On October 31, millions of Americans will celebrate Halloween, many of them Orthodox Christians unaware of the incompatibility between Christianity and Halloween. This article endeavors to examine how the celebration of Halloween contradicts our Orthodox Christian identity so that we may choose Christ, the True Light, over the darkness of the world.
It is generally accepted that the origin of Halloween is the pagan feast of Samhain (pronounced saw-on) of the Celts in Ireland and Britain, and their priests, the Druids. There is much debate as to whether the feast was a Satanic observance dedicated to the Celtic lord of the dead or whether it was simply a pagan observance not affiliated with any particular god. We, as Orthodox Christians, are not concerned with the answer, because we follow Christ only. Whether Halloween is Satanic or simply pagan does not change our response to this holiday, because every aspect of Halloween is inconsistent with our Orthodox Christian faith.
I. Halloween is Contrary to the Christian Faith concerning the Living and the Dead
The Celts believed that, during this feast, the spiritual barrier between the living and the dead was at its thinnest so that the evil spirits of the dead returned to the earth to wreak havoc among the living.
This belief is contrary to the Christian theology of the living and the dead, which rejects any belief in the ghosts. As Orthodox Christians, we acknowledge the existence of evil demons, who were angels like Satan that opposed God and fell. Abba Antony the Great spoke of their existence when he wrote,
The demons were not created as the figures we now identify as “demonic,” for God made nothing bad. They were made good, but falling from the heavenly wisdom and thereafter wandering around the earth, they deceived the Greeks ((Here, the word “Greeks” is intended as a reference to all who follow things such as astrology, the occult, philosophy, and other things over Christ.)) through apparitions. Envious of us Christians, they meddle with all things in their desire to frustrate our journey into heaven so that we might not ascend to the place from which they fell.
Ghosts, on the other hand, are human spirits that return to earth to haunt people and cause turmoil. The Orthodox Church rejects any belief in them.
This is not to say, however, that the Lord does not permit legitimate apparitions of His saints. In Matthew 27:52, we read that, after Our Lord’s crucifixion, “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” Similarly, God permitted many to see visions of the saints, a notable modern example being the apparition of the Holy Theotokos Saint Mary in Zeitun, Egypt. Moreover, Abba Antony the Great and his spiritual children in the desert struggled against visions and apparitions of demons for many years.
The difference between these legitimate holy apparitions and the belief in ghosts is that the former gives glory to God while the latter has an evil purpose. The saints who rose from their graves preached the Lord’s resurrection and victory over death after the Lord released them from Hades. His Grace Bishop Serapion teaches us, “The death of Christ on the Cross freed mankind from bondage to Satan, released those captives in Hades who remained in hope (Ephesians 4:9, 10) and opened the gates of Paradise to mankind.” This is the subject of the universal Orthodox hymn <rictoc Anecty. Thus, their apparition was for faith, a proclamation of the Lord’s glorious resurrection and eternal life. Similarly, the apparition of the Holy Theotokos in Zeitun comforted and strengthened the faith of millions. Finally, the Lord permitted demons to appear to the ascetic fathers in the desert so that, through their struggle in Christ, the fathers might defeat them through their faith and humility and leave us with an example of Christian perfection.
When compared to these legitimate apparitions that give glory to God, the wandering of spirits in the pagan feast reveals an evil purpose. The evil spirits during the feast of Samhain were said to instill fear, wreak havoc, kill animals, and steal infants from rival tribes. Far from manifesting the glory of God, these evil spirits wrought wickedness wherever they went. The pagan people’s response also demonstrated wickedness, including human sacrifices to appease evil spirits that many of them believed were gods. What should our response be to the evil that was venerated and practiced in this feast? St. Justin Martyr tells us in his First Apology:
We deny that the spirits who have done those things are true deities, but assert that they are wicked and infamous demons, in no way even capable of such actions as men who strive for goodness and merit.
Let us therefore acknowledge that the ancient origin of Halloween is a pagan feast of darkness and evil that offers a false teaching about the living and the dead.
II. Halloween Trick-or-Treating is Contrary to the Christian Life
a. The Pagan Origin
One of the practices that developed out of Celts’ pagan beliefs was the offering of various “treats” to appease the ghosts wandering about during the darkness of the pagan feast. These “treats” were offered so that the ghosts would not do an evil “trick” to the people. With time, the Druids, who were priests among the Celts, began to dress in costumes as evil spirits and paint demonic images on their faces, traveling from house to house demanding treats to exorcise spirits from each house. This, of course, is the primitive pagan origin of trick-or-treating.
Orthodox Christians cannot accept or encourage the practice of going from house to house asking for treats, because it commemorates a pagan ritual of exorcising evil spirits. Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us authority over these evil spirits when He said, “Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you” ((Luke 10:19)). We acknowledge this throughout the day and in our liturgical services as we recite the Prayer of Thanksgiving. Nowhere in the Holy Tradition of the Church do we see an example of exorcising evil spirits by imitating them. Indeed, the Holy Scriptures teach us to do the opposite: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God” (3 John 1:11). The writings of the Church Fathers teach us that the tools for exorcising evil spirits are fasting, prayer, humility, and Christian struggle, not imitations of evil spirits and demons. We must be careful to avoid the hypocrisy of praying the words “For You have given us the authority to tread on serpents, scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy” and subsequently dressing ourselves as these evil things. Not only is this hypocrisy, it is a denial of the power of God.
b. All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day
Those who vigorously defend the celebration of Halloween consistently refer to the later development of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day as feasts that “Christianize” the celebration of Halloween. To understand whether these days offer a Christian alternative to Halloween, we must pray for wisdom and examine their history.
In the early Church, Christians held yearly commemorations of the saints who were martyred by pagan emperors. As of the fourth century, this yearly commemoration was held throughout the Church on May 13. ((Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 24.)) Later, different locations within the Church adopted different dates for this commemoration of martyrs. In the Greek rite, for example, this commemoration falls on the first Sunday after the Great Feast of Pentecost and is known as the “Sunday of All Saints.” Notably, the Coptic rite does not contain a similar feast, because, as His Grace Bishop Youssef points out, we celebrate the saints every day. In addition, unlike the Greeks, Syrians, and Romans, the Copts changed their entire calendar to commemorate the innumerable martyrs in Egypt who suffered persecution under Roman emperors on the Feast of Nayrouz. In this way, our entire calendar is a commemoration of martyrs. The Roman church attempted to “Christianize” the celebration of Halloween in eighth and ninth centuries by moving the May 13 commemoration to November 1 and calling it “All Saints’ Day.”
In 998 A.D., the abbot of a French monastery ordered a Latin mass be prayed for the souls of the Christian dead in his monastery. Over the next 200 years, this feast made its way into the Western Christian liturgical calendar and came to be known as “All Souls’ Day.” With time, this feast became united with All Saints’ Day in that people celebrated “All Hallow’s Eve” on October 31, All Saints’ Day on November 1, and All Souls’ Day on November 2.
A close examination of the rites and practices of these feasts reveals they, too, are not consistent with our Orthodox Christian faith. This led Archbishop Kyrill of the Russian Orthodox Church to observe, “One can see in contemporary Western society that the Western Church’s attempt to supplant this pagan festival with a Christian feast failed.” ((Orthodox Life, Vol. 43:5 (Sept./Oct. 1993)))
On All Souls’ Day, for example, Christians were encouraged to attend requiem masses to prevent hauntings by ghosts who returned to earth because of their inability to enter heaven. ((Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 51.)) As mentioned above, there is no belief in ghosts within the Orthodox faith. In an attempt to “Christianize” a pagan feast, the feast of All Souls’ Day spreads more confusion about the living and the dead.
In addition, churches in the West rang their bells continuously on All Souls’ Day to arouse those who were in purgatory and ward off evil spirits. The idea of purgatory is universally rejected by the Orthodox Church. Our brethren in the Roman Catholic Church teach purgatory as a place where souls are “suspended” to undergo atonement for their sins until our Lord’s second coming. The Orthodox Church has never accepted this idea on the basis of the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Church Fathers. As Orthodox Christians, we do not try to explain every aspect of what happens to souls after their departure from the world. Indeed, when Abba Antony the Great asked God about similar matters, a voice came to him saying, “Antony, attend to yourself; for these are the judgments of God, and it is not for you to know them.” ((Apophthegmata Patrum (P.G. 65), Antony, 2 as cited in Timothy (now Bishop Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1997), 255.)) Therefore, we do not accept purgatory or participate in feasts that promote it.
Moreover, the “Christianized” version of Halloween contains many other practices and beliefs that are against Orthodoxy. Among them are the practices of dressing skeletons in fancy clothing for the rest of the family; leaving food for the dead; and lighting bonfires to repel evil spirits from graveyards.
Generally speaking, these feasts reveal a focus on darkness, evil spirits, and death. We must ask ourselves whether a preoccupation with these things gives glory to God or whether it emanates from Satan. It is fitting that we live a life that rejects Satan and all his powers. Indeed, when we were baptized, our parents–who were sponsors on our behalf–openly rejected Satan by facing the West((The West being the opposite of the East, which represents God.)) and saying, “I denounce you, Satan, and all of your powers and evil works…” The Greek word for this action is apotaxis, which implies a turning away from Satan. We must pray for wisdom and ask ourselves whether celebrating Halloween adequately reflects the turning away from Satan that we pledged in our baptism.
III. The Modern Celebration of Halloween is No Less Evil
Some people may say that the modern celebration of Halloween is harmless and innocent. On the contrary, we say that it is even more dangerous, because it targets children throughout society and normalizes evil. In the pagan celebration of Samhain, people acknowledged evil spirits as evil and did their best to avoid them. Today, however, people have been deceived into dressing themselves as the same evil spirits with pride! This deception reflects a common quote about Satan that says, “Satan’s greatest trick is convincing the world he does not exist.”
The effect is especially dangerous for our children. By normalizing evil in society, Halloween makes the power of Satan more relatable to them. It very well may be that most children today know nothing of Halloween’s pagan origin, but the fact remains that the normalization of evil is creeping into the collective conscience of our children. People may say that the form of evil depicted in Halloween is “cute” and “innocent,” but we respond with St. Paul’s teaching to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
Some may still not be convinced, saying, “We don’t want to deprive our children of this social experience.” To this, we respond, “What is the role of a Christian living in this world?” It is not to participate in the world, but to manifest Christ’s light to the world. His Grace Bishop Serapion teaches us that “the goal of raising children is to make them children of God.” Consequently, children should be guarded against the evil things of the world, as the scholar Tertullian said, “Our tongues, our eyes, our ears have nothing to do with the madness of the circus, the shamelessness of the theater, the brutality of the arena, the vanity of the gymnasium.” In other words, our Orthodoxy must be clear and our lives must rotate around our Christian faith, not vice versa. If living this life means we won’t be fully accepted by society, this is a price we should gladly pay so that we may emulate the words of St. Paul, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). Parents must ask themselves whether allowing their children to participate in Halloween celebrations accomplishes this goal.
IV. Celebrating in the Church
In our Diocese, we are thankful for the guidance of His Grace Bishop Serapion and the efforts of the priests and servants in many parish churches to protect children and youth from the dark celebration of Halloween. His Grace has encouraged parish churches to do the following on October 31:
- Gather children and youth in the church to avoid participation in trick-or-treat: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
- Design a church program for this evening that includes an agape meal for everyone, including the Lord’s brethren, rather than unhealthy candy. The curriculum of this program may include:
- Prayers from the Agpeya and litanies for the Church, His Holiness the Pope, our bishop, our families, and our children.
- A spiritual word explaining the origin of Halloween and educating parents and children alike why the church rejects this celebration.
- The chanting of hymns, such as the Glorification or Midnight Praise, or spiritual songs.
- A presentation or play with a focus on the saints of the church, who reflected the light of Christ, instead of evil spirits. The church may especially focus on the saints of the day or the lives of saints who are unknown among our congregations.
- Multimedia presentations that offer spiritual nourishment.
- Community service activities, such as assembling baskets of food for the Lord’s brethren to teach our children and youth to focus on serving others.
Parish churches that consistently hold such celebrations will greatly help future generations understand their Orthodox faith and combat the evil message of Halloween within our Orthodox community.
May God grant us the faith and wisdom to live a perfect Christian life, shunning the dark celebrations of this world while reflecting Christ’s light in all our actions.
Glory be to God now and forever, Amen.
Written by Paul Samaan under the guidance of our beloved father, