, given its checkered past and association with any number of pagan and even occult practices, can Christians, in good conscience, celebrate Halloween?
Or is it better to celebrate Reformation Day instead? After all, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517, effectively beginning the Protestant Reformation. Some churches celebrate the occasion by dressing up as the German theologian and performing historical reenactments of his life.
Other churches opt for more of a “Halloween-lite” experience on October 31, inviting the community onto their campus for a trunk-or-treat or some kind of carnival with the words “fall” or “festival” in it. There are costumes; there is candy; there is just no explicit mention of what October 31 actually is.
Either of these can be fine options (apart from the conspicuous absence of beer at Reformation Day celebrations, something Luther himself would detest). And if these kinds of celebrations are all your conscience will allow for, then by all means enjoy them.
On the other hand, it isn’t exactly a crime against God to celebrate Halloween in your neighborhood, pass out candy, and walk around the block with your kids for trick-or-treating. Yes, the history of the thing is complicated. But so are the histories of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and Easter egg hunts, and most of us still engage in those traditions without fear of inviting the Devil into our midst.
To be sure, Christians should never engage in occult practices. Dark spiritual forces are real, present, and active in our fallen world. Demons are real. The Devil is real. We don’t want to invite any of these dark principalities to have any kind of influence in our lives.
It’s just that I’m not inviting any of those things into my home or my heart simply by virtue of dressing my son up like Buzz Lightyear so that my neighbors can smile and laugh and drop a Snickers in his bucket.
If your heart is pure, and there is nothing immoral about the celebrations you’re engaging in, it is part of God’s common grace that we can have moments of joy and fun with our communities. Halloween is just a good excuse for that.