By Ronald Bartanen
It’s that time of year again—the approach of my least-favorite holiday, Halloween, a contraction for “All Hallow’s Evening.” Many scholars believe it to be a Christianized version of Celtic harvest festivals and other pagan festivals. Others disagree, believing it to have solely Christian roots. The Celtic-view suggests its origin to have been in the Roman festival of Pomona , , goddess of fruit and seeds, which was observed at the end of summer, on or about Oct. 31-Nov. 1. At such festivals the souls of the deceased were invited to attend, places even being set for them at the table. Evil spirits were warded off by such fall customs as bonfires and what we know as jack-o-lanterns. The latter in those early days were not made from pumpkins, however, but from turnips, with grotesque faces representing evil spirits or goblins, and sometimes the souls of the dead. Those holding to more Christian origins believe these were used to scare witches, reminding them of their future punishment in hell. The wearing of costumes (“guising”) began to be practiced in English-speaking countries in the 18th century, as children and adults would sometimes go from house to house in guise, singing songs in exchange for food or cakes. Such customs did not make their way to North America until the late 18th and early 19th century. The Puritans were strongly opposed to such customs. It was not until early in the 20th century that Halloween was popularized. I recall wearing a Halloween mask and going to houses, accompanied by my parents, while living in my earlier years in Indianapolis , which would have been possibly 1939.
While some debate the origin of the holiday—whether pagan or Christian—some churches use the day as an opportunity for religious celebration and activities. Some visit graveyards, placing flowers and candles on the graves of loved ones. In Poland , believers pray aloud while walking through the forests to give comfort to the souls of the dead, while in Spain priests ring church bells as a reminder to congregants to remember the dead. Some observe the season as a time for fasting and prayer. Some Protestants observe it as Reformation Day, inasmuch as Martin Luther chose this day to nail his Ninety-Nine Thesis to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg . Sometimes children dress as Bible characters and Reformers. Many take advantage of the season to include tracts as children go trick-or-treating.
Some Christians fear the day trivializes, or even celebrates, such things as paganism and the occult. Orthodox Jews, as well as many Christians, resist observance of such customs on the basis of Leviticus 18:3, in which God’s people were warned against observing the traditions or customs of the Egyptians.
One thing is sure: Halloween has everything to do with death, witches, skulls, graveyards, etc., and nothing to do with life. Perhaps it could be said its only benefit would be to remind us of the reality of a fearsome realm of evil, of which we must beware. Jesus, however, glorifies life, not death. He is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He said, “I am come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10), laying down His life for us, and taking it up again in His resurrection (vs. 17-18). Every day, for the believer, is a celebration—not of death, but of life in Jesus Christ.
- Ronald Bartanen is a retired minister who for many years served the Lord's church in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee. He may be contacted at: email@example.com