Each year, we hear debates among Christians regarding Halloween. With all its secular, commercial and bewitching components and hoopla, should Christians celebrate? I argue, “Yes!” If one considers the history of the day and its likely very intentional relationship to the start of the Protestant Reformation, it is impossible to deny the Christian faith’s connection to Halloween. We should celebrate with vigor, yet we should also understand its origins, purpose and potential.
Historically, the word Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows Eve. You might recall that hallow is an Old English word for “to be made holy” (as a verb) or saint (as a noun). Halloween is the evening before the Feast of All Hallows (or in modern English, Saints). Today, we know this religious celebration more commonly as All Saints Day, November 1st.
During All Saints Day, many in the Western church remember with thanksgiving the saints who are now with God. (Orthodox Christians celebrate this feast the Sunday after Pentecost.) Originally, the feast seems to have been celebrated intermittently and not uniformly on May 13th. That’s when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome, a temple formerly dedicated to all gods, in about 609 CE. Thereafter, it became a church dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God and All Martyrs, those who died for their Christian faith. Since the Renaissance period, the building has served as a tomb rather than a church.
This ancient All Saints Day became a time to remember martyrs of the faith and later all canonized saints. During the reign of Pope Gregory III (731-741), the feast day was officially moved to November 1st. Some argue this was done to help combat and suppress the particular pagan Celtic practice of Samhain, a celebration on or about sunset 31 October to sunset 1 November.
Samhain and other similar pagan festivals marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was a time of growing darkness when the Celtic culture and many others – including many early superstitious Christians – believed the lines between our world and the place of the dead became blurred. Stories of hauntings and practicing divination were deeply associated with the pagan holiday.
As with Jewish custom, Christian worship practices recognize the next day begins at sundown. This allowed for a “vigil mass” or service to be held the evening before All Saints Day. This further helped coopt that evening of October 31st into a firmly Christian celebration.
Over the years, the Christian liturgical calendar continued to develop. A Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, not just martyrs or those declared to be saints through canonization, was officially added on November 2nd.[i] In Roman Catholic theology, the belief in purgatory (a place of purging sins to help make one worthy of heaven) had become accepted. This added religious feast day would serve to remember those faithful not yet in heaven and pray for their quick release from purgation. It was intimately associated with the practice of indulgences; pardons earned by works or paid for to free oneself or a loved one from purgatory more quickly.
With the many obvious medieval abuses of this teaching and his own spiritual awakening, Martin Luther began to wrestle with the contemporary practices of the Western church, especially indulgences. A biblical professor and Roman Catholic priest, he wrote 95 points (or theses) he wished to debate regarding how one is saved. Could one buy forgiveness paying for what was called an indulgence? Is it possible to earn your way into heaven or to prove yourself worthy of salvation? These were his ultimate questions.
From studying scripture, the answer had become obvious to Martin Luther. Faith comes down to trusting what Jesus did for us on the cross and through his resurrection. Jesus’ holy work was enough to cover all our sins – past, present and future – just as Jesus promised in scripture, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”[ii]
Although I personally have not yet found any writings explicitly connecting Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517 to Halloween, it seems exceedingly likely. Luther would expect large crowds to be present at church for the feast days ahead. Further, this educated man probably recognized the propriety of discerning about indulgences and purgatory as the Western church prepared to celebrate All Hallows Eve or Halloween, the Feast of All Saints, and the Commemoration of All the Faithfully Departed (now commonly known as All Souls Day). His 95 Theses specifically addressed beliefs, practices and excesses associated with these celebrations.
Understanding that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, Lutherans no longer recognize purgatory or All Souls Day, but Halloween as well as All Saints Day remain on many of our personal and religious calendars. (For Roman Catholics and some others, many still look at the three days of October 31st through November 2nd as intimately connected and call it “the triduum of Hallowmas.”)
As a Protestant Christian, Halloween need not be a time where we find ourselves over focusing on evil, commercialism, violence or anything else. It can become a time of worship and spiritual formation. Despite its origins and relationship with pagan practices, it can now serve as the perfect time to remember what ignited the Protestant Reformation and particularly the saving work of Jesus Christ. We can celebrate both the love and memories of the faithfully departed as well as share in family fun – yes, trick-or-treating, trunk-or-treating or parties included. Like all things in life, our Halloween celebrations can be whatever we choose to make of them including something appropriate for all Christ’s sinner-saints[iii] still here on earth. How we celebrate can witness to our shared faith in Jesus and love for one another.
Some practices you might like to consider:
- Visit grave sites of loved ones to place flowers, candles or luminaria (as allowed by regulation or law). Pray with thanksgiving for how God shared love with you through their lives.
- In your faith community, share the names of those who have died over the last year perhaps ringing a bell for each one. You might allow for a special wreath where flowers can be added to symbolically represent those God used to shape your life and faith. Pray for all those who continue to mourn.
- Talk about your ancestors and family history together. Share stories of faith. How did your family communicate and pass down their faith in Jesus? Where do you see God’s steadfast love at work in the stories of the past or in your present lives?
- Have a Reformation Day party or reenact Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses.
- Instead of dressing up as a ghost or goblin, consider positive role models such as faith-filled saints of the past or inspiring heroes of the present.
- Share in a bonfire and hymn sing with friends and family or attend a fall festival.
- For something different, carve pumpkins with religious or Reformation themes.
We need not grieve like the rest of humanity over those who have died. Sin, death and the Devil no longer have a hold over us thanks be to Jesus Christ, so there is no cause to be afraid. As the children of God, we have a multitude of reasons to celebrate for all eternity. So, why not celebrate Halloween?
[i] Recognitions similar to All Souls Day seem to have been a practice from early Christianity, but they varied greatly in timing and scope. CatholicCulture.org reports this about the origin of All Souls Day: “Masses for the dead are found in the fifth century. But it was St. Odilo [c.962 – c.1048], fourth abbot of Cluny, who was responsible for the institution of the general commemoration of all the faithful departed; he instituted it and fixed its celebration on November 2, the day after All Saints. The practice spread to the rest of Christendom.” (Others claim the three day celebration stems from an order by Pope Gregory IV in the 8th century.) Indulgences are still attached to All Souls Day in the Roman Catholic Church. Learn more at: http://bit.ly/Hstmm5
[ii] John 8:36
[iii] Luther came to argue that Christians remain simultaneously sinners (still struggling with sin) yet saved (through faith in Jesus Christ). We should strive to follow Christ, but we must accept our constant need for grace. Jesus is the only source of our salvation, not our works.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.
The image “pumpkin of Luther posting his 95 Theses” used above with this post is believed not to be copyrighted. If I am in error, please contact me, and I will remove it or provide proper attribution as desired. Efforts were made to identify its source but unsuccessfully.