In the United States, Halloween has become one of the most popular unofficial holidays. On the up side, retail sales boost the economy around this holiday, especially as people start their Christmas shopping: 1
Sales in U.S. dollars
On the down side, the holiday has become a time of increased crime in many places (especially arson and other acts of violence) on Halloween night as well as the night before. Even the author’s house was robbed one Halloween by forced entry. So, although the retail industry loves Halloween, many police officers and insurance companies dread it! Of course, there is also a tremendous amount of occult activity associated with this holiday.
Kids and even many adults love getting dressed-up for Halloween. And they love the candy, of course. It’s just innocent fun, isn’t it? But let’s think carefully and biblically about the history, nature, and impact of the holiday.
When did this holiday begin and why? Was it of pagan origins or is there something more behind it? How should Christians view this day in general? To understand these questions further, we need to go back to the roots of Halloween.
When Did Modern-day Halloween Get Started?
In the early 1900s, the migrating Irish and Scots brought Halloween traditions to the United States. Over time, Halloween catapulted into mainstream culture.
The holiday, though, has roots reaching much further back. Some researchers claim that the holiday can be traced back about 2,000 years to the Celts of Europe, who occupied what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. It was a pagan festival called “Samhain” (pronounced “sow-in”) that celebrated more or less the honor of the dead and involved the offering of large sacrifices of crops and animals. 2
Although no original written accounts of this festival exist today from the ancient Celts, there is some reference to it in Roman records from when the Romans conquered Celtic lands around AD 43. With Roman rule, the day of Samhain was influenced by Roman festivals of the time. The first was called “Pomona,” which was a type of harvest festival, and the next was “Feralia,” the Roman day of the dead. Interestingly, both Feralia and Samhain were festivals of the dead and celebrated at the end of October. 3
The Name “Halloween”
Around AD 600, Pope Boniface IV created All Saints’ Day, and Pope Gregory III later moved this holiday to November 1 in an effort to give a Christian alternative to this pagan celebrations. 4 Christians who did not want to celebrate pagan festivals celebrated something of positive spiritual value—in this case honoring the saints and martyrs. With the overwhelming expansion of Christianity in Europe, All Saint’s Day became the dominant holiday. 5
In fact, the current name of “Halloween” originates from the day before All Saint’s Day, which was called “All Hallow Evening”; this name was shortened to “All Hallow’s Eve” or “All Hallow’s Even.” The name changed over time and became “Hallowe’en”.
A couple hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church made November 2 All Souls Day to honor the dead. This may well have been influenced by the continued persistence of the day of the dead by the ancient Irish, Scots, and others in Europe. Today many Christians celebrate October 31 as Reformation Day in honor of reformers such as Martin Luther, who spearheaded the Reformation in the early 1500s.
Other Cultures Have a “Day of the Dead”
Although many claim Samhain as the origin of modern-day Halloween, it is significant to note how many cultures throughout the world have celebrated a “day of the dead” (often with sacrifices), occurring at the end of summer and fall. There seem to be too many parallels to call these similar celebrations a coincidence.
For example, in the Americas there is the Mexican Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) that goes back to the ancient festival of the dead celebrated by Aztecs and the more-ancient Olmec. This was likely where the Guatemalans get their Day of the Dead. Brazilians also celebrate Finados (Day of the Dead). Bolivia has the Day of the Skulls (Día de los natitas). 6
In Asia, there are similar festivals. For example, the Chinese celebrated the Ghost Festival, which was a day to pay homage to dead ancestors. The Japanese celebrated something similar called O-bon or merely Bon. Even Vietnam has a variant of the Ghost Festival called Tet Trung Nguyen. In Korea, there is Chuseok or Hankawi, in which deceased ancestors are ritualized. In Nepal, there is the cow pilgrimage called Gia Jatra to honor the recently deceased. In the Philippines, there is the Day of the Dead (Araw ng mga Patay), where tombs are cleaned and repainted. The list can go on and on (see reference 4).
