Toward an Understanding of Halloween

The purpose of this short posting is to present some of the history of Halloween, and to be a starting point for more study and discussion about how practicing Christians should or should not participate.  As such, the material presented below is merely introductory.

The modern annual festival of Halloween comes (via the ancient Romans) from the Celtic1 festival of the dead called Samhain.2 Pronounced as either ‘sow-in’ (as in ‘cow’) or ‘sow-een’, Samhain is also the contemporary name preferred by most Wiccans3 and Pagans4 today. Midnight on October 31st (summer’s end) was seen by the Celts as the contact point between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year;5 it was understood to be the time when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds was the thinnest. Due to their view of the nature of time as cyclical, the Celts believed that the Sabbat6 night of Samhain acted as a ‘doorway’ in time (or even as a period outside of time), resulting in more intense contact with the dead and the supernatural. Along with more powerful divination and future-telling, it was also a time when the dead could temporarily re-enter the world of the living, and in turn, the living could also visit the world of the dead.

The three major ancient Samhain activities, which interestingly, are also the three most popular Halloween activities today, were trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, and displaying a carved jack-o-lantern. Given the Celtic understanding of the thin ‘veil’ between the two worlds during Samhain and the resultant influx of ‘dead’ beings into the land of the living, the purpose of leaving treats (ie, food, drink, etc.) to appease the wandering spirits seems understandable. If there were no ‘treats’ the spirits would then ‘trick’ (ie, harass, haunt, etc.) the unfortunate people, but if there were treats then the spirits would ‘bless’ their hosts. Also, dressing up in various costumes was for the purpose of tricking the malicious spirits, so that one’s identity (and possessions) would be protected.

In step with the dominant emphasis in future-telling, bobbing for apples was considered a prime means of marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first person to marry in the coming year. It may also represent the remnants of an ancient Pagan ‘baptism’ called seining.7 Finally, the jack-o-lantern, with it’s light-giving candle inside, was also used to frighten away any troublesome spirits or faeries that may have been wandering through the countryside. The candle provided the light (brightly burning bonfires were also commonly used), and the carved face scared away the spirits.

A review of current Wiccan literature indicates that the majority of modern beliefs and practices related to Halloween/Samhain are strikingly similar to the ancient Celtic festival. There is a very significant Wiccan and Pagan presence on the Internet, and one of the premier web sites is The Witches Voice, which writes that during the festival of Samhain, “The Earth nods a sad farewell to the God. We know that He will again be reborn of the Goddess and the cycle will continue. This is the time of reflection, the time to honor the Ancients who have gone on before us and the time of ‘Seeing’ (divination). As we contemplate the Wheel of the Year, we come to recognize our part in the eternal cycle of Life.” The night of October 31st is considered to be the night when divination, tarot-card readings and other psychic readings are most likely to succeed. Most modern Witches and Warlocks believe that this is the night of their greatest power and influence, and it is sometimes referred to simply as “The Day”.

Rather than suggest what the only correct Christian response to Halloween should be, four possible responses are provided with the intent that the reader make up his/her mind for himself.  Such a decision should be based on the information provided above (and other sources) on one hand, and on the truths and principles found within the Bible on the other.  The four most common responses are likely:

Dismiss – One can decide to dismiss the issue and conclude that there is no tension between current involvement in the festival of Halloween and the daily practice of Christianity.  The two should function side by side, and the whole debate should be dropped.

Ignore – It is also possible to decide that the observance of Halloween does, in fact, cause tension in the life of a Christian, but the appropriate response is to be uninvolved in Halloween festivities and also uninvolved in any alternative activities.  Although they are not in harmony, both Halloween and the Christian life should go their separate ways and not interact with each other.

Mimic – A Christian can also decide that Halloween is not compatible with the Christian life and the proper response is to provide another festival that coincides with October 31st.  The goal should be to ‘Christianize’ the pagan holiday by dressing up as Biblical characters, telling Christian stories, etc.

Replace – One can conclude that participation in Halloween activities is incompatible with Christianity and an appropriate response is to promote an entirely different celebration which is intended as (and seen as) a clear break from Halloween with the intent of completely replacing it.

What do you think?

Mark

Bibliography

The Celtic Connection, www.wicca.com
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, P.D. Ellis (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1992)
Drawing Down the Moon, M. Adler (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986)
The Druid Renaissance, P. Carr-Gomm, ed. (London: Thorsons, 1996)
Holiday Symbols, S.E. Thompson, ed. (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1998)
The Pagan Federation, www.paganfed.org
The Sacred World of the Celts, N. Pennick (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1997)
The Witch’s Book of Days, J. Kozocari, et al (Victoria: Beach Holme, 1994)
The Witch’s Voice, www.witchvox.com
  1. The ancient Celts were a broad group of people who lived throughout most of Europe during the first few centuries BC and AD, but are generally understood as being primarily from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The majority of their religious beliefs and practices were influenced and led by the priestly class – the Druids.
  2. Some historians conclude that the festival served to honour Saman, the Celtic lord of the dead.
  3. “Wiccan” refers to those who believe/practice witchcraft (ie, the belief in the inherent spiritual power of nature, the power of magic, and the ability to influence and control human behaviour through spiritual means).
  4. “Pagan” refers to beliefs rooted in the ancient nature religions of the world (ie, all things are divine, sacred and part of the whole – pantheism).
  5. Rather than seeing time as linear (ie, every year is different and they follow in sequence), the Celtic/Pagan view was/is that time is eternally cyclical (ie, the years are part of an endlessly repeating ‘wheel of time’ or ‘the wheel of the year’).
  6. For the Celts (and therefore modern Wiccans, Pagans, etc.) the year was divided by eight solar rituals: four Greater Sabbats and four Lesser. Samhain is one of the Greater Sabbats and is sometimes referred to as ‘THE Great Sabbat’.
  7. In modern times, the Cauldron of Regeneration is a water-filled tub into which the novice’s head is immersed (often while blindfolded with hand’s tied behind the back); this ‘baptism’ is similar to a traditional Witchcraft initiation ceremony.

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