Every year someone asks me the question, “Is it ok for my kids to trick or treat on Halloween? Other Christians say it is a satanic holiday or an evil day? If you go online and research this question, sites like Wikipedia or the History channel will tell you that Halloween origins are found in a Celtic celebration of the beginning of winter and the first day of the New Year. This is only partially true. As you know these two sites are not exactly known for academic rigor. So, what happened?
The time of fall harvest and the approach of winter provided a reminder of human mortality to the Celtic people (as it does for all people who are connected to the land). The celts believed it was a time when the souls of the dead were said to return to their homes, and bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten evil spirits. The name of this festival was Samhain and it was a very popular festival in 597 when Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent as a missionary, landed on the British Isles and large numbers of people began to re-convert to Christianity. Christianity had been on the islands since the time of the early church.
In the meantime, the Christians on the European continent had always tried to remember those who had died, especially those who had died a martyr’s death. Over time more and more martyrs were remembered by Christians, and it became confusing and difficult to keep up with all the special days and celebrations.
Within a decade of Augustine’s journey to Britain, Boniface IV, who was then the Bishop of Rome, independently of the situation of the young British Church decided to officially inaugurate a new feast that would incorporate all the Saints of the Church into one. It was appropriately called the Feast of All Saints. He picked November 1st for this day because secular cultures in Italy, Germany and France, which had been predominantly Christian for some time, all had set aside days of remembrance for the dead around the times of their own Fall Harvests.
The truth is that after this for hundreds of years Christians in the British Isles refused to celebrate the Christian Feast of All Saints on the day chosen by Boniface precisely because they worried some would confuse the Christian Day with the Celtic festival. For example, the Irish Church celebrated All Saints Day on April 20th. Finally in 830 Gregory IV officially recognized the reality that All Saints was one of the most popular feasts of the church year and should therefore be a holy day of obligation for all the Christians in the west, again it was an effort to reduce confusion.
All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween, is simply the night before the Feast of All Saints, and for 1500 years most Christians around the world have marked this as a special day to prepare for remembrance of heroes of faith and martyrs on All Saints Day. It is a recent American idea that somehow the night before this great Christian feast is satanic or especially evil on its own merit.
It is simply human nature to remember and honor the dead, and it is a good thing to do. We also do this on days like Memorial Day. We see this practice in families who still celebrate the anniversaries or birthdays of parents who have passed away.
It is also normal to tell our children scary stories. It helps them practice courage so adult life doesn't take them by surprise. Have you ever read Grims Fairy Tales? Have you ever really payed attention to Mother Goose?
Halloween, like every holiday, can be used for good and bad purposes. But I personally would worry more about the extra calories than if I accidentally honored some forgotten Celtic spirit when my kids went trick or treating.
Prayers for All Hallows Eve: Almighty and ever-living God, you have made all things in your wisdom and established the boundaries of life and death: Grant that we may obey your voice in this world, and in the world to come may enjoy that rest and peace which you have appointed for your people; through Jesus Christ who is Resurrection and Life, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen (“Book of Occasional Services,” p. 108).
O God, you have called your people to your service from age to age. Do not give us over to death, but raise us up to serve you, to praise you, and to glorify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (“Book of Occasional Services,” p. 109).
Source: The Origins of Feasts and Fasts in Early Christianity, by Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2011.