Back in 1973 I visited Ireland. One pristine autumn morning I found myself at famed Blarney Castle. And, of course, everyone of Irish heritage absolutely must kiss the Blarney Stone! So I climbed the stairs to the uppermost wall, sat, and took hold of the hand rails, and leaned way out and back to add my pucker to that famed stone and receive the gift of eloquence!
Later I learned the legend behind all this blarney. It seems a witch was drowning in a nearby lake. The king happened by in his boat and saved her. She thanked him by blessing a certain stone high up on his castle wall. Anyone who kissed it would receive the gift of eloquence.
All this and I’d kissed the thing! I’d been involved in the occult unknowingly! Blah! I tried to wipe the kiss off (like Lucy when Snoopy kisses her)!
My experience with Halloween has been somewhat like my time at Blarney Castle. Yes, I’ve worn the costumes, enjoyed the trick or treat, groped through haunted houses and carved the pumpkins. Yet lately I’ve become increasingly unsettled about it all. Why? Because of a personal study of Halloween. So, if you will, allow me to share with you my finding.
If one visits the Chesapeake Bay one may wonder where all that water comes from. Actually it has many sources. The Rapidan River, the Rappahannock, James, York and Susquehanah Rivers all flow into the Bay to make it what it is. So with Halloween. What we have today on October 31 is the result of many cultural rivers coming together into a pool.
At least one major source of Halloween lore is the Druid religion. Its center was in the French, English and German regions of northern Europe. Dating before Christ, this religion celebrated November 1 as their new year. Summer was over. The darkness and cold were coming. The people trembled and fretted, worrying that the sun would not return, that there would be no more crops. So, they held a religious celebration to appease the gods.
The Druids made November 1 the first day of the year. They believed that on its eve the God of the dead, Samhain, called together the wicked dead who’d been forced to live in the bodies of animals for the past year. This was the night he decided which body they’d get for the next year.
So as October 31 came, the earth moved closest to the spirit world. Ghosts, witches, monsters, disembodied spirits— the sum of all our fears— began to prowl the earth looking for a new body to possess. People were terrorized. Halloween for them became a night of desperation, of horror.
They lit great bonfires to encourage the sun to return and dispel the darkness. They believed black cats held the spirits of particularly evil people. They dressed like ghosts and witches themselves in order to trick the evil spirts into believing they were already one of them, and so be left alone.
A second big source of lore flowing into the Halloween we know today, comes from Italy. Each year the Romans celebrated the feast of Pomona. The goddess Pomona was lord of fruits, and each year she gave them their grapes, apples, melons, gourds and pumpkins. So in late October the Romans declared a harvest festival with all manner of merriment to thank Pomona.
And of course, a third river flowing in to make Halloween what we know it today is the Irish influence.
Irish pagans believed their dead ancestors returned on October 31 to inhabit their old houses. If one did not placate them the spirts were sure to cause harm. They might burn your barn, cause sickness, even kill your animals. So the Irish would prepare all sorts of feasts with special sweets to “treat” the spirts so they’d be left alone. In short, if you “treated” them, they wouldn’t “trick” you. Hence, today’s “trick or treat!”
From Ireland came our game of bobbing for apples. It was their way of divining the future. If one had good success it meant fortune, marriage, heath and such.
The jack o’lantern also comes to us from Ireland. The legend is that a stingy man was sent to hell. The devil didn’t want to let him in because he was such a practical joker. So Jack, that was his name, had to roam the earth with his lantern until Judgement Day. And on October 31 you can still see his face and sometimes he pulls his pranks on you even now.
Roasting chestnuts is also an Emerald Isle tradition. The Irish put several nuts in the fire, each representing a different choice confronting them. The one that popped first was the choice right for them.
Nut ring cake is also an Irish import. A cake was baked with a ring and a nut in the batter. When it was cut up and served, the guest who got the ring was likely to marry. The one who got the nut was likely to die.
As the gospel of Jesus Christ moved across Europe and made converts it had to take into account the old pagan converts’ holidays and customs. How could the gospel help these people who were so concerned with death, evil, and their ancestors?
The early church came up with “All Saints’ Day,” November 1 of each year. On that day there was preaching about death, heaven, victory over evil, the light of Jesus Christ and the triumph of earlier Christian heroes.
The eve of All Saints’ Day was called the “Eve of all of the hallowed (or holy) ones,” or “All Hallow’ Eve.” It was contracted in slang to “Halloween.” During this church festival all of the saints of history who’d run the great race of faith were remembered with joy, especially those who’d died in the local church in the previous year. Thanksgiving was made for them and God for His triumph over death and taking believers safely to heaven.
Over the centuries All Saints’ Day began to be corrupted. Relics of the dead were placed in churches and prayed to. The doctrine of purgatory was taught, making believers insecure about the well-being of their dead. And indulgences began to be sold by church officials— forgiveness for money, eternal security for a price. Thus a day to remember the dead and celebrate Christ’s victory was corrupted into a day to reverence and even worship the saints, a day to buy indulgences, a time to venerate relics!
By the early 1500’s the Protestant reformers began to step in and loudly protest brazen departures from Scripture. In Germany Martin Luther nailed his disagreements on the door of the church. The date was October 31, 1517. Hence, for Protestants October 31, the Sunday nearest, is called Reformation Sunday and so celebrated as the time we call the church back to God’s Word.
Well, as you can see, all these rivers converge and flow down to us today as Halloween. For most of us Halloween is but a frivolous night of candy, costumes, and chicanery. But for the police it’s become a nightmare of vandalism. Poisoned candy, and firecrackers. And for devil worshipers, it is still their unholiest day, the feast of Samhain.
My question to you and yours to me, is “What do we do?” Shall we kiss this Blarney Stone or spit on it?
Two extremes, I believe, need to be avoided. The first is to simply join in, dress like a horrid demon, buy a $135 mask, visit the haunted house and stick your hand in butcher’s gore, trick or treat door to door, and lay awake at night terrified, only to sleep and dream of vampires, severed hands and hell.
The second extreme is to denounce Halloween as a witches’ brew and do nothing at all.
It’s my wisdom in Christ that there is a healthy middle ground. For people will celebrate. It’s a human need! And it’s up to parents and the church to show how.
A while back my bicycle broke. So I sat down with my bike, my tool box, and my son. “This is a broken bike,” we agreed. “And here are the tools to fix it,” we affirmed. “Let’s get busy and do something about it.” And we did. So now my bicycle works again. From sorrow to joy again. All because of the right tools and some work.
Why not celebrate Halloween in the same spirit? Remind the world that evil is real. In Ephesians 6:12 following, Paul warns that “We wrestle not with flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness…” Satan, the occult, demons are all very real. So why not have a study with your children of the occult in the Bible and history. Saul and the witch at Endor (1 Samuel) is a good place to start.
We can also celebrate Halloween by reminding ourselves that death is real. The statistics of death are quite impressive. One of every one dies. So it’s 100% guaranteed. God even says it is so in Scripture. “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3). Take your child for a walk in an old cemetery. Read the epitaphs. Discuss the various markers. Talk through Jesus’ words in John 14.
And yet another way to celebrate is to remember that Christ is real and He is far more powerful than Satan and death put together! In John 14, Jesus said, “I’m going to die, I will conquer death, build Heaven with space for you, and then I’m going to come and get you!”
So death, evil, sorrow— they are very real. But not to fear! Christ is also real. And He can fix it all if you work with Him.
When I come to October 31, I need to celebrate! The heat of summer is passed, the harvest is in, the trees are in their autumn glory. I want to shout!
And when I think of evil, death, and darkness I flee to Jesus and find light, life, love and goodness! Christ has conquered Satan, risen victorious over death! And I shout Hallelujah!
So, you won’t hear any screams, groans, clanking of chains, or shrieks coming from my house. Instead, I’ll be praising the Lord with hymns of loudest adoration!
And, no, I won’t be dressing as a witch or warlock, some ghastly ghoul. I might dress up like a clown and make merry before the Lord. Or I might even dress up like a hero of the faith and celebrate God’s triumph in Martin Luther, Nicholas of Myra, or the apostle Paul.
And Pomona is no friend of mine. But God is. And I well revel in His bountiful harvest to me! I might carve a face in a pumpkin, go on a hayride, bob for apples, enjoy a bonfire and share some treats with friends.
And why not use Halloween as an opportunity for evangelism? Make up a card that says, “Greetings, trick or treaters! This candy is given you in the name of Jesus Christ! We want you to know He alone conquers evil and death and leads the faithful to a secure relationship with a loving, Holy God. Find out more about Him in His church every Sunday!” You can xerox the card and put it in the bag of all the little ones who come to your house. You can even have praise music playing at the door as you greet them, dress up like an apostle, a cartoon figure. The Lord will show you. Just decide to have a little fun and be a bold witness.
Yes, Halloween may be a witches’ brew. But Jesus Christ is a Savior’s love! Because of this, as Ephesians 5:1,8 says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, walk as children of light.”
Lord, make me a light in all of this. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen!