This article was originally published at The Calvinist International in 2013. It has been republished here with permission.
Halloween has been a controversial American holiday for conservative Christians for several decades now. Putting it that way might itself be a surprise for some. Wouldn’t it rather be the case that Halloween has been controversial for centuries? If it were really an ancient tradition, whether catholic or pagan, shouldn’t we expect a longer trail of protest, embrace, or at least commentary? The surprising fact is that nearly all of the festivities and celebrations which are collectively thought of as “Halloween” practices are less than a century old, and their current widespread popularity and cultural force is really only about forty years old.
The classic “fundamentalist” critique of Halloween can be seen here. We should notice that there has always been a mixture of hysteria with common sense in these sorts of observations. Basically every claim there about druids and witches is false. I will explain more about this topic below, but our concepts of paganism, witchcraft, and even Satanism are all modern constructions, made by piecing together some bits of ancient lore with medieval Christian imagery and late nineteenth century and early twentieth century occultism (You can read up on some of this here, though there’s much more to the story). The only carry-over into Halloween from this stuff is superficial. Making matters worse, the supposed “pagan” roots of Halloween are still propounded by more mainstream accounts. As we will see, the real history simply does not support these claims. However, there are some legitimate points to consider from the fundamentalist critique, namely in the areas of moral prudence. Once we remove the mythology from the Halloween critique, we still have to deal with the overt sexuality of more recent teenage and adult costumes and the sensationalism of gore. Holidays have always been known for allowing otherwise good folks to pretend to be bad for a short time. But it is not obvious that Christians can defend participation in this sort of practice simply on the grounds that it is a frivolity.
More recently, James B. Jordan’s “Concerning Halloween” has been getting some widespread attention. [When this article was first written in 2013], one of the Veritas Press Omnibus texts even recommend[ed] it for a cultural-apologetic exercise. A recent video has also taken up Dr. Jordan’s argument and set it to verse. This sort of turning of the tables has a delightful quality about it, and there is a sort of imaginative genius at work in the article. Its thesis states:
The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: On October 31, the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.
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; the Bible teaches that he is the fallen Arch-Cherub. Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us.
There is certainly something to the point about righteous mockery. If you turn to the first page of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, you’ll see two quotes, one from Martin Luther and the other from Thomas More, which explain this point quite well. More than anything else, the Devil is defined by his pride. However, the claim that this idea serves as the foundation for Halloween lacks any historical support. The only source Dr. Jordan provides us in the article is the reference to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but it is not at all clear how this ties into any sort of long-standing Christian tradition.
This essay will lay out the development of Halloween over the centuries and evaluate some of the various claims made about its tradition. While not attempting to dismiss all influence from earlier years, we will argue that these influences are mostly superficial and that the modern holiday known as Halloween is a novel and wholly secular construct. We will then evaluate it briefly as such, giving some rudimentary suggestions regarding Christian participation in Halloween.
The pagan predecessor to Halloween is usually found in Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival which celebrated the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter. It was essentially a “Fall Festival” or a “Harvest Festival,” and nearly nothing is known about its particulars with any certainty. While it certainly included typical pagan religious rites, there is no evidence to suggest any overt fixation on death. Ronald Hutton has the most accessible treatment of Samhain in his excellent The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. He admits that our knowledge of Samhain is minimal and plagued by anachronism: “To hazard any guess about the ancient religious significance of Samhain… therefore, we are left completely dependent upon inferences projected backward from folklore collected in the last few centuries…” (365). He concludes rather modestly that the only things which can be reasonably attributed to Samhain are that it was a seasonal festival with bonfires and there was perhaps some thought that supernatural forces were at work:
Thus, there seems to be no doubt that the opening of November was the time of a major pagan festival which was celebrated, at the very least, in all those parts of the British Isles which had a pastoral economy… There is no evidence that it was connected with the dead, and no proof that it opened the year, but it was certainly a time when supernatural forces were especially to be guarded against or propitiated; activities which took different forms in different regions. Its importance was only reinforced by the imposition upon it of a Christian festival which became primarily one of the dead…” (370)
As can be seen, Mr. Hutton actually says that the emphasis on the dead originated not with Samhain, but with the Christian practices which were later celebrated on or around the same time of the year. We can reasonably question how much if at all Samhain actually contributed to the celebration of Halloween. The scholarly consensus is that the contribution was minimal, mostly amounting to establishing a certain “tone” to the event, but even this could be accounted for by Halloween’s obvious Christian origins.
