Well, it’s October. You wouldn’t know it by how hot it still gets in our great state, or how green the trees are. But fall is here, nonetheless. And Halloween follows with it! If you’ve stepped foot in an HEB or Home Depot any time after the fourth of July, you’ve felt the slow creep of Halloween in all its fake cobwebs and colourful skulls. Personally, I love Halloween . . . I really do! While I don’t like horror movies (they’re scary) or candy corn (it’s chalky and vile), I love that Halloween is a creepy celebration of the year’s winding down, coming to a close, the world settling in for the winter.
There are two popular opinions about Halloween, and both are misguided: the first is more common and approving of the holiday. This camp holds that Halloween is great because it’s freakish and occult, and there really aren’t any other holidays like that, except April Fool’s Day (maybe, if you’re committed enough to the bit). To those holding this opinion, Halloween is a unique time to embrace the dark side of life. The second opinion is more commonly held by many Christians these days who disapprove of the holiday. They insist upon not celebrating Halloween due to its supposed connections to the demonic–they see people dressing up like demons and decorating their houses with bones or pentagrams and assume that the holiday itself is unholy. The amount of Baylor students that refuse to celebrate Halloween shocked me my first year here.
I argue these two views presume incorrectly the nature of Halloween. To vindicate our beloved Halloween, we must first ask the question: what was Halloween originally about in the first place?
Etymologically, Halloween is a sort of contraction of All Hallows’ Eve. The Scots got rid of the v in eve, added an n, and combined hallow and eve, making it Hallowe’en. Hallow is an archaic English word for holy, and although it has fallen out of use, it’s where we get the adjective hallowed.
Historically, Halloween is the first day of a three-day-long series of a vigil and two feast days called Allhallowtide, which comprises Halloween on the 31st of October, All Saints’ Day on the first of November, and All Souls’ Day on the second. Allhallowtide has fallen out of fashion among many Christians, having waned both in comparison to Christmas and Easter, and facing a negative swing in popular opinion surrounding the holiday. But Allhallowtide is a period of time with a feast and a vigil, just like Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, or the days from Good Friday to Easter. The day after Halloween is Hallowmas, or the feast day of all the saints. In fact, if Christmas Eve followed the same etymological pattern as Halloween, we’d be calling it Christeen (or, something along those lines). On the second day of November is All Souls’ Day, the final day of the feast, in which Christians remember the ordinary departed–not the saints and martyrs who, with grand gestures, dedicated their lives to the Church—but regular people.
This all sounds wonderful to me, so how did Halloween get the bad rap? Just as Christmas has been influenced by the old Roman holiday of the rebirth of Sol Invictus, their Sun god, and carries with it themes of birth, light, and renewal, so too has Halloween been influenced by ancient pagan holidays that occur at the same time of the year which celebrate death and conjure the idea of a veil between this life and the next growing thin. Some scholars say Halloween has connections to the Celtic holiday of Samhain, a seasonal festival about the end of the season of the harvest and beginning of a dark winter. On the vigil before the Day of the Dead, practitioners were indeed vigilant, adopting disguises so that the souls of the dead would pass them by unharmed before celebrating the lives of the saints the next day. This snowballed over time from celebration of the dead into ideas of occultism and Satanism in today’s world, and we ended up with some of the views on Halloween we know today–not a solemn vigil before a major liturgical feast day, but a pointed rejection of religion. This is, of course, not to say that trick-or-treating, hanging cobwebs, gorging on candy, and dressing up like your favorite axe-murderer is bad. It is, instead, that arguments pointed towards the infernal gravity of these traditions–be they for or against–hold no power over a person versed in the holiday’s rich history.
This whole history lecture is all to say that there is no reason a Christian ought to reject Halloween based on how it is perceived by the many. As we keep the Christ in Christmas, so too can we keep the hallowed in Halloween. Liturgically, it is the vigil day that precedes the celebration of the lives of the saints and recognition of their martyrdom. The inclination to be averse to death and the occult should not discourage us from exploring ideas that are uncomfortable and celebrating the history of our religion. The aversion to death is understandable. It is that final, gaping maw which Christ himself died to conquer. Christians celebrate life’s triumph over death,so it’s no surprise that a day recognizing death might makes us uncomfortable. And yet. Allhallowtide, shrouded as it is in historical mystery and out of style as it may be, has a lesson for us: death is ever near, and we, too, shall die. Evil exists, and we ought to be vigilant of it. Halloween is a night of spiritual asceticism and contemplation, a night in which we are to heed well the end of life, before spending the next two days celebrating all the dead–ordinary as well as extraordinary. On Halloween, we remember the terror of death, that greatest and most final of unknowns. But the very next day, we celebrate that on account of Christ, death did not, and cannot, have the last word, and we relish in the promise of eternal life thereafter. And I promise that buying a plastic skeleton, posing it in the corner of your house, and naming it Hank is not letting the devil have the final word, no matter what anybody says. Trust me.