I’ve had several articles come across my desk this week on why Christians in China shouldn’t celebrate Halloween. As an American who pastors an international church in China, I’d like to offer an explanation with some theological, pastoral, and personal thoughts on this (largely) Western holiday. I hope that this will help clarify certain issues for everyone involved and lead to healthy, constructive conversation moving forward.
At the outset let me be clear about two things.
First, I have no interest whatsoever in convincing anyone that they should celebrate Halloween. My goal here isn’t to provide a defense for an American observance simply because I happen to be an American. I can think of a number of reasons why someone in China—Christian or otherwise—wouldn’t do anything differently on October 31st than on October 30th. Must Chinese Christians celebrate Halloween? Of course not. Should they celebrate it? Not necessarily. Can they celebrate it? Well, that’s what we’ll cover below.
Second, my goal is not to encourage a laissez faire attitude regarding Halloween. An uncritical approach that doesn’t consider our cultural observances in light of Scripture is incredibly dangerous. That applies to Halloween as much as it does to Easter, Christmas, Duanwu Jie, Zhongquie Jie, Qingming Jie, etc. We must always submit to the Word of God and allow it to function as a filter for how and when and what we celebrate.
To be clear: I don’t desire that any of my children (I have four, by the way) intentionally frighten themselves for the sake of entertainment. Others may disagree with me here, and they’re entitled to do so, but for my part I would feel like I have not led my family well if my kids can’t sleep at night because they’re too terrified from that costume they saw or that movie they watched. Granted, I can’t shelter my kids from the scary things of life, and those things will certainly come and we’ll deal with them; but I can protect them from intentionally seeking fear and horror at a young age. It seems wrong to me to revel in and push my kids toward something that would lead to anxiety instead of peace, fear instead of faith, fright instead of a sound mind.
With those two caveats out of the way, I tend to disagree with the anti-Halloween arguments I’ve recently seen. Here are four issues that I feel we need to discuss. Four issues to get to the heart of where I think my well-meaning, Jesus loving, well intentioned brothers and sisters are unintentionally misunderstanding or intentionally misleading.
Four Important Issues to Clarify
1. The Issue of Origins.
It doesn’t seem like there’s any one definitive history of how the modern, western celebration of Halloween came to be (see "A Brief History of Halloween" below), but there are some general, agreed upon conclusions, one of which is that Halloween dates back to supposed Celtic interactions with the spiritworld.
Now whether or not that is true (I tend to think that it is and that the historiography makes sense) and whether or not the Celts actually interacted so freely with the supernatural (maybe they did; maybe they didn’t), I still want to make a plea for logical reasoning when it comes to what happens with celebration of Halloween in the 21st century.
One commits a handful of logical fallacies (non sequitur and false equivalence come to mind) to say that because a cultural observance has pagan influence at some point in its history that all those who engage in it are either engaging directly in that paganism or that they are necessarily opening themselves up to that pagan influence. (Stop and read that last sentence a couple more times; it’s vital to understand this point.) It simply isn’t true. If someone in your church erects a tree in their living room this December, it doesn’t mean they’re engaging in Norse tree worship. If a sister in your small group says “Happy Easter” this spring, it doesn’t mean that somewhere deep down she’s giving credence to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. If your neighbor lights a firecracker this Chinese New Year, you need not rebuke him for thinking he can drive away evil spirits with loud noises. In the same way, if you see one of my daughters dressed up as a princess carrying a bag of candy on October 31, it would be ridiculous to assume she’s engaging in a demonic pagan ritual.
You may choose not to celebrate Halloween. That’s fine; I honestly don’t care. But don’t condemn others because you think they’re engaging in some sort of subdued Satanism—that just doesn’t logically follow. This leads to the next issue:
2. The Issue of Celebration.
Perhaps I should have mentioned this one first because, of course, someone in 2019 could celebrate Halloween in the very same manner in which the ancient Druids did. In such a case, it would seem more natural to draw a one-to-one correlation between the unsavory origins of Halloween and those unsanctified currentpractices.
But that’s not how everyone celebrates it. Quite a number of families—Christian families to be sure, but also families with young and/or sensitive children—decide to avoid the haunted houses, slasher films, and horrifying costumes. Instead, they let their kids dress up as superheroes and princesses, fairies and doctors, sports stars and cartoon characters.
Then, those cute kids walk around and get candy—freely given, freely received. And that’s really all there is to it. Contrary to one article I recently read, children don’t typically obtain their sweets by being rude or demanding or playing a prank. That may have been a part of the origin of “trick-or-treat” (emphasis on the trick) but it’s rarely seen in practice today. Instead, kids knock on a door, hold out a bag or bucket, and receive some chocolate.
