I looked over the Halloween article but I was wondering how to explain that to my eleven year old. Do you have any articles written to children on this?
—T.H., U.S.

Many people celebrate Halloween without considering the history of the holiday. They put on costumes, attend parties, eat candy, and even pull pranks on neighbors. In fact, Americans spend billions of dollars each year decorating and preparing.

But there’s more to Halloween than jack-o-lanterns and scary stories. Let’s take a quick trip back in time to see where some of these customs came from—and if Christians should take part.

To understand what happened, we need to start with another holiday: All Saints Day.

All Saints Day and Samhain

All Saints Day is celebrated by many Christians around the world as a way to honor the people who lived for God. On this day, they take time to remember past Christians by studying what they did to spread the gospel—and even how some of them died for their faith.

About seven hundred thirty years after Christ, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Gregory III, moved All Saints Day from May to November 1. Why? He wanted people to forget about a Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), as well as other similar festivals.

The Celts were a people group that lived mostly in what is now Ireland, Britain, and northern France a long time ago—even before Christ. To remember those who had died and to appease evil spirits, they sacrificed animals during Samhain. This was a deviation of what sacrifice was supposed to be as prescribed in the Old Testament. Now, of course, we know from the Bible that God sent His Son, Jesus, as the final sacrifice for sins. So, the Samhain celebration goes against God’s intentions for sacrifice.

Moving the holiday, however, did not make people forget about Samhain, although it did slow the spread of it. Instead, many non-Christian practices, such as dressing up like demons, became a part of the All Saints Day activities.

Where Did the Word Halloween Come From?

Because November 1 was set aside to honor those who lived for God, the evening before this holiday, October 31, became known as Holy Evening or All Hallows Even (hallow is an old word for holy, and even is an old form of evening). Over time, some phrases can become corrupted or shortened, which is what happened to All Hallows Even. By the 1700s, the phrase had been shortened to Halloween.

Days of the Dead

Even before All Saints Day, many people around the world celebrated a day of the dead. Like the Celts, many other cultures honor the dead with rituals and festivals, and these celebrations go back a long time. These many similarities from one culture to another tell us there is likely an ancient connection between these various days of the dead.

Deeper in History

Because so many cultures have a day of the dead celebration, it is likely that this event originated prior to the separation of humanity at Babel, where God confused the languages of the people. The various people groups probably took this holiday with them when they separated—although each culture added its own unique elements.

So, if the origin of Halloween does stretch all the way back before Babel, what was this holiday orginally? No one knows for sure, but there are several theories:

  • The people before Babel may have celebrated a harvest festival that later became a day to remember the dead.
  • Perhaps this was the day that Noah’s wife died. She isn’t mentioned after the Flood account in the Bible, which may mean she died soon after.
  • The day may have been set aside to remember the many people who refused to get on the Ark and perished in the Flood. This would explain why sacrifices are a part of the day of the dead celebrations, since Noah offered an animal sacrifice when the Ark landed. (Read more in Genesis 8:18–9:1.)

Should We Celebrate?

Even if there is a biblical connection to the origin of this holiday, should Christians participate? That depends on how we celebrate.

As Christians, there are some aspects of traditional Halloween that can be fun, such as dressing up, playing games and enjoying time with friends and family—and, of course, treats and candy. But many parts, carried over from Samhain and other non-Christian celebrations, do not honor God.

Some of the decorations and costumes, for example, glamorize death, demons, and other occult rituals. But we are to worship God, who is the Author of life, and nothing else. Even many seemingly innocent Halloween pranks go against the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19–23) and Christ’s command to love our neighbors (Luke 10:27–28).

Other Ideas

Instead of going along with the world, Christians should find ways to honor God. Exchange trick-or-treating for sharing the good news of Jesus. Turn from ghost stories to tales about the true heroes of the past (start in Hebrews 11). Give food to those who are hungry instead of expecting candy. Celebrate decidedly Christian events, instead, such as the Reformation. More history and ideas are available in these previous articles: What about Halloween? and A Night When Evil Is Celebrated.

Every day can be used to honor God. Even when the rest of world celebrates death, we can celebrate new life.