The annual Jewish holiday of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is celebrated in the fall, usually September or October. 7 But it is distinctly different in purpose. It is not in honor of the dead. Rather it deals with soul searching, repentance, and is a time of great sacrifice for the sins of the people (Leviticus 23:27). Though the origin of this date, specifically for the Israelites, can be traced to Moses, the day may well have been chosen by God going back to previous events, as famous Bible chronicler Archbishop Ussher pointed out (the approximate day Adam and Eve sinned, according to Ussher’s calculations, and God’s subsequent covering of their nakedness with animal skins). 8
What Is the Original Source for Halloween?
It seems no coincidence that cultures all around the world in both present and ancient times have had a holiday when the dead were remembered and animals were sacrificed. If cultures around the world have had this, it is one additional argument for there being a time when all the peoples of the world lived together. Otherwise, it seems strange and difficult to explain how these cultures developed celebrations that are so similar. This would likely push the true origin of “Halloween” to the time before the dispersion at Babel (Genesis 11) over 4,200 years ago, after which different early cultures began to vary in its practice.
According to Archbishop Ussher, the timeframe between these events was about 106 years, with the Flood ending in 2348 BC and the dispersion occurring about 2242 BC. 9 In this timeframe, Noah would have still been alive, and Noah’s sons, too. We are not given much information in Genesis about the wives of Noah or his three sons, but Noah’s son’s wives were busy having children after the Flood, producing a total of 16 grandsons for Noah.
There have been several reasons suggested for so many cultures having a day of the dead.
Were the days celebrated in honor of an ancestor or group of ancestors after they died? Perhaps the day was to celebrate at the time when a great patriarch or matriarch of a given family that left Babel finally died. The death of a great ancestor would happen to each culture sooner or later. But the odds of most of them dying in the late summer/fall is very low; therefore, it would be more difficult to explain the holidays all being at about that time.
Was it a harvest festival of grains and animals, which were prepared for winter, thereby signifying death? Then, later was this festival transformed spiritually to honor the dead? This might explain the sacrifice of animals and why the holidays occur in the fall. But it fails to address why each culture deviated toward a spiritual day of the dead. Also, this doesn’t make sense for cultures that are in the southern hemisphere, where September and October are spring, not harvest time.
Did Noah’s wife die soon after the Flood and this day honored her? By the time Ham had fathered Canaan and sinned against Noah (which was before the dispersion at Babel), Noah’s wife is not mentioned, and Japheth and Shem were left with the task of covering their father’s nakedness after he got drunk and lay uncovered in his tent (Genesis 9:20–27). One would suspect that Noah’s wife should have had this responsibility, but she is nowhere mentioned. Had Noah’s wife died fairly early prior to Babel, this well-known matriarch’s death would have been remembered by each culture after the dispersion at Babel. But there is no mention or reference to a great woman, which would be expected if this were the case. 10
Did Satan, the one who comes to kill and steal and destroy (John 10:10), move throughout all the pagan cultures after the dispersion to develop these days of the dead? Though this is possible, it seems Satan would almost have to have an omnipresence and omnipotence about him do such a thing. And although Satan would like us to think he has these attributes of God, he doesn’t.
Was it a day to remember those who died in the Flood and a continuation of the sacrifices that Noah made after coming off the Ark? Because the celebrations call for the remembrance of the dead and have sacrifices, it is reminiscent of the large sacrifice that Noah and his family performed after the Flood. This would also explain why many other cultures have a variant of this regular sacrifice. When Noah and his family exited the Ark, they offered sacrifices to God (Genesis 8:18–9:1); of course, deviations in the manner of this sacrifice over the years and its meaning would have varied down through the ages. Based on the evidence, this seems to be the most likely explanation.
Other Christians in the past have recognized this connection. For example, Alfred Rehwinkel, a professor of theology at Concordia Seminary, realized that nations throughout the world had a similar day of the dead, and he directly related this to the Flood of Noah’s day. 11 John Urquhart pointed this out as far back as 1931. 12
The many varied accounts of celebrations of the day of the dead around the world strongly suggest that its origin was a time when people groups were still gathered together or had closer ties. Is the event of Noah’s sacrifice where the day of the dead really originates? It was a time when there was a sacrifice to cover sins and a reminder why death reigns in this sin-cursed world. It was a spiritual time, a time when people remembered that a sudden disaster, a global Flood, took virtually the entire population because of sin. Consider Noah for a moment: he even lost brothers and sisters in the Flood—the grief would have been overwhelming (Genesis 5:30). Halloween’s roots could easily extend this far, but there should be no dogmatism about that being the case.
