Every October, shops at the mall suddenly start selling spooky stuff. One or more new horror movies start to screen in theatres, and older ones are played on the TV. Why are there Halloween themed shows and events? Because Halloween is coming. Why is it Halloween? Nobody knows the details, but it seems everyone is invited to join in the fun.

People know that Halloween falls on the 31st of October, and people know that is a western festival. From all the ‘clues’ around them, the common perception seems to be that Halloween has something to do with sweets, parties, the unnatural, and having a good fright. A strange combination which could make one wonder, just what is Halloween?

Many historians trace the history of Halloween to the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain. The pagans believed that between 31st October and 1st November, the boundary between this world and the next became thin, and ghosts could cross over into the mortal world. (This might remind you of the concept behind the Hungry Ghost Festival observed by certain Chinese communities in Asia, in which it is believed that the gates of hell are opened for a month and ghosts could visit.)

As Christianity spread across Europe, the Samhain festival was in some places ‘christianised’, and in other places retained as syncretic religion. By the end of the first millennium AD, the Roman Catholic church celebrated the 1st of November as All Saints’ Day, a day to honour all known and unknown Saints. The night before was called a Holy Evening, or Hallowed Even in Old English. (This term eventually became shortened into Halloween.) Given that the Roman Catholic Church was rather prone to superstitions, it is probable that many parishes added their own rites to the holiday.

On Halloween day in 1517 AD, a Christian monk named Martin Luther published a set of arguments accusing the Roman Catholic church of manipulating church goers into donating money. In order to raise funds for the church, a representative named Tetzel was selling ‘indulgences’, telling the common people that donating would help free oneself or other souls from a hellish purgatory. Martin Luther raged against the idea that someone could happily sin and then buy their forgiveness from the church. Eventually, this incident led to what became known as the Protestant Reformation, in which thousands of churches left the Roman Catholic church.

Protestant churches generally held that all believers (including those in the Old Testament times) are saints. Therefore, many churches either changed the way they observed All Saints’ Day, or dropped the festival entirely. Many reformed churches which do not want to forget the events of the 17th century would mark the 31st of October as Reformation Day instead.

As the centuries passed in the Protestant countries of the West, people generally had less fear of real ghosts and the festivities of Halloween were mostly unregulated by the church. Like a river flowing through time, Halloween picked up cultural practices such as various foodstuffs, trick-or-treating, and the telling of horror stories involving a variety of creatures (traditional examples might include ghosts, vampires, headless horsemen, werewolves, and witches). The entertainment industry was quick to adapt. Oral stories became cinema films. Fictional creatures such as animated mummies and Frankenstein’s monster were co-opted once they entered the public imagination, and even zombies as a modern addition (though they might be a reinterpretation of ghouls).

Thus evolved and carried around the world by commercialisation, the Halloween festival has arrived in Southeast Asia through malls, theatres, and online games. It probably resembles a gross amalgam of western creativity, evoking neither the serious dread of Samhain nor the supposed sanctity of All Saints’ Day. The reason is simply because people do not associate Halloween with their beliefs or superstitions.

There have been attempts by the entertainment industry to ‘contextualise’ Halloween by featuring movies based on traditional ghost stories at this time of the year. Examples might include Pontianak from Malaysia and Indonesia, or Peemak from Thailand. These do attain some popularity, but it is likely that people would associate such characters with local folklore more than with Halloween. The core concept of Halloween would still be the food, dressing up, and partying rather than any serious reference to the spiritual dimension.

Pumpkins in Thailand are like an allegory of Halloween in Southeast Asia – it shares some core features, but looks strangely different

Should Christians join in the secular festivities? If Halloween was a pagan festival for the supernatural, the answer would be a clear no. But the commercialised Halloween of today generally does not dwell on the spiritual. Indeed, because it is focused on temporal enjoyment, it may be best to treat different aspects with wisdom. Otherwise, it is difficult to completely abstain – for example, would you refuse to enter any place with Halloween decorations? Or would you refuse Halloween-themed snacks though they are not offered to idols or spirits beforehand?

That said, there are some things which churches ought to teach.

  • The spiritual dimension is real. Demons are real, and they do hold some influence in this world. If you are a Christian, you should not fear evil spirits because the Holy Spirit who is in you is mightier than the evil spirits in this world. That said, humans should not provoke them needlessly, for they are more cunning than we are.
  • Ghosts do exist, but they cannot appear in this mortal world. (Perhaps the only exception in the Bible is Samuel’s ghost, who appeared to pronounce judgement upon Saul. There are Christians who hold that the spirit was not actually Samuel since God’s law forbad the invoking of spirits, but God is not bound by his own law and Samuel’s ghost did not lie. Click for other good reasons.) Therefore, invoking ghosts may well be invoking lying demons.
  • If the church is in a neighbourhood where All Saints’ Day is also observed, it may be opportune to remind people that unrepentant sinners will be judged in hell forever. However, those who trust in Jesus Christ will not have to pass through any sort of purgatory, because his death on the cross was sufficient to take away all our sin. All believers are indeed saints of God and would experience the struggles of striving to live a holy life.

And here is some general advice I would give.

  • Seeking for thrills in horror movies and haunted houses is not edifying. It may even be detrimental to your spiritual health. Why would you want to deal with an irrational fear of the dark for weeks after Halloween?
  • In the days of Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic Church was convincing people to part with their money in order to feel good despite sinning. Today, the entertainment industry is convincing people to part with their money in order to get a good Halloween experience. One is false and the other is folly. You may think that your money is yours to spend this holiday season, but I urge you to use it as a responsible steward under God.

How can we behave as saints during Halloween? Let’s conclude with this passage from Ephesians 5:1-4,

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 

Just what is Halloween?

TQ grew up in Singapore and now resides in Thailand.

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