So, before you castigate those “celebrating Halloween” be sure you make a distinction between the caricature of aggressive, brash, bloody, demon-clad celebrants who are dabbling in the dark arts and the common reality of a group of friends doing nothing more sinister than indulging their sweet tooth while wearing fun costumes. In fact, if the anti-Halloween article you’re reading includes pictures of death, blood, gore, and demons, then I hope you see another fallacy at play: the straw-man argument.
Bottom line: there is no one way that people celebrate Halloween. There’s surely a sinful and dangerous way to do it, but that’s not what everyone does. Be careful with painting all with the same brush. A Chinese brother recently told me that many Chinese Christians have decided to engage in the fun family aspects of Chinese New Year while avoiding some of the zodiac and astrological elements. For them it’s “Happy New Year” not “Happy Year of the Dog.” This is exactly what many Christians have done with Halloween: enjoy the fun cultural elements while avoiding the detrimental elements.
3. The Issue of Demonic Influence.
I don’t take this point lightly. Not at all. I believe in the supernatural. I fully affirm that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12) I’ve personally interacted with demonically possessed people in the past. Over the past decade I’ve delivered close to two-dozen lectures on angelology and demonology.
So, I’m not a stodgy materialist. But, I also don’t think we have a clear biblical precedent to speak of how someone becomes demonically possessed or opens themselves up to demonic influence. The argument seems to be that engaging in Halloween will open people up to the schemes of Satan. I’m simply curious as to what biblical passages are being leveraged for this position?
That we have a scheming enemy and that there’s a contrast between light and dark is certain. But, what makes any of us think that Satan will come at us more readily via a haunted house and a horror film than he will through the materialism of many Christmases?
As a Christian, washed by the blood of the Lamb, I don’t fear that engaging in Halloween will open me up to darkness. And, as parents who are working year-round to disciple, train, and teach the Word to our kids, we don’t fear that allowing them to trick- or-treat will open them up to demonic influence or desensitize them to the seriousness of spiritual realities. We teach them about biblical truth. A lot. Which actually equips them to see the more undesirable elements of Halloween through a proper lens—not feeling a pull into it but having a healthy understanding of why to avoid it.
A former pastor of mine once quipped that the best thing we ever did for Satan was dress him up in a red jumpsuit with scales, horns, and a pitchfork. We did him a favor because we trained ourselves to look out for that cartoonish figure, but that’s not typically how he comes at us. He’s much more deceptive and subtle than that. If I see Red Jumpsuit Satan, I know to run the other way. What I might not see, however, is him sinking his claws into me via my self-righteous pride, gossip, lust, judgmental spirit, etc.
My fear is that the attack on Halloween might reveal an easy Red Jumpsuit Satan for us to avoid. If that’s the case, we’ve done him a huge favor by focusing on the obvious while he approaches in the subtle. We shore up the left flank of Halloween, while our false sense of victory leaves some other vulnerable weakness at the rear guard.
The anti-Halloween arguments seem unfounded for other reasons listed above, but they also seem to assume some biblical precedent on the strategies of demonic influence. But, to my knowledge, the nature and gateways of evil forces aren’t so clearly spelled out for us. In other words, I don’t know which Trojan horse Satan will use to enter the city, but I tend to think he’s wiser than to merely use the horse that’s actually dressed up like a demon.
4. The Issue of Mission.
This might be one of the more helpful points for Chinese Christians to understand exactly why Christians in the west are not just “okay with Halloween” but seemingly excited about it! There was a period—at least in American evangelical history—where Halloween was demonized in the same way I’m seeing from some of my Chinese Christian friends. So, it became a common practice for American Christians to completely avoid Halloween. When October 31strolled around, they’d either turn off all their lights and pretend they weren't home or they’d retreat to their church where there would be some sort of festival that was “safe for the whole family.” Regardless of which option was chosen, the idea was that the neighborhood trick-or-treaters would pass harmlessly by and your Christian family would remain unsullied.
Fortunately, over the last decade in the United States there’s been a resurgence of missional thinking. As a part of this, many churches started to see the error of their ways regarding Halloween. Many had this epiphany:
We’re trying to be salt and light in our neighborhoods. We want to know our neighbors, love our neighbors, and share the good news with our neighbors. And there’s one day a year that our entire neighborhood is willing to come to us. They literally walk up to our front door. They don’t do that on Christmas; they don’t do that on Easter. But on Halloween, our entire community comes to us, and we’ve been pretending not to be home. Or we’ve literally left home, taking all of the salt and light and locking it up at the church across town thereby missing one of the best gospel opportunities of the year!
Thus, contrary to the idea that Halloween is when American Christians are uncritically giving in to darkness, it’s actually a very strategic, prayerful, gospel-motivated attempt to be light!