Halloween, as its name should make clear, has a distinctively Christian genealogy. Nicholas Rogers, in his book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (a title more sensational than its text), explains: “…[Samhain] did not offer much in the way of actual ritual practices… Most of these developed in conjunction with the medieval holy days of All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day” (22). The name “Halloween” is, as is well known, a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve,” the night before All Saints’ Day, but we have to take into account the series of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day to form the entire picture. Each of these days, in slightly different ways, celebrated the Christian departed and established the memorialization of the dead as a key part of Halloween.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were relatively late additions to the Christian liturgical Calendar and always held a fairly minor place among Christian festivals. Thomas J. Talley’s The Origins of the Liturgical Year makes no mention of them at all. As the cult of the saints grew in importance, along with the various feasts for well-known saints, a feast to celebrate “all Saints” also arose. The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship explains that this first began as a general feast for both known and unknown martyrs somewhere around the beginning of the fifth century. This earlier form was celebrated in the Spring, and it was only the later Western tradition which moved it to the Fall:
The first mention of All Saints is found in a feast commemorating the transfer of relics of martyrs from the catacombs to the Pantheon in Rome by Pope Boniface IV and the consecration of that building on 13 May 609. The date seems to have moved to 1 November after the dedication on this day of a chapel to the Saviour, Mary, the apostles, martyrs and confessors in St Peter’s. Pope Gregory III (731-41) instructed that a short office of all the saints be recited there each evening. The feast of All Martyrs and All Saints and of Our Lady was renamed the feast of All Saints in 835. (5)
It is important to note the date of November the 1st was set in Rome, not in England, Scotland, or Ireland. No clear rationale is known for the change, though pragmatic reasons remain the most popular speculations. The feast of All Souls was fixed in 998, and the three-day festival was complete.
The Cluniac influence on both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is also significant, as members of that order were known for their “reputation for commemorating and interceding in prayer for [their] deceased benefactors” and for the emphasis they placed on purgatory and, later, on indulgences (Oxford History of Christian Worship 218). Halloween’s association with the dead, and even ghosts or spirits needing appeasement or aid, can all be attributed to the medieval views of purgatory and the folklore which popularly accompanied it. The making of “soul cakes” and the practice of “souling,” door-to-door singing in exchange for food or money, seem to have also attached themselves to the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, though it should be noted that these have nearly exact parallels in Christmas practices, especially Wassailing. Even the famous mischief and misrule so often connected with Halloween has possible antecedents in Martinmas and Twelfth Night.
For all of the spectacular imagery that has been taken from this period of history, the basic components of the Hallowmas celebrations seem to be rather simple: bonfires, almsgiving, the ringing of bells, and general rowdiness on the Eve before. The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore sums the matter up like this:
From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, there is no sign in England that 31 October had any meaning except as the eve of All Saints’ Day, when bells might be joyfully rung (as also on Christmas Eve and Easter Eve). Mournful tolling marked All Soul’s Day, as a call to prayer for the dead. (163)
One famous component of our modern Halloween can be attributed to the medieval focus on purgatory. This is the Jack-o’-lantern, though it did not yet have the name and was made out of turnips or gourds. Probably having an even earlier existence as mere illumination tools, these lanterns were given a unique meaning when the candles inside were said to symbolize the souls in purgatory. Of course, even this explanation, it should be noted, is largely conjectural on the part of later historians.
The next major stage of Halloween’s development comes in the Protestant Reformation. The Celebration of “Reformation Day” is not at all a modern phenomena, but dates back to the sixteenth century. The Lutheran Church has historically celebrated it as a liturgical feast, and it has been a civic holiday in Slovenia and throughout the western German states for centuries. The reason for affixing the Reformation to October 31st is that Martin Luther chose that date to write his famous 95 Theses, a critique of the practice of indulgences. As such, the festival of saints departed and, especially, souls in purgatory was a symbolically powerful occasion.
Reformation Day was never as significant an event in England, however. This was due in part to England’s unique political identity at the time of the Reformation. Henry VIII had actually tried to temper some of the more disruptive elements of Hallowmas, though he was not interested in abolishing the entire holiday. The early English Reformers were united in their opposition to All Souls’ Day and its purgatorial ideology, but it was not until Elizabeth I that the holiday was fully put down. Even here, this had as much to do with courtly drama as anything else. Ronald Hutton explains, “Queen Elizabeth’s accession date upon 17 November, representing a Protestant holy day slowly evolved to replace the traditional ecclesiastical rites abolished at the Reformation” (The Stations of the Sun, 387). Thus the traditional bells were now rung for an entirely new reason, and the songs and feasts were all in the Queen’s honor. An even more important national celebration would arise in November for England with their next Monarch. Guy Fawkes Day would quickly overshadow all of the late October and early November festivities.
