Ten years ago, I wrote a long essay investigating the history of Halloween (along with a shorter version–these were originally published at The Calvinist International, but have now been republished at Ad Fontes). At the time I was motivated by two main concerns. The first is the common assertion that Halloween is a “pagan holiday.” This is wrong, as I show, because not only are concrete links between ancient paganism and modern Halloween lacking, but we actually have other and better links between Halloween and other more recent points in history. We can see where it came from, and it was not seventh century Hibernia. In fact, modern Halloween practices were an exclusively North American phenomena until the 1960s or later. A second concern I had was with the new argument that Halloween is actually an explicitly anti-pagan holiday–that the various images of darkness are meant to mock evil, with masks and costumes being a sort of ritual ridicule, showing that the forces of Christ have triumphed over Satan and his minions. As entertaining as this vision is, there is no support for it. It is an entirely novel theory and gives far too much significance to practices and artifacts which have a much simpler and more trivial explanation. It’s cute, but it isn’t true.
So, what is the “true” story of Halloween? It’s complicated, but the holiday we now know of as Halloween is a sort of fusion of older Christian themes with nineteenth century Romantic literary creations and then twentieth century civic associations and mass marketing. Halloween is a creative re-invention that gets turned into a Hollywood and Hershey’s sales extravaganza. The “spooky” elements mostly come from nineteenth-century American attempts to invent a mythical long-lost past. Then popular practices like trick-or-treating were created in the twentieth century by parents’ groups for a way to keep older children and teenagers occupied and out of trouble. Our modern Halloween is a fully secularized holiday meant to stir up a little bit of sentimentality and campiness and also to create a little fun. For better or worse, that’s the story.
Now, ten years later, I think my basic argument holds up. History has carried on, however, and I think I’ve learned a few more things, at least experientially. I’d like to summarize my basic story one more time and then give some of my thoughts on what Halloween is like in 2023.
The older argument was that Halloween is literally a continuation of ancient pagan practices. Many different assertions have been made to this effect. Some of them combine the argument that medieval Roman Catholicism also mixed Christianity and pagan worship elements, and so anything from medieval Christendom could also be called “pagan.” Three pieces of evidence are often put forward. The first is simply the timing. Pagan cultures all seem to have had a harvest festival marking the end of the growing and herding season and the beginning of winter. In Gaelic and Celtic regions, one such festival was known as Samhain (soh-win). The second suggestion is that trick-or-treating is a continuation of the older practice of “souling” or “guising,” where people would beg for some favor or gift for the sake of the soul of one of their deceased relatives or friends. Here we are already fudging the history, of course, since this is mostly taken from medieval, that is to say Christian, cultures, but it’s still thought to be inspired by or infused with pagan ideas. Then thirdly, you will also hear that the jack-o-lantern is a sort of effigy of the dead, a symbol of their soul which is perhaps trapped in an intermediate state. Add to this the prevalence of witches, ghosts, and goblins, and voila, paganism is alive and on the scene.
The problem with this is that these associations are actually too broad and generic. Every culture has had a sort of harvest festival, and it’s not clear that there was anything uniquely “spooky” about Samhain. In fact, we don’t really know anything about Samhain at all. Historian Ronald Hutton says, “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…” (Stations of the Sun, 365). Hutton says that one thing that we do know is that the emphasis on death and departed humans does not come from Samhain but instead from later Christian cultures (370).
Samhain and other pagan festivals were precisely harvest festivals. They marked the beginning of the winter season. Their key features were the slaughtering of livestock and the making of bonfires as you stored up food for the winter. Ironically, these are not Halloween features at all. “Harvest festivals” today are often promoted as an alternative to Halloween. Historically, Halloween was a religious day focused on the saints. It was not related to the civil calendar and certainly not tied to the crops or the herds. If you had to look for a Christian festival that focused on lights in the darkness and which used the harvest as a symbol for spiritual activity, the better culprit would actually be Advent.
As for trick-or-treating, this practice was not in continuous existence from antiquity until today. There is no record of it in medieval England or early modern Europe. Connections with “souling” are superficial. Further, we have more specific information on where the modern practice came from. It developed in the early twentieth century in North America and in a totally secularized context. “Trick or treat” first starts to appear in the 1930s and in America and Canada. Many older adults who grew up in European countries, and especially non-English ones, can attest to there simply not being any trick-or-treat custom when they were young. It has been exported from North America to the world in the last half-century or so.
