It’s easy to imagine malevolent forces at work when you’re out on a chilly fall night, listening to the wind moan through the leafless trees, and watching the shadows shift in the moonlight. In earlier times, when life was short and death came in many often unexpected ways—when the food you produced in the growing season had to sustain you through dark, cold months of winter—people took every precaution.
It was in just such a world that the various customs we associate with Halloween were born.
October 31 seems a strange time for a celebration. In the Northern Hemisphere, where the observance of Halloween originated, it’s often a time of biting winds and chilling rains. The leaves have fallen from the trees, taking with them fall’s last vivid colors, leaving an almost monochrome landscape of somber grays and browns. When I read Edgar Allen Poe’s description of a “dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens,” it reminds me of Halloween.
This seems a strange time for celebration—and we truly do celebrate it strangely. Grotesquely grinning pumpkins, their snaggletooth smiles illuminated by candles flickering in the swirling autumn winds; apples, either floating in water to be seized with one’s teeth or coated with caramel and mounted on a popsicle stick; children in bizarre costumes roaming the neighborhoods, seeking sweets to deter any mischief on their part—a sort of mini Mafia “protection” racket.
All this mixed together with horror stories about ghouls and ghosts, goblins and monsters, and things that go bump in the night. How did such a strange mixture come about?
As it turns out, what we call Halloween is, indeed, a mixture of various customs, tales, and notions of times past. The roots of Halloween go back to Europe, especially to Ireland. On that green island, October 31 falls around the end of harvest-time. In other words, Halloween was originally a sort of Irish Thanksgiving! Just as we commonly associate the spring as a time of rebirth and new life, it’s easy to associate the fall harvest (the end of the growing cycle) and the stormy days of fall with approaching death. Darkness and death in turn are easy to associate with the devil. So it shouldn’t surprise us that all of those things get mixed up into what we now consider Halloween.
Spirits of the dead
For many, the original purposes of the various Halloween customs seem quaint, superstitious, and out of step with our scientific view of the world. One idea that survives is the notion of ghosts—spirits of the dead. Even many Bible-believing Christians believe that when people die, their disembodied spirits live on. However, this idea comes, not from the Bible, but from ancient Greece. Over time, theologians trained in Greek philosophy began looking for evidence of this separation of body and spirit in the Bible. But taken on its own terms, the Bible teaches the opposite.
Genesis tells us that God “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The term living being comes from the Hebrew word nephesh, which means “that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of man.” Notice the wording. When God imparted the breath of life, Adam “became a living being.” God didn’t inject a “soul” into Adam’s body. Rather, Adam became a soul when God gave him life.
“Wait a minute!” you might say. “Doesn’t the Bible say that when a person dies, his spirit returns to God?” Yes, Ecclesiastes 12:7 tells us that “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” The word spirit in this verse is a translation of the Hebrew word ruach, which means “wind” or “breath.” Thus, this passage describes the exact opposite of what happened in Genesis. There, the breath from God entered the man he had formed from the dust of the ground, and Adam became a living being. But when a person dies, the breath and dust separate— and the “living soul” ceases to exist. This matches what the Bible tells us about the dead.
Ecclesiastes also tells us that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5), and the psalmist describes death as “the land of oblivion” (Psalm 88:12). So if the dead don’t know anything, they cannot at the same time be praising God in heaven.
The strange celebration of Halloween reminds us of how anxiety over the future, our normal fear of death, and the forces of evil can cause people to undertake almost any remedy, no matter how unusual. Those who trust in Christ can be thankful at such a time that we need neither bonfires nor grinning lanterns nor offerings of food to keep evil at bay.
Does this mean that our lives will be trouble free? Of course not! Jesus told us, “ ‘In this world you will have trouble.’ ” And we all do. But then He added, “ ‘Take heart! I have overcome the world’ ” (John 16:33).
The Irish Celts warded off evil with “head-shaped” vegetables, such as potatoes or turnips, placed as ornaments on the exteriors of their dwellings. In America, the larger, easier to carve, and more common pumpkin became the vegetable of choice.
The jack-o’-lantern arose from the legend of “Stingy Jack,” a variation on the tale of some poor fellow destined to roam the world forever, like the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew. According to the story, Stingy Jack was a hard-boiled character who trapped the devil by tricking him into climbing a tree and then carved a cross on the trunk to keep him there. The devil retaliated by cursing Stingy Jack to wander the earth with the only light he happened to have at the time: a hollowed out turnip with a candle inside. And so “Stingy Jack” became “Jack-of-the-lantern,” or— with the apostrophe filling in for the missing letters—“Jack-o’-lantern.”
Like everything else about Halloween, trick-or-treating consists of a mixture of various superstitions and customs. Many ancient cultures associated darkness with the spirits of the departed and took measures to pacify them or ward them off.
Two such customs come to play in trick-or-treating. One involved leaving offerings of food outside doors at night to pacify the spirits. Another involved wearing a disguise when going out at night to confuse any malevolent spirits. This evolved into people in costumes essentially impersonating evil forces who agreed to leave a home unharmed in exchange for some food. Saying, “trick-or-treat” simply makes that exchange explicit. And these days, the exchange takes place in a spirit of good fun.
Why October 31?
For ancient Celts of Ireland and parts of Europe, November 1 marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of winter, a time often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before—October 31—a gathering of supernatural forces occurred and the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On that night, they celebrated the festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
With the spread of Christianity, November 1 was designated as All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs in an attempt to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but Christian, holy day. The celebration was called All-Hallows and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.