The leaves are changing, playoff baseball is overrun with ads for the new Michael Myers movie, and you can suddenly find your favorite snack in pumpkin flavor. This must mean spooky season is upon us. And spooky season always ends with a bang: the holiday of Halloween.
The origins of Halloween are, for many of us, murkier than a witch’s brew. Some trace it back to the Mexican day of the dead, pagan rituals, or even Satan worship. And the celebration of all that is dead and dark and spooky—complete with masks and costumes—can have a curiously demonic vibe. This has led many to wonder: should Christians celebrate Halloween at all?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have answered, “no.” Time Magazine reports that Christian participation in the holiday has steadily declined since the 1960s. Skepticism about Halloween amongst Christians is at an all-time high. Yet, sadly, many Christians have missed its explicitly Christian heritage.
Let’s start with some history. From the Old English—surely how all great history lessons begin—the word “Hallow” just means “Holy” or “sacred.” You may recognize the connection to the King James Version’s opening of the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed by thy name.” The word Halloween is from a Scottish contraction of “Hallows Eve,” or a shortened form of All Hallows Eve. So, literally, Halloween means something like, “the night of the Holy.”
Like its more celebrated counterpart Christmas Eve, All Hallows Eve is the day before, the anticipation of, a major Christian holiday. The day, November 1st, is All Hallows Day, but it’s better known as All Saints Day. The celebration of All Saints Day is, you guessed it, a celebration of the Saints. It invites Christians everywhere to celebrate the memories of saints who’ve gone before. Before us lay a great cloud of witnesses, who lived faithful lives and died faithful deaths for the sake of Jesus Christ. On All Saints Day, we remember the Saints we seek to emulate: from Peter and Paul, to Augustine and Aquinas, to Teresa of Ávila and Térèsa of Lisieux and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We do not, of course, worship the Saints, but we do celebrate their memories. The lives they lived are not dead history, but a living invitiation to love, and live more like, Jesus.
It’s true that the genesis of specific customs, practices, or traditions can be diverse. But one basis for dressing up in costumes on Halloween is an early Church practice of dressing up like Saints. Instead of princesses or goblins, Christians would dress up as their favorite theologians, nuns, or pastors. It was a fun, albeit quirky, way to celebrate their memories.
The day after All Saints Day is All Souls Day. Following the theme of the previous two days, All Souls Day was a day of remembrance for all the dead—especially the recently deceased. Christians would, on these days especially, perhaps pray for the dead or commemorate their graves. These three days—All Hallows Eve (or Halloween), All Saints Day, and All Souls Day—are collectively known as Allhallowtide.
Another Halloween custom that likely has some roots in Christian practice is “Trick or Treat.” Starting sometime in the 15th century, on All Hallows Eve the poor of the town, mostly children, would go from house to house and receive “Soul Cakes” in exchange for prayers for the dead. Each of these cakes was marked with a cross, to remember the death of Christ.
Whatever other historical customs, practices, or precedents, it is as clear as a wizard’s crystal that Halloween has deep historical roots in Christian faith and practice. Allhallowtide is a part of a wider Christian calendar that—including Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and more—is intended to invite us into the life of Christ and his church.
The themes of Halloween, however, remain disturbing to many. Even the Christian historical roots are centered on the memory of the dead. It doesn’t exactly have the jolly ring of Christmas bells nor bright colors of Easter morn.
For this reason, though, it’s especially important for Christians. Making time in our lives for thinking about the dead is a Christian practice. As the currently living, we sometimes come to the truly frightful conclusion that we’re the only ones that matter. Or, we erroneously think that the current, physical world is the only one worth considering. Yet, as those united to Christ by the power of the Spirit, we are really united to Christians across time and space. We are, with Peter and Paul and Augustine and Luther and the Teresas, the one body of Christ. The creedal formulation is: “the communion of saints.” That means we should consider ourselves—that is, the church of Christ—as spread throughout time and space. Just as we would not omit the Christians spread throughout the world from our thoughts and prayers, neither should we omit those who’ve died from our thoughts and prayers. If we are a communion of saints, then remembering the dead saints is a Christian practice.
Thinking about the dead also invites another Christian practice: thinking about our own deaths. There is an old Latin phrase that Christians have sometimes spoken to one another: Memento Mori, translated “remember your death.” Instead of “hello,” some monastic communities would greet each other with a hearty, “memento mori.” They must have been a lively bunch. Similarly, in Ash Wednesday service that kicks off the season of Lent, Christians come forward to receive ashes on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. As they cross each person with ashes, the Pastor says: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
These practices may seem excessively morbid. But Christians have found value in them because by remembering death we put our lives in perspective and remember the power of the God who raises the dead. Our culture is, compared to other cultures, elite—worldclass!—at distracting ourselves and staving off any thoughts of death. We’d prefer not think about death at all. So, we binge Netflix or check our email or post a cute picture of us with our cardigan and PSL. By constantly moving and filling out lives with noise, we avoid stopping. By avoiding stopping, we avoid quiet moments and thinking. By avoiding quiet moments and thinking, we escape the realization and recognition of our impending doom.
As Christians, however, we know that our impending doom—“Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought”—is not an ultimate doom. Death is an enemy of God, but its an enemy that has been defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thinking about our death is not reveling in morbidity, but reminding ourselves that the trivial things of life are indeed trivial and that our eternal lives with God are our destination and our life’s purpose.
So, where does this leave us? Should Christians celebrate Halloween?
Like anything, it depends a lot on how we celebrate. Like Christmas and Easter, Halloween has been overrun with the surrounding, mostly non-Christian, culture. And like too much of life—including Christmas and Easter—it’s been commercialized to death. But it can be ressurected.
Participating in Halloween’s cultural practices—dressing up like ghosts, eating lots of chocolate, or watching scary movies—isn’t a bad thing. Avoid the ouija boards and anything that sniffs of the demonic, but most of the activities we associate with Halloween are harmless.
But Halloween is at its best when its infused with the Christian stories and practices that tell its origin story. On Halloween—and All Saints Day and All Souls Day after it—remember the dead and remember your death. Make it a practice to pray for the dead, especially the recently deceased. Read the story of a Christian hero of the faith—perhaps one that gave up his or her life for the sake of the gospel. Be encouraged by the stories of Christians who have gone before, to whom we are united by the power of the Holy Spirit. If you’re feeling wild, dress up like your favorite saint. I dressed up like C. S. Lewis once. That counts, right?
And, finaly, memento mori. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return—one day, you will die. Next week’s homework or that boyfriend who dumped you or UK’s basketball season will be distant memories—or, more likely, not memories at all. What will remain is what is eternal: a relationship with God, your faith in Jesus Christ, and your fruit of the Spirit.
So, to answer this question: yes, Christians should celebrate Halloween. But, in this world of spiritual blindness, they should do so with the eyes to see God’s grace at work.