Halloween is getting more and more popular in Australia. In fact, an almost viable industry has sprung up selling oversized pumpkins for the October 31st celebrations – apparently, they make up in size what they lack in flavour. Equally, you can be sure that thousands of religious folk around the world, and even in Oz, are right now recalling the devilish connotations of the day. Still less plausibly, some object to Halloween on the grounds that it is an ‘American tradition’—heaven forbid—as if that in itself were an evident evil.
I have been asked many times, both as an Anglican minister and as director of the Centre for Public Christianity: Is Halloween evil? Should Christians oppose it? My general feeling is that Halloween is no more ‘evil’ than Christmas.
In fact, the two festivals have a bit in common. Both started out as pre-Christian, pagan celebrations. Both were ‘rebadged’ by the church. And both have subsequently become heavily re-secularized. It’s commonly known that 25 December was originally a celebration of the ‘Unconquered Sun’ at the time of the Winter Solstice (in the northern hemisphere). It was a happy feast in Roman times.
When Christianity become dominant in the West in the 4th and 5th centuries people were uncomfortable with celebrating the Sun instead of the Creator. But believers didn’t cancel a huge existing party. They chose to sanctify it as the ‘birthday’ of the unconquered Saviour of the world. No one was suggesting Jesus was actually born on that date. This was just an attempt to Christianise culture. Personally, I love that spirit—sanctifying the secular instead of running away from it or trying to ban it! It speaks of an open, confident and generous version of faith. More of that, please!
Halloween is much less significant, in both its pagan and Christian forms, but it has a similar history to Christmas. Originally, November 1 marked the end of the Summer months, and the pre-Christian Celts believed that the spirits of the departed returned to their homes at that time to visit loved ones. Masks and other disguises were worn to frighten off evil spirits who were trying to cut in on the action.
Around AD 610 Pope Boniface IV decided to ‘claim’ this festival for Jesus. He moved All Saints’ (or Hallows’) Day, a feast celebrating the departed in Christ, from May 13 to November 1. The evening before was also sanctified as All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween. It was a time to remember the faithful believers of past ages and to pray that we, the living, might learn from their good example. The Protestants in the 16th century mostly banned the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve and Day, but this had little to do with associations with ghouls and goblins and much to do with anti-Catholicism (Protestants have cancelled a lot of parties over the centuries!).
So, is Halloween today ‘evil’? Sure it is, if it involves the glorification of things satanic; even worse if it trivializes the Devil. And there’s nothing good in the festival if it revolves around playing nasty pranks on neighbours who forgot to buy sweets. Beyond that, a community dress-up involving opening our doors to each other and giving treats to kids in fancy dress is a lovely idea. It might even build friendships in a society hungry for community.
For my part, I am sad that Halloween no longer has much to do with honouring the faithful departed and learning from their example. But that shouldn’t stop believers from making it so. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662 has the perfect Halloween prayer: “And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.”
One last thing. I’m not sure that Christmas in the wider Australian context is any more pleasing to the Almighty? If there are grades of sins, I reckon the Aussie worship at the shopping mall in the build up to Christmas and the consequent neglect of the poor until we’ve paid off the credit card are much more ‘satanic’ than allowing our kids to dress up as goblins or characters out of Harry Potter.
Dr John Dickson is an author and historian and the Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity
This article orginally appeared at The Punch