Guy Fawkes Day is not very well known in America, but for 300 years it was the predominant autumn holiday for the English. While possessing many familiar externals: bonfires, dressing up, feasting, and rowdiness, Guy Fawkes Day gave them all a new meaning. It commemorated the foiling of a plot by a radical Catholic conspiracy to detonate an explosive device at Parliament. Thus, the festival fires now symbolized neither ancient spirits nor purgatorial fire, but the flames of hell against all traitors and especially the threat of Catholic and European power. These customs easily spilled over into English nationalism of all sorts, with many more effigies being burned than simply that of Guy Fawkes.
Nicholas Rogers illustrates how the Fifth of November managed to absorb Halloween within the English world:
As a night of high spirits and youthful rascality, and as a ritual of social reversal, Guy Fawkes Night eclipsed Halloween in England, as it would in Australia and New Zealand, where it was sometimes called Danger of Mischievous Night. Given the close proximity of the festivals, which fell within five days of one another, it was predictable that some of the souling rituals of Halloween would spill over to the Fifth of November. In Southrepps and other places in Norfolk, the turnip lanterns that traditionally symbolized souls in purgatory were much in evidence on Bonfire Night. In Lincolnshire, some of the fire rituals commonly associated with Halloween were transferred to the Fifth of November. Celebrants threw stones into the bonfire and on the following morning discerned their future from the way they were placed. In Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Derbyshire, thar cakes or parkins, usually made out of treacle and oatmeal, formed part of the festive fare. These were clearly reminiscent of the soul cakes distributed at Hallowtide, even though they were made of sweeter and heavier ingredients. (Halloween 37)
Guy Fawkes Day was always partisan and violent. When brought over to the New World, it mainly contributed to the history of mischief associated with Halloween, and it gave the festivities an unstable character. Something else would have to replace this stage in Halloween’s history, and that something else would, ironically, be the return of the Celtic tradition and the revival and reinvention of the name “Halloween.”
Most explanations of Halloween note that the holiday obtained particular prominence in North America thanks to Irish and Scottish immigrants. The assumption is usually that these immigrants were bringing over a longstanding “Celtic” tradition, that of Samhain, souling, and guising. When we look closer at this period of history, however, what we find is not so much an ancient and partially pagan tradition reasserting itself on new soil, but rather the invention of a socio-political identity and culture. This Pan-Celticism was itself just one facet of the larger Romantic movement which looked to history (and at times historicism) to re-create long-lost customs and communities as a means of combating the onslaught of modernity. Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition is dedicated to explaining how the Victorians created so much of what we now considered to be traditional, and one essay in that collection, “The Highland Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland” by Hugh Trevor-Roper, explains how much of what we think of as “Celtic” culture was actually constructed by the English nobility, particularly Prince Albert and his court. Imagery and artifacts that had localized identities, such as the tartan and the bagpipes, were universalized as ancient “Celtic” markers. Whereas the Scottish Lowlanders had traditionally looked down upon these things, viewing them as befitting a lower social class, all “Celts,” whether Irish or Scottish, Protestant or Catholic, were now unified and understood to be in a way pre-modern and anti-imperial. This carried over into North America, as well, and before long a “Celtic” culture was firmly established, even if it had tenuous connections with the actual history.
The most well known literary figure of this movement of Celtic Romanticism is Robert Burns, and the most relevant of his works for our purposes is the poem “Halloween,” with its reference to fairies and historical allusion to Robert the Bruce. Rather than merely a residual folk tradition, this sort of “Halloween” was a highly stylized intellectual and cultural creation. No doubt, much of what Burns described, the fortune-telling rituals and belief in supernatural beings, had been common enough folk practices, but once he worked them into his poems, a new and portable “Halloween” culture was created. (It is worth noting that a similar “invention” occurred with Christmas at exactly this time. See Ronald Hutton’s argument in Stations of the Sun 112-12 and then Mark Connelly’s response in Christmas: A History 1-99.)