And the Jack-o-Lantern only seems to go back to the nineteenth century. “Jack” had long been used in England to refer to a young “everyman” sort of character (Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill) or a knave (the Jack in the playing cards or a “Jack in the Box”). The expression “Jack-o-Lantern” seems connected to this literary and colloquial concept but also with any surprising appearance of light. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest uses of “Jack with a Lantern” were all ways to express the “will-o’-the-wisp.” From here, Americans applied the name to their playful new creations, lanterns carved into pumpkins and other large squash. The funny face is the “Jack” in the lantern. John Greenleaf Whittier has a poem about a pumpkin in 1850. He speaks of carving an ugly face, lighting a candle inside, and even telling fairy tales about the pumpkin. But for him, this is a Thanksgiving ritual. It’s all about the harvest, and the main theme is family and the joys of local community. The link between Jack-o-Lanterns and evil spirits comes from a 1889 pamphlet by Martha Russell Orne. She tells the familiar but fictional tale that Halloween descends from “the Druids” and that farmers used to use torches and incantations to ward off evil spirits at this time. But when she describes the Jack-o_latnern, what she calls “The Bogie,” it’s clearly her own creation. She suggests carving it to look like Satan, even adding that Halloween is his “Sabbath” (Halloween, 27). This is all playful nonsense. It has no connection to the actual earlier American or European history, and it’s clear that Orne does not really think she’s conjuring up evil. She is proposing family games after a very campy fashion. This is a classic case of “invented tradition,” something that was extremely popular in the nineteenth century. Similar sorts of Christmas and Easter customs developed at this same time.
As you can see, these various “pagan” practices are actually post-Christian creations. Pagans certainly did not talk about Satan and his Sabbath. What’s going on is that people of a Christian cultural descent are looking backwards, mixing familiar elements of their more recent spirituality with imagined “ancient” stories in an effort to create a new Romantic folk culture for their day. They were “re-enchanting” the modern world.
The medieval Christian Halloween was mostly liturgical. It was a series of prayer services devoted to the concept of the saints, that is to say the faithful departed. This was not borrowed from earlier pagan sources but was an entirely new Christian contribution. There had been various individual holidays dedicated to saints and martyrs. “All Saints Day” was a day for all of the rest, a catch all to cover those who did not have their own days. It was originally not a Fall holiday at all, and it was never thought of as a “harvest” festival. It had no necessary connection with the move towards winter. Originally it was celebrated in May. This would fit with the theme of the resurrection, the saints’ triumph over death through the everlasting life won by Christ. It was then moved to Nov. 1 in the ninth century, and the change came from Rome. It had no connection to Celtic folk practices.
All Saints Day was soon paired with All Souls Day, and so there was a connection with both the departed saints and those souls still in purgatory. This is the most likely source for an emphasis on “ghosts” at this time. The spirits were those in purgatory, and the candles were the familiar liturgical candles used for prayer. This would be challenged by the Protestant Reformation, which Luther notably kicked off on October 31st .
It should be noted that Halloween simply was not a major holiday in England during the Reformation. All Saints is a feast day, to be sure, but the larger civic festivities were largely abolished under Queen Elizabeth I. The traditional bells were no longer rung in commemoration of the dead. New holidays took Halloween’s place, first Nov. 17th, which was Queen Elizabeth’s accession date, and then later Nov. 5th, the infamous Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day. In fact, the best bridge for American Halloween hooliganism is precisely Bonfire Night. It was marked by, yes, fires, but also mischief. American Halloween has the religious name of All Hallows Eve, the secular mood of Guy Fawkes Day, and then a mythology given to it by nineteenth century writers and homemakers.
So What About Today?
Since the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Halloween has taken on more twists and turns. In the post-war years, the family side of Halloween really increased. Neighborhood parties and trick-or-treating became a standard feature of life. As the candy companies seized upon it, it quickly grew in scope. And then in 1978, Halloween took on a new layer of horror with John Carpenter’s movie. After Halloween, other horror films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street also filled the pop culture imagination. Earlier horror movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were also revived, and the holiday of Halloween shifted from a family-friendly exercise back to a night for teenagers and young adults to engage in a bit of mischief.
