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Halloween: A Celebration of Darkness
What must an unfamiliar observer think of Halloween? Parents dress their children as monsters, vampires, devils, witches and ghosts and encourage them to approach total strangers and ask them for candy and other treats. Home owners decorate their houses with images of black cats, ghosts, goblins and carved pumpkins and sometimes transform their yards into make-believe graveyards. Adults dress in similar strange and outlandish costumes and go to parties in rooms decorated like dungeons or crypts.
Why are such bizarre practices so popular? Why would anyone celebrate a holiday emphasizing the morbid and macabre? Where did such strange customs originate?
As with Christmas and Easter, we can trace the roots of Halloween far back into the pagan past. By medieval times Nov. 1 had been established as All Saints' Day. The evening before, Oct. 31, became Allhallows Eve, or Halloween, as it is known today.
The Encyclopedia of Religion says, "Halloween, or Allhallows Eve, is a festival celebrated on 31 October, the evening prior to the Christian Feast of All Saints (All Saints' Day). Halloween is the name for the eve of Samhain, a celebration marking the beginning of winter as well as the first day of the New Year within the ancient Celtic culture of the British Isles. The time of Samhain consisted of the eve of the feast and the day itself (31 October and 1 November)" (1987, p. 176, "Halloween").
Besides Halloween, the Celts observed many other holidays including the winter solstice (later transformed into Christmas); spring fertility rites (reborn later as Easter); May Day as a harvest festival; Feb. 2 as Candlemas, the supposed day of Jesus' presentation in the temple and the purification of Mary; and Lammas, a harvest festival on Aug. 1. In the United States Candlemas persists in Groundhog Day.
Concerning Halloween The Encyclopedia of Religion continues:
"On this occasion, it was believed that a gathering of supernatural forces occurred as during no other period of the year. The eve and day of Samhain were characterized as a time when the barriers between the human and supernatural worlds were broken. Otherworldly entities, such as the souls of the dead, were able to visit earthly inhabitants, and humans could take the opportunity to penetrate the domains of the gods and supernatural creatures.
"Fiery tributes and sacrifices of animals, crops, and possibly human beings were made to appease supernatural powers who controlled the fertility of the land . . . Samhain acknowledged the entire spectrum of nonhuman forces that roamed the earth during the period" (pp. 176-177).
On this holiday "huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits . . . The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favourable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol. IV, p. 862, "Halloween").
Ancient practices continued today
As with Christmas and Easter, church leaders adopted this ancient celebration to serve their own purposes. "Samhain remained a popular festival among the Celtic people throughout the christianization of Great Britain. The British church attempted to divert this interest in pagan customs by adding a Christian celebration to the calendar on the same date as Samhain. The Christian festival, the Feast of All Saints, commemorates the known and unknown saints of the Christian religion just as Samhain had acknowledged and paid tribute to the Celtic deities" (The Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 177, "Halloween").
Several ancient Halloween practices still exist in modern observances. Bobbing for apples was originally a form of divination (fortune telling) to learn of future marriages. The first person to bite an apple was predicted to be the first to marry in the coming year. Peeling apples was considered a way to determine one's life span. The longer the peel, the longer one would live. The jack-o-lantern, now a hollowed-out pumpkin with a demonic face carved in it and containing a lighted candle, was originally a similarly devised turnip (pumpkins were substituted when the Irish immigrants came to the United States) representing a watchman on Halloween night or a man caught between earth and the supernatural world.
The modern Christmas myth of Santa flying through the air also has a connection with the supernatural phenomena associated with Halloween. "Historically, beliefs about mythic Norse spirits and deities who flew through the air to gather souls and reward heroes influenced the Celtic fairy lore and witch lore that became a part of Halloween, and they also contributed to the development of the flying Father Christmas figure we know as Santa Claus, with his furs and his northern European reindeer" (Jack Santino, All Around the Year: Holidays & Celebrations in American Life, 1994, p. 26).
The Bible condemns the occult
Although some may dismiss the demonic symbolism and divination associated with Halloween as harmless fun, the Bible reveals the existence of evil spirits, led by Satan the devil, whom God holds responsible for the great suffering and sorrow they have inflicted on the human race. Revelation 12:9 speaks of "the great dragon . . . that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan . . . [who] deceives the whole world . . ."
The name given him in the Bible, Satan, means adversary or enemy. The Bible warns us that our adversary "walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8).
The apostle John tells us that "the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:19). Satan and the other fallen angels (demons) constantly try to keep humanity spiritually blinded, turning them aside from their awesome destiny as part of the family of God (request our free booklet What Is Your Destiny? for an explanation of this incredible biblical truth).
As a loving Father, God commands us to avoid things that can harm us. Concerning the spirit world, notice what God says to His people: "Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:31).
In addition to this command to avoid practices that pertain to evil spirits, God warned ancient Israel to avoid any kind of occult practices. "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives [the nations] out from before you" (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
God has called His people to a different standard. Instead of superstitions and myths, God tells us to look to Him for our blessings, direction and future. Superstition and consorting with evil spirits was a serious matter in ancient Israel with dire consequences (Leviticus 20:27).
God's love and commands apply to all. Saul, king of Israel, lost his life when he disregarded God's instructions. "So Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance" (1 Chronicles 10:13).
Modern celebrations of Halloween may appear on the surface to be quite harmless, but the spiritual implications of dabbling with the spirit world are extremely serious. Fortune-telling, Ouija boards, telepathy, astrology, voodoo, clairvoyance, black magic and such can all be related to occult, satanic forces or the worship of natural phenomena and are forbidden in Scripture.
Jesus Christ tells us that "the first and greatest commandment" is to love our Creator "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37-38). God alone is the giver of life and all good things. To give recognition to false gods, and to imitate practices that honored them, is unacceptable and idolatrous.
©2002 United Church of God, an International Association