This version of Halloween took root in Canada and the American Northeast, at times in the form of ethnic celebration. “[T]he Caledonian Society’ observed Halloween with an annual concert of Highland reels, jigs, ballads, and the poems of Robbie Burns” (Rogers, Halloween 51). This sort of cultural emphasis spread throughout North America, and it predictably became more universalized:
[I]t is clear that Halloween was being adapted to the urban milieu of North America in which a conspicuous minority of Irish immigrants congregated. Judging from the accounts in the New York Herald, “fireside games” abounded, with Scottish and Irish immigrants humorously reenacting the contests and fortune-telling of their forebears and dressing up for the occasion. “The forests and dells of the United States are too cold and tramp-infested to be thickly populated with fairies and witches,” remarked the Herald with amusement in 1878, “but American ingenuity has devised an acceptable substitute, so if any one failed to see dancing fairies and witches innumerable last evening, it was because he did not make a tour of the parlours of his acquaintances.” (Rogers, Halloween 53)
Other supposedly “Celtic” features now incorporated into Halloween were guising, mumming and souling, various apple games, roasting nuts, indoor and outdoor fires, and the famous jack-o’-lantern, only now made out of the North American pumpkin. Some of the elements of our modern Halloween can be identified here, though they would still undergo considerable change. The “guising” of the time was a precursor to modern dressing up, but it would have been considerably simpler, mostly made up of carnival masks, burlap sacks, or imitation-historical garb. The emphasis on the supernatural, especially witches and spirits, did factor into this period, but it should be clear that it was understood as harmless and domesticated, much like the idea of a chubby elf who could fly around the world with magical reindeer. This was understood to be good-natured make-believe, but the attempted connection to a mythical tradition did open itself up to the inevitable blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality.
As interesting as the history we have laid out so far proves to be, it really only provides the embryonic stages of the modern Halloween. During the turn of the 20th century and especially after the first three decades, Halloween underwent another dramatic transformation, becoming fully modernized, secularized, and commercialized. In 1898, Martha Russell Orne wrote a pamphlet titled Hallowe’en: How to Celebrate It, which attempted to organize and universalize festive practices. She explained how Halloween should be “grotesquely decorated,” and she encouraged Jack-o’-lanterns to have “a demon-like expression given to the features” (quoted in Lisa Morton, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween 69-71). This emphasis on horror incorporated features from the growing literary genre, taking cues from Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and later Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Bats and black cats soon became permanent Halloween symbols.
This emphasis on darkness was not really connected to any medieval customs, though it would be easy enough to create bridges between memorials for the dead and literary horror. Still, it was mostly controlled, with the classic imagery appearing on popular postcards and many of the games and parties being hosted by schools or community groups. The final transformation came when these elements combined with the tradition of pranking and hooliganism that had accompanied many holidays but especially Halloween.
A general rowdiness had tended to accompany every major holiday over the years, particularly on the various “eves” before. Though mostly forgotten today, Christmas was once famously decadent, complete with carousing and vandalism. Mardi Gras, still known for being raucous, is itself the “eve” of Lent. Halloween was no exception, and elements like Guy Fawkes Day and the celebration of primitive “Celtic” culture only added to its wild character. Lisa Morton writes:
Not everyone saw Halloween mischief as simply the fun-loving but ultimately harmless sport of young boys. As pranking became more widespread, it became more of a problem. Simply disassembling a gate–in fact, the name “Gate Night” replaced Halloween in many areas–was one thing, but disassembling the gate and then moving it into the centre of town where it might be piled in the middle of Main Street with dozens of other gates was more troublesome. In the 1920s, Halloween pranking spread into the rapidly expanding major urban areas, and became out-and-out vandalism. Although the simple pranks of the past–switching shop signs, or flinging a sock filled with flour at a man’s black coat–were still practised, so were far more destructive activities, including breaking windows tripping pedestrians and setting fires. In 1933, during the height of America’s Great Depression, destructive Halloween prank-playing was so virulent that many cities dubbed that year’s celebration “Black Halloween.” Vandalism was now described as the work of “hoodlums” rather than mischievous boys, and included sawing down telephone poles, overturning automobiles, opening fire hydrants to flood city streets and openly taunting the police. Local governments that were already struggling economically were overwhelmed, and many considered banning Halloween altogether. (Morton, Trick or Treat 75-76)
Nicholas Rogers supports this description:
…the conventions of rascality that invigorated turn-of-the-century Halloween took a long time to die. While youngsters would dress up in fancy costumes and masquerade in the streets, visiting houses for various treats, their older brothers would indulge in a different kind of devilry. As the Star quite casually reported of one small town east of Toronto: “Hallowe’en spirit held full sway in Whitby last night. Many a citizen found his veranda furniture hanging from spikes on telephone poles, while a number of gates were removed and steps taken away.” On a typical Halloween spree in interwar North America, fences were destroyed, signs and gates moved, roads barricaded, trolley cars immobilized, street lighting smashed, and outhouses tipped over. One eminent historian of Canada assured me that in his more youthful days in the 1930s he turned over as many as fourteen outhouses in one night of Halloween pranks. (Rogers, Halloween 78)
As a result, there began a concentrated effort to suppress this sort of civil disorder. It was this, more than any other supposed tradition, that accounts for our modern celebration of Halloween:
All manner of clubs and societies went out of their way to provide alternative events for Halloween. Lions, Rotarians, Kiwanis, religious groups, high schools, boys’ and girls’ clubs, women’s institutes, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, and even the Sons of the American Revolution all rose to meet the challenge of rendering Halloween safe and sane during the interwar years. (Rogers, Halloween 81)
This sanitization and domestication of Halloween also explains its most-famous component: trick or treating. Whereas guising and pranking certainly offer some ancestral contributions, the modern practice is highly controlled and actually involves almost no “tricks.” Lisa Morton again explains:
While it’s tempting to draw connections between the New World’s institutionalized begging ritual and earlier, Old World traditions such as the masked house-to-house performances of the Grulacks or the Strawboys, Guy Fawkes begging or souling, trick or treat probably sprang out of more recent antecedents. In new York City, Thanksgiving, now celebrated in the USA with a traditional turkey dinner on the fourth Thursday of November, was compared in the 1870s with Guy Fawkes Day. It had become a rowdy festival of of thousands of boys organized in crews (similar to the Guy Fawkes crews who still parade in Lewes each year), who were rewarded with gifts of money. Costumed children were also recorded going from house to house begging food. (Morton, Trick or Treat 78)
Similar practices arose at Christmas and Halloween, and as the Halloween festivities began to become more orderly and supervised, trick or treating took on its modern form:
By the 1930s, the phrase in connection with Halloween and costumed children seemed to be working its way down through the northern USA, as states like Oregon reported that “young goblins and ghosts, employing modern shakedown methods, successfully worked the “trick or treat” system.” One of the first national mentions of trick or treat appears in an article of 1939 entitled “A Victim of the Window Soaping Brigade?,” which both refers to “trick or treat” as “the age-old Halloween salutation’ and makes it plain that the practice was a method of subverting rowdy pranking. Still, it wasn’t until after the Second World War–when rationing was over and luxuries like candy were once again readily available– that trick or treat finally spread throughout the entire USA. (Morton, Trick or Treat 79).
Halloween remained mostly a children’s holiday until the late 1970s when Hollywood took up the imagery and customs, and the holiday exploded in popularity. Adults increasingly participated in dress-up parties of their own, and the commercialization grew exponentially. More recently the horror elements have increased, though they have also taken on a camp element, most notably in the ubiquitous zombies.
And so as it turns out, Halloween is a subversion and transformation of dark ritual. Only it isn’t a Christian transformation of ancient paganism, but rather a modern secular domestication of youthful energy and rebellion. While there are several elements from earlier traditions involved in the modern Halloween, they are pieced together in new ways and given meanings quite distinct from their predecessors. As such, this must influence the Christian opinion of Halloween more so than fears of ancient paganism or medieval Catholicism. The question is not directly liturgical, but is rather moral, and especially has to do with social prudence.
The Christian Halloween is simply All Saints Day and, for Protestantism, Reformation Day. Understood rightly, these two are not different holidays, of course, but rather one and the same, as the great Protestant Reformers are themselves saints whom we commemorate. To continue this religious tradition is wholly appropriate and needs no further accommodation to other manufactured “traditions.”
Additionally, the question of participating in secular Halloween festivities should be answered by addressing the reasonable societal reception of those festivities and the kind of community being formed by them. If dressing up and trick or treating is simply a neighborhood event involving parents and children, understood as mere recreation with no larger significance, then it may well be harmless enough. As it inevitably evolves and constructs communities and identities in new ways, however, it does take on a new sort of power, and even if not understood as occultic, it is, in a way, spiritual, as it knits together the collective psyche. It will therefore need to be critically engaged. The prioritization of gore cannot be vindicated merely by an appeal to unseriousness. Christians must retain their valuation of life, even when at play. And the clearest moral danger in today’s Halloween is the immodest and lewd features that are continuously growing in popularity.
If our application is somewhat inconclusive, it is only because a proper evaluation of Halloween must begin with a proper understanding of it. That is what we have tried to do in this essay, by bringing to light the historical narrative and the very recent birth of the secular holiday. Superstition, especially of the reactionary Christian variety, is always unhelpful, and that is true for both the angry and friendly varieties. We have shown that the modern holiday, while incorporating various elements of recreated ancient paganism, medieval Christianity, early-modern Reformation and nationalism, and Celtic Romanticism, is nevertheless an entirely modern construct, coming into its own in postwar North America. This is our Halloween.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He is one of the founding members of The Davenant Institute and is a regular columnist for World Opinions. He and his wife have three children.