Granted, this isn’t the current culture in China. Entire neighborhoods aren’t showing up at your door or mine for candy and conversation. I understand that, but I hope that you see why your American Christian friend’s kids might get so excited about Halloween. When my family lived in the USA, at Christmas we remembered the incarnation, at Easter we celebrated the resurrection, and at Halloween we went on mission. All of those holidays provided gospel opportunities to be sure, but that’s what Halloween was all about. We usually spent Christmas with our family, Easter with our church, and Halloween with our neighbors.
Four Potential Dangers for Your Church
My biggest concern—and why I’m writing this article—is from a pastoral perspective. I write because I see more deceptive and incipient dangers for the church that takes a hardline stance against Halloween than I do for the church that allows more freedom of conscience here.
Here are six potential dangers. Note that I say these are potential dangers, not guaranteed dangers. I’d want any pastor or church leader to be on the lookout for these things. They may or may not be present, but I’ve certainly seen churches tend toward these dangers when they vehemently oppose Halloween:
Danger #1: Legalism.
Anytime we say that Christians should or shouldn’t engage in certain activities that are outside of biblical teaching, we are in danger of creating a new law. This is especially true when pastors and church leaders tell their congregation that to be mature or obedient or spirit-filled one must not celebrate Halloween. To be clear: it’s not binding someone’s conscience to celebrate Halloween personally or even to invite them to a Halloween event. It’s also not binding to feel that Christians should avoid Halloween. Where we cross the line into binding someone’s conscience is when we require an action— either abstaining or celebrating—in our worship or as a metric of holiness and maturity.
Danger #2: Judgmentalism.
To see Person A celebrating Holiday Z and assume, therefore, that they are engaging in the worst parts of that holiday will greatly hinder healthy relationships in your church. It’s likewise unhealthy to assume that Person A is celebrating because they’ve uncritically adopted a cultural practice. This is unfair. It may be the case, but you at least owe it to them to ask some questions first. If a Chinese friend tells me they’re returning to their hometown over Qingming Jie, I’ll want to first ask them what their family’s practice is, what they will/will not engage in, and why. I owe that to them before accusing them of paganism.
Danger #3: Dissention.
There are certain things that should get us really worked up and agitated. Halloween just isn’t one of them, in my opinion. If a heated argument breaks out amongst church members over Halloween, I’m much more concerned about Satan’s foot-in-the-door through dissention than I am over someone’s Halloween costume, no matter how gory.
Danger #4: Bad hermeneutics.
There are, of course hermeneutical issues at play in how we think demonic influence occurs and how it is relieved, about what makes us susceptible and what makes us safe. But the interpretive malpractice becomes even more egregious when someone (as one article recently argued) claims that parents can bring Deuteronomy-type curses and blessings on their children by allowing or disallowing them to trick-or-treat. First, even in an OT context, this assumes that such a cultural celebration is clearly in disobedience to the Word of God. Second, this misunderstands the New Covenant and the discontinuity between the testaments. As a pastor, I’m put more on guard when I hear improper interpretation and application of Scripture in my church than when I see someone promoting Halloween.
More could be said, but this is probably too long already. I hope this article helps bring clarity and charity. Clarity for why some Christians see it as a fun opportunity and charity towards them in the case that you’ve read all of this and still decide that Halloween isn’t for you. Again, I don’t care whether or not you celebrate Halloween. And I’m not arguing that you should. But I do want you to understand why some people do and help you to see which arguments against Halloween are unfounded, unhelpful, and even potentially dangerous.
A Brief History of Halloween
There is some debate over the development of Halloween, but many historians think it goes back to an ancient Gaelic festival called Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”), which was celebrated on November 1. It was a festival that marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the darker part of the year (perhaps somewhat similar to the origins of zhongqiu jie in China). But they felt that on the night before—October 31—the dead would return home as ghosts. To appease these spirits, people would leave food and drinks in front of their house. And people would often dress in costumes (typically as ghosts or as animals) so they could avoid confrontation with these spirits.
The name “Halloween” has its origin in the 800s A.D., when the Catholic Church replaced the pagan festival of Samhain with a day to remember and pray for deceased saints and martyrs (those who had been killed because of their belief in Jesus). They called this November 1 celebration “All Saints Day.” The night before became known as “All Hallows Even” (i.e., “holy evening”). The name eventually became shortened to “Halloween.” The church later added an “All Souls Day” on Nov 2 as well.
So, where does all the candy and trick-or-treating come in? (Americans spend US$6 billion a year on costumes and candy!) The now common American practice of trick-or-treating goes back to Medieval Britain. On All Souls Day, people would do what they called “Souling.” The poor would go around and beg for Soul Cakes and in return they would pray for peoples’ dead relatives (thus, “souling”). Another tradition among the youth was called “Guising” where young people would dress up and go to houses to accept food, wine, and money in exchange for a performance of some sort (song, poetry, etc). In the 1800s in America Irish and Scottish immigrants brought these traditions to America, which ended up in what we now know as trick-or- treating.
Image credit: Haley Phelps on Unsplash
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