(I recently have had a series of discussions about Christianity, Halloween, and horror, including giving a podcast interview on the topic of Halloween. As the frequency of conversations has picked up, I thought I might consolidate some of my thoughts on this issue.)
The month or so approaching Halloween has always been my favorite time of year. I love walking the Halloween aisles of the stores, looking at the masks, costumes, and decorations, and particularly indulging in watching my favorite horror movie classics from the 1920s through ’60s in my spare time with way too much sugar sitting in a giant bowl beside me. I love walking down the street beside mine, famous for its Halloween decor, and seeing the elaborate display of ghosts and ghouls of every shape and size littering the lawns of my otherwise typical neighborhood. The questions often have come up, though: isn’t it wrong for a Christian to celebrate Halloween? Doesn’t this most macabre of holidays make much of evil and not God? Can I and my family celebrate Halloween in good conscience?
I grew up with Halloween, but as I neared adulthood and returned to the church after several years of disconnect, I was shocked to encounter the hostility many Christians and churches had to the holiday. Accusations that the holiday glorified evil and represented everything Christianity should be against actually seemed like they might have some reasonable grounding. After pondering these issues for years, however, I have come to the conclusion that Halloween is not only a permissible but helpful and instructive holiday in which Christians can and should participate.
Halloween and Paganism
One of the first complaints I usually hear about Halloween is that it has roots in Paganism. Indeed, Halloween may have picked up a couple of elements from the Pagan holiday Samhain (pronounced Sow-an), namely (and almost exclusively) jack-o’lanterns, although the holiday’s origin is directly Christian and rooted firstly in the centuries-old celebration of All Saints. Likewise, Christmas borrows traditions from the Pagan holiday Yule, and Easter reworked some traditions from other spring festivals. Halloween is far from isolated in borrowing from outside our heritage, but like those two benchmark holidays of the Church Year, these traditions were adapted to instruct truths about the relationship between God and our world and about what the work of Christ has done for us. If we reject Halloween simply on the fact that wearing masks and carving jack-o’-lanterns have roots in outside mythology, we must find something to do with our fir trees and jolly bearded men at Christmas and our obsession with eggs and bunnies at Easter. These traditions have long, well-embedded roots in Pagan myth that have, in some instances, had a much more theologically problematic carry-over into Christianity than the traditions of Halloween. Just as the fir tree of Christmas has been remolded into an image of everlasting life and as the fertility symbols of eggs and bunnies have been rebranded as signs of new life in Christ, so the masks and pumpkins of Halloween serve as a helpful instruction about life after the fall and before Christ’s return.
The primary emphasis of Halloween is that evil exists in the world. This is true both of the secular celebration, where evil is made light of, and also from a Christian standpoint. We recognize above all others that the devil and his legions are present and are the rulers of this age. Paul tells us,
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)
There are devils, goblins, and altogether evil things in the world. We remind each other of that one night a year as we dress up as them. We also remember that there are still evil things in our flesh, what we wrestle again, this “dark passenger” of sin as we await death and resurrection to free us once and for all. Thus, we can be reminded of both the state of the world we live in, the temptation of our flesh, and a reminder that we need to be aware at all times that they work against us (so “put on the whole armor of God” as Ephesians 6 later tells us). Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, says:
Halloween masks and carved pumpkin faces are remnants of measures that were designed to protect people from the power of evil. I’m not arguing that we should revive their original uses. But Halloween is one important occasion for reminding ourselves that the power of the Evil One is still with us. Scary faces will not keep him at bay. But they can be a reminder of the need to be on guard against his wiles. With all of our advanced technologies, we still have not found automatic ways to resist him. The struggle is a spiritual one, but sometimes spiritual battles can be assisted by visible reminders of the Enemy’s presence. After all, [Martin] Luther threw inkbottles at the Devil, even though he did not really think he could hit him! With that in mind, we should feel free to carve some scary faces on some pumpkins this time of year.
Christ is Victorious
Our greatest reason for celebrating Halloween is the fact that Christ’s work on the cross has conquered these dark things of which we speak. Paul assures us that Christ has proclaimed this victory over evil, sin, and death and made a mockery of them:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:13-15)
We can celebrate this victory, mock Satan and Death in triumph, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:55: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Satan, the prince of this age, is a lame duck ruler. His power is coming to an end. His reign is drawing to an end, and when it does he will be disposed of in a way that makes shallow the ruin of any dethroned monarch. The prince of pride is crushed. The great adversary has been brought to shame. His vanity is at an end. Theologian James Jordan writes:
What is the means by which the demonic realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thinks the devil really looks like this… Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us… The gargoyles that were placed on the churches of old had the same meaning. They symbolized the Church ridiculing the enemy. They stick out their tongues and make faces at those who would assault the Church. Gargoyles are not demonic; they are believers ridiculing the defeated demonic army.
Jordan goes on to remind us that the great reformer Martin Luther chose to nail his famous 95 Theses to the Wittenburg door on Halloween 1517 to confront evils lurking in the church head-on. Jordan remarks, “He picked his day with care, and ever since Halloween has also been Reformation Day.” Luther himself proclaims Christ’s victory over our Enemy in this way in his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”:
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.”
When we wear Halloween masks, we remind ourselves and each other that what we once had to fear is now harmless. The triumph has been achieved. All the demons of the world are impotent and awaiting their doom. The fact that harmless little children are dressed in their masks is a great token that the powers of darkness have been cut down in light of the overwhelming force of the Gospel victory.
All this said, there are sticky issues regarding the celebration of Halloween, as there are with any holiday. Some may choose to heed all the above argument and use masks and Jack-o’-lanterns to recognize both the evil that exists in “this present darkness” and the victory of Christ over that. Some may have issues from their past, fears of evil and yielding to culture, or issues of conscience that keep them from that type of celebration. I would, at the very least, encourage folks to buy a big bag of candy to have at their door when little ghouls and goblins come knocking. Rarely, especially in today’s age, do we have our neighbors knocking on our doors. This time is an incredible opportunity to be hospitable to our neighbors and show great love to them, no matter where you come down on creepy masks. In light of our victory over Satan, sin, and death, however, I would love for you and your family to consider, ponder through, and pray over how you can learn from and celebrate Halloween as the Christian holiday it is and can be, proclaiming the gospel through pumpkins and plastic masks.
RESOURCES AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Scott Derrickson (interviewed) and Peter Chattaway, “Horror: The Perfect Christian Genre” (from Christianity Today).
James Jordan, “Concerning Halloween” (from his blog Biblical Horizons).
Richard Mouw, “Halloween: Gargoyles and Pumpkins” (from his blog Mouw’s Musings).
Travis Prinzi, “Story Shapes: Grotesque” (from The Rabbit Room).
Fr. Augustine Thompson, “Surprise: Halloween’s Not a Pagan Holiday After All” (from BeliefNet).
I want to give a special thank you to friends like Bryan, Jamie, Kelsey, Bobby, Alan, Matt, and many others over the years for interactions, questions, comments, teachings, and encouragements that have contributed profoundly to this article. You know who you are.
(Cover image: Matthias Grünewald, detail of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.)