I didn’t emphasize this element much in my older essay, but this seems to now be one of the most significant elements of American Halloween. It accounts for the holiday being as much of an adult-themed day as a kid’s day. The fascination with zombies has particularly increased, and a strong emphasis on death and the grotesque is inescapable. This doesn’t seem so much like the older “ghosts and goblins” but instead a new sort of counter-culture gimmick, not unlike “goth” or “black metal” subcultures. It is usually campy and unserious, done in purported good fun, but it’s not hard to find participants who really throw themselves into it. Many communities have embraced this as a broader lifestyle aesthetic. Christians should be realistic about just what sort of cultural practice is going on here and not thoughtlessly join in.
Additionally, there is a sexual side to much of the newer Halloween activities. Costume stores are replete with “sexy nurse” or “sexy elf” outfits. Beyond this, though, LGBTQ communities frequently latch on to the carnival and burlesque aspects of Halloween. For believers in the biblical sort of supernatural realm, this might indeed be a new portal into the demonic. It’s not the ancient Druidic practice, but after centuries of wandering about in parched lands, those older unclean spirits may indeed be attempting to return to the house with seven new companions. Christians should view these sorts of revelries in the same way that first century Christians did their Greco-Roman counterparts.
A final aspect of Halloween that is striking is just how big it has become. Halloween is now the second-highest grossing holiday in America. Only Christmas is bigger. There are haunted houses and parties everywhere, and the trick-or-treating can reach massive proportions. Certain neighborhoods are packed with hundreds of participants, and it’s not at all unusual for people to target areas that are believed to have the most (and best) treats. It’s not really a local community practice, at least not in the old sentimental sense. While it may vary from place to place, I have not experienced very much talking or “getting to know folks” when I take my kids trick-or-treating. It’s fun enough, but I can’t really place any deep significance on it, and more than not, it feels like a fairly simple transactional relationship. I don’t mind it, and my kids love the candy, but any argument for a deep or spiritual layer rings hollow. I don’t think that Christians claiming to “reclaim” the holiday can make a very serious case here.
Should Christians celebrate Halloween then? I think it’s fine in a limited way. Dress up like storybook characters and stay in your own neighborhood. That much seems permissible, even fun.. But there’s a lot to be on guard against. The increasing gore is disturbing, and the donning of Scream masks or toy machetes really shouldn’t be mistaken for postmillennial dominion. The Biblical manner of “mocking the devil” would be a refusal to be afraid of him, yes, but also a determination to continue in deeds of righteousness and humility. Doubling down on American consumer culture is not quite the same thing. We defy Satan with the Cross, his ultimate site of humiliation, and then by telling of the righteous deeds of the saints as they now enjoy everlasting life.
Instead of zombie costumes, a Puritan (or Patristic, in this context they are mostly the same thing) aesthetic would be more culturally transformative. Calling people to “remember their deaths” would be the more powerful message. Sanctifying the day might precisely take the form of denying its importance, refusing to “go all in” but rather keeping a detached posture towards the whole thing.
But I don’t really mean to sound like a grinch who might steal Halloween from everyone. Insofar as it can be a feast in the true sense of the word, then it can be good. Invite those you know into true fellowship. And even a little trivial fun is fine too, in its place. But it’s precisely here where we need to keep it in its place, not giving it more than its due and not letting it become a temptation to join in with the deeds of darkness.
Insofar as the “true history” of Halloween can take away unnecessary guilt, then I hope it is liberating. There is no reason to labor under superstition and fake history. But I also hope the broader perspective can free us in other ways too. I hope it can free us to not have to care all that much about things which don’t deserve it. And I hope it can free us to approach things like Halloween with the normal wisdom and caution that we should bring to all our endeavors, using them for good as much as we can and then saying “No thanks” to the excessive and unhelpful aspects.
We might also consider the ways in which we can talk more about “the saints” on this holiday. There are those truly ancient ones, mentioned in Hebrews 11. Then there are the faithful martyrs from the early church. But the list doesn’t stop there. We have heroes of the faith in the Middle Ages and at the Reformation. There are martyrs there too, as the names of Latimer and Ridley remind us. Saints even continue to abound in the modern era. We could use the occasion to learn about those missionaries killed in the twentieth century, or the courageous faithful Christians in Korea, Egypt, and Nigeria who fought the forces of evil, even to the death.
Whatever we choose to do on Halloween, let us do so in a “holy” manner. Let us bring reverence and honor to God with gratitude for what he has done for us.
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.