And now for something completely different…maybe…
November 1 is one of the oldest holidays, being in existence longer than Christendom. Originally, the first day of November was celebrated by the Celtic people as the first day of the new year. Some suggest that this celebration was held to honor the sun god and included rituals of fortune-telling, the appearance of ghosts, and a number of other supernatural occurrences. The Celtic people believed that when a person passed away, they were born into the Otherworld. On the night before Samhain, the barrier between this world and the other world became very thin, allowing the inhabitants of the Otherworld to enter our own, thus the appearance of ghosts, etc. It is also possible that since the days were getting shorter, people believed that evil was triumphing over the sun god and persecuting humanity. In order to combat this, large bonfires were lit at night. Even the pagan empire of Rome blended local Samhain customs with their own pagan harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of the orchard.
Many years later, after Christianity had been accepted as the state religion of Rome, a number of events occurred which offer something to the tale of Halloween. On May 13, 615 CE Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to all of the saints that had been martyred for their faith. The previously pagan temple became known as the Church of the Blessed Virgin and All Martyrs. By the 7th Century, May 13 became known as “All Saints Day” and soon grew into a large Christian celebration with many people gathering at the Pantheon to celebrate it every year. Unfortunately May 13 was not a good time of the year for providing a large crowd with food and with so many people attending the celebration, there wasn’t enough food for the feast. Therefore, in 844 CE or 835 CE Pope Gregory IV moved the feast to November 1, presumably for two reasons. The first reason was due to the abundant food supply that the fall harvest would offer. The second reason relied upon Church policy. It was the strategy of the church to supplant pagan celebrations with Christian observances. This way, they did not have to take away an already established celebration, remember that during these years, life was difficult and celebrations were one of the few things that the people had to look forward to. This same policy was observed when December 25 was chosen as the celebration of Christ’s birth. By the late middle ages, November 1 was accepted as All Saints Day and since the Celtic People tended to celebrate the evening before a holiday, October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve or as we call it today Halloween.
Unfortunately the celebration of All Hallows Eve had blended together with the celebration of Samhain in such a way as to blend the Christian celebration with pagan ones, another thing that Halloween shares with Christmas.
So what do we do with Halloween? In recent years it has become popular to celebrate harvest parties instead of Halloween, but is this the best option? To celebrate a harvest party instead of a Halloween party suggests that there is something wrong with the name “Halloween”, but we have seen that this name is probably the most Christian aspect of the entire celebration. Furthermore, celebrating the “harvest” is closer to the Roman pagan celebrations than celebrating the Saints. In fact, many scholars suggest that the game of bobbing for apples or biting at apples swinging on a string comes directly from the Roman festival of Pomona. True, it can be said that we are not celebrating the harvest, but rather the God who brings the harvest, but that is also what the ancients claimed. Of course they were celebrating the “gods” who brought the harvest while we are celebrating the “God” who brings the harvest. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but do we then have to discard the holiday of Halloween? Or is there a better option?
A second option might be to boycott Halloween, close our eyes to it, pretend that it doesn’t exist or that it will go away if we ignore it. We know that this approach doesn’t work, because Christians have been trying this for a long time and Halloween is still with us. Perhaps there is a third option.
Perhaps it is time for us as Christians to be assertive and reclaim the Christian significance of Halloween. Perhaps it is time that Halloween became a true holiday once again. Christians throughout history have risked their lives to believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Anabaptists we are especially aware of the dangers that were involved in this. We have a “rich” history of saints who have gone on before us and sacrificed their lives because they believed that integrity was essential to our faith. What better time to remember those saints who were martyred for our faith than a holiday that was specifically designed for this reason. As Anabaptists we have much reason to embrace Halloween. It is the time that we can remember our spiritual fathers who died for their faith. The name Dirck Willems jumps immediately to my mind, but the unfortunate fact that no other names come to mind reinforces the importance that Halloween holds today. I am not suggesting that we celebrate Samhain, this is the pagan part of Halloween that no Christian wants to be involved in, but rather truly celebrating Halloween or All Hallows Eve.
As a people of faith, how might we reclaim Halloween? How might we remember and celebrate Christ during Halloween without discarding the holiday?
For a good resource on celebrating Christ during Halloween or any other holiday, read Martha Zimmerman, Celebrating the Christian Year (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1994).
 Dates are not always clear when referring to this topic. One source suggests 835 CE while another suggests 844 CE.