There is a fair bit of ambivalence over Halloween in the Christian church. Some Christians see it as a harmless bit of costume and candy fun. Others believe it trivializes — or worse, celebrates — a satanic holiday. You might be interested to know that some of the more fundamentalist modern pagans (Wiccans) also refuse to observe Halloween because it trivializes their beliefs.
But All Hallows’ Eve, which later also became Reformation Day, is a moment to celebrate and point to the Light that shines in the darkness of the world (John 1:4).
A Brief History of Halloween
The origin of Halloween is a bit murky. But it likely has its oldest roots in the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win” or “sow-in”), when the Celts of Ireland, Britain, and northern France celebrated the end of harvest and the beginning of their new year on November 1. They believed that on the last night of the year (October 31), the spirits of the dead would haunt the living, so they would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to appease and ward off spirits. If they had to leave the house, they would wear masks to fool the ghouls.
In the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV moved the “All Saints Day” feast from May 13 to November 1. If his purpose was to subsume the Celts’ Samhain festival, he certainly succeeded. In the Middle Ages, vigils were commonly held the night before high church feast days, so it was natural that one be held on the eve of All Saints Day. It came to be known as All Hallows’ Eve (hallows is Old English for saints), or as the Scots pronounced it, Hallowe’en.
Young people dressing up in costumes for fun on Halloween emerged in sixteenth-century Britain. It was called “guising.” These fun-lovers would go house-to-house singing, reciting poems, or telling jokes in exchange for “treats.” The tradition of “trick or treating” as we know it began essentially as a revival of guising among Irish and Scottish immigrants in late nineteenth-century North America and was fully embraced by American pop culture by the end of the 1940s.
Spiritual Darkness and the Fear of Death
If there remains a connection between our trick-or-treating traditions and the old pagan Samhain superstitions, it is very weak. But what is not weak is the human fear of death. That is as strong as ever. The ancient Celts sought to hide from death on October 31 using masks, and modern, enlightened Americans hide from it using entertainment — all the time.
People have always been terrified of death, and for good reason, since it is the wages of our unholy sin paid out by a holy God (Romans 3:23). And though due to our own sinful foolishness (Romans 1:21) and satanic blinding (2 Corinthians 4:4) we fail to perceive and honor God, we fallen humans still have a hardwired awareness and fear of the numinous. We know instinctually that there are spiritual realities, and we are deathly afraid of the dark, evil ones.
This actually makes Halloween a wonderful missional moment for Christians to seize. All of the historical roots of Halloween, pagan and religious, are reminders that sinners need the salvation from condemnation and the eternal life that Christ offers. He is the light that shines in this darkness in which we live, and the darkness has not overcome him (John 1:4–5)! And what effort to escape death and spiritual evil can compare to the gospel that declares that Christ came to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14–15)?
After Darkness, Light
In fact, I think transforming All Hallows’ Eve from a reminder of death’s darkness to a celebration of the gospel’s light is exactly why God chose October 31 (in the year 1517) as the day for Martin Luther’s hammer to set off the chain reaction of gospel renewal and global proclamation that came to be known as the Reformation.
Over the previous few centuries, Satan had been slowly choking the gospel, and therefore the church, with the toxic smoke of false teaching. But with the swing of Luther’s hammer a mighty wind of the Holy Spirit was launched that began to clear the spiritual air. And the church not only deeply breathed gospel oxygen again, but also multiplied and spread through the world, which it continues to do at an unprecedented rate.
All Hallows’ Eve is now all the more holy for also being Reformation Day. It is a day of profound thanksgiving for Christians, a day to “remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” and to “consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). October 31 is not just a day for nighttime candy-collecting guising fun for children. It is a day for us to tell them the sweet gospel of the Light of the world and to help them remember our gospel forebears whose courageous stand on biblical truth is why we now know the gospel.
The Reformers adopted as their slogan the Latin phrase “Post Tenebras Lux” (“After Darkness, Light”). And it is the perfect Halloween-Reformation Day slogan. For “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2), the “light of the world” (John 9:5), and those who follow him “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Those who hide in the refuge that is Jesus no longer need to fear death or demons.
There is no sweeter thing for us to give out to our children and our neighbors on October 31 than this news.