Ghouls, Ghosts and Goblins

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There's the occasional prank that goes awry, or a sadist who puts razor blades in trick-or-treat candy, but for the most part the American celebration of Halloween seems like fun for everyone. Customs surrounding the holiday range from neighborhood haunted houses to employees at department stores and fast-food restaurants dressing up as witches, monsters and cartoon characters to bobbing for apples and masquerade parties. Variations of these celebrations are observed in Britain, France, Germany and many other nations.

However, some Christians express uneasiness with Halloween's emphasis on witchcraft and demons. Should they?

God refuses to be worshiped with idols or through mingling witchcraft and sorcery into true religion.

Is there something sinister about accepting, even celebrating, the dark side of horror?

Halloween derives its name from the Catholic celebration of All Hallows' or All Saints' Day on Nov. 1. The evening before, Oct. 31, was viewed as merely the "eve" of the same day. But Halloween's origins are more ancient than those of All Saints' Day.

Ancient origins

Centuries before Jesus, the Celtic peoples of Western Europe celebrated Nov. 1 as the feast of Taman, the Celtic new year and a sacred day in honor of the sun god, while they observed the previous evening as the festival of Samhain, the lord of the dead.

The ancient Celts believed that at death the souls of sinners were trapped in the bodies of animals. It was on this day that Samhain judged the dead and could be persuaded to free some departed souls from their animal prisons.

In Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, author Lesley Bannatyne gives this background:

"The festival of Samhain was the most sacred of all Celtic festivals. Its rituals helped link people with their ancestors and the past. The Celts believed that the dead rose on the eve of Samhain and that ancestral ghosts and demons were set free to roam the earth, harm crops and trouble homes. Since spirits were believed to hold the secrets of the afterlife and the future, the priests of the Celts, the Druids, believed that on the eve of Samhain predictions had more power and omens could be read with more clarity" (1998, p. 2).

People dressed up as ghastly ghouls and demons so that wandering spirits would avoid them and refrain from subjecting them to ghostly pranks. Food and drink were placed on doorsteps to placate spirits of lost loved ones.

Nov. 1 was also associated with the coming of shorter winter days and frightening Druid ceremonies. To appease the sun god Bel (identical with the Canaanite Baal of the Bible), sacrifices, especially of horses and sometimes human beings, were offered in the Celtic festival of Taman. During the evening before the Samhain festival, people would build bonfires in an attempt to help fuel the weakening sun and ward off evil spirits.

According to a historical investigation into the origins of popular holidays: "Most of the activities of the Celtic feast, many of which have survived in modified form to this day, can be traced to the fact that it was a New Year's festival. One important example was the fire rite, which occurred in many areas around the world on the night before the New Year. The old fires were allowed to go out and a new fire was kindled—usually a sacred fire, from which the fires of the village were relit ... The fires were thought to rejuvenate the sun and to aid in banishing evil spirits. Often the fires were lit on the hilltops. In fairly recent times the Halloween hilltops fires of the Scots were called Samhnagan, showing the lingering influence of the old god, Samhain" (Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, 1972, pp. 258-259).

When the Romans conquered much of the Celtic lands, they outlawed the human sacrifice associated with Samhain, but they also brought with them the harvest festival of the goddess Pomona, which coincided with Nov. 1. The Romans and Celts mingled customs so that over time the dark veneration of the dead now included a more genial harvest theme.

Masquerading as Christian

Early Christians, following the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus, despised such pagan customs, which they recognized as demonic worship. The apostle Paul, writing to Christians who had come out of paganism and the rituals of sacrificing to idols, reminded them in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21: "... The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons." (Paul's mention of the "cup" and "Lord's table" is a reference to the Passover service of the early Church.)

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, many church leaders began to see acceptance of pagan customs as a means to fill their assemblies with new converts. On May 13, 610, Pope Boniface IV dedicated a pagan Roman temple to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and declared a new holiday to honor Christian martyrs, All Saints' Day. The prayers to a myriad of gods and goddesses, demons and nymphs would be replaced with prayers to dead Christian saints. The pagan custom of worshiping the dead did not cease. It was merely dressed in a new garb.

In the eighth century Pope Gregory III moved All Saints' Day to Nov. 1. Of the decision, Ms. Bannatyne writes, "That the date coincided with Samhain was no accident: the Church was still trying to absorb pagan celebrations taking place at this time ..."

She continues: "Villagers were also encouraged to masquerade on this day, not to frighten unwelcome spirits, but to honor Christian saints. On All Saints' Day, churches throughout Europe and the British Isles displayed relics of their patron saints. Poor churches could not afford genuine relics and instead had processions in which parishioners dressed as saints, angels and devils. This religious masquerade resembled the pagan custom of parading ghosts to the town limits. It served the new church by giving an acceptable Christian basis to the custom of dressing up on Halloween.

"In addition, the Church tried to convince the people that the great bonfires they lit in homage to the sun would instead keep the devil away ..." (pp. 9, 11).

Eventually a second celebration, All Souls' Day, was instituted on Nov. 2. In time these two holidays merged into the present observance on Nov. 1, which was also called All Hallows' Day. The name of All Hallows' Even (Evening) for the night of Oct. 31 eventually evolved into the name Hallowe'en, or Halloween.

Reveling in the dark side

Perhaps the dark side of Halloween is best summed up in a story told in Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, a collection of essays edited by Jack Santino, about a "Safe Halloween" party held in the city hall of Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Writer Bill Ellis states: "The core of Halloween remains on some level unchanged: the seasons still slip from life to death. Hence this holiday, more than any other, will continue to generate legend about the fear of death. And if the new customs reveal an intense generational conflict over who should own this holiday, the last word will always belong to the child:

"'Are you a clown?' a reporter asked one child at the Hazelton City Hall's 'Safe Halloween' party.

"'A killer clown,' the eight year old replied'" (1994, pp. 39-40).

The Old Testament relates the story of how God chose the descendants of Abraham to be His special people. Given laws to govern society and worship, they became a confederation of 12 tribes. Over the centuries they eventually divided into two nations—the northern kingdom known as Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.

In the eighth century B.C., the Bible tells us, God allowed the northern kingdom of Israel to be destroyed by the Assyrians. In 2 Kings 17:16-18 God explains why He withdrew His protection: "So they left all the commandments of the Lord their God, made for themselves a molded image and two calves, made a wooden image and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. And they caused their sons and daughters to pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and soothsaying, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them from His sight; there was none left but the tribe of Judah alone."

The Creator refuses to be worshiped with idols or through mingling witchcraft and sorcery into true religion (see Deuteronomy 12:29-32). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became flesh, was sacrificed for humanity's rebellion against God and was resurrected to eternal glory.

The New Testament book of Hebrews proclaims: "Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood [that is, as human beings have lived human lives], He Himself [Jesus Christ] likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Hebrews 2:14-15, emphasis added). Jesus came to free all who will worship God in truth from the slavery of demonic paganism, especially that associated with the fear of death.

Halloween has nothing in common with the true light God gives to human beings. Instead it has everything in common with the bondage of Satan, the fear of death and the darkness of evil. There is a better way—the truly biblical way of life—preached and practiced by Christ. Let's come out of the paganism and other errant ways of this world.