Proper sacrifices in the Bible were associated with sin and death. This goes back to the first sacrifice in Genesis 3:21 when the first two humans (Adam and Eve) sinned against God. The Bible says that the punishment for sin is death (Romans 6:23; Hebrews 9:22). Due to their sin, Adam and Eve were ashamed of their nakedness. So, God made coats of animal skins to cover their nakedness. God sacrificed animals to cover this sin.
In a fashion similar to God, Abel offered sacrifices from his flocks (Genesis 4:4), and Noah did the same after the Flood. Later the Israelites did this as well, giving sin offerings of lambs, doves, etc. as God commanded. But the blood of animals is not enough to remove sin; it is only enough to cover it temporarily (Hebrews 10:4): finite animals could never really take the infinite punishment from an infinite God. These instances of sacrificing animals were foreshadowing Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God—who, as the perfect infinite sacrifice on the cross, fully paid for our sins so that everyone who trusts in Him will be saved and given eternal life.
With most of the celebrations of the “days of the dead,” sacrifices were involved. This suggests that cultures around the world understood this concept of sacrificing to God to cover sins. A Christian should expect this, since all people groups have descended from those at Babel. So, logically, when people migrated to different parts of the world after God confused their language, they took the concept of sacrifice with them. Of course, their methods and meaning of sacrifice changed and varied over the years, and the true intent was lost.
This can be used as a tool for Christians to share the good news of Jesus Christ. By showing the true meaning of what sacrifices are and showing that Jesus was the final, perfect sacrifice, making sacrifices of animals no longer necessary. Sin and death (which sacrifice was a continual reminder of all the way back to Adam) have been conquered by the Son of God, and the free gift of salvation is now offered. If the days of the dead really have their roots in Noah’s sacrifices, then consider this: the Lord has even given the command to Christians to celebrate in remembrance of this final sacrifice—it is called the Lord’s Supper. Paul says: and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24–25)
The Evils of Modern-day Halloween and What a Christian Can Do
It should be obvious from a Christian perspective that many modern practices of Halloween and days of the dead have evil intent. There has been considerable paganism that has been associated with Halloween over the years. Even evil acts such as vandalism, fires, destructive pranks, pretending people are something they are not by dressing up, particularly by glorification of sensuality, death, and demons, etc. are painfully in opposition to the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19–23). So, a word of caution must be given to Evangelicals who promote the questionable modern practices of Halloween.
If anything, an alternative in opposition to Halloween should be offered by Christians. Psalm 24:1 points out that everything belongs to the Lord. Therefore, there is no reason to let Satan have Halloween. It is not his day in the first place. When Satan tried tempting Jesus, he offered Jesus something that was not his to offer (Matthew 4:8—all the kingdoms of the world). Jesus obviously didn’t succumb because it wasn’t Satan’s to give, nor did Satan exercise any authority over Him. Many today believe that Halloween is Satan’s day and recommend staying away from it. But recognizing such a thing would be to disregard that Satan owns nothing and that all days belong to God. Christians can take this day and make better use of it, such as by celebrating Reformation Day, a Harvest festival of praise for a God who provides, an extra day of communion to remember Christ’s sacrifice, and so on (Colossians 2:15).
So where do you go from here? Please encourage your pastors and elders to have some sort of church function to counter modern practices of Halloween. Of course, one of the only nice things that Halloween really has to offer could also be involved—sweet treats (in moderation of course)!
If a Christian alternative is not possible in your location, then take advantage of this opportunity to share with people the message of the gospel and how Jesus Christ has conquered death and the forgiveness that can only be found in God when you greet “trick or treaters.”
Death is a terrible reality for all of us—not something to celebrate or treat as fun. Death is the punishment for sin. Since all of us are sinners (Romans 3:23), we must realize that death is coming. But God is a God of grace and mercy, and in His love He has offered a means of salvation through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died the ultimate death in our place. All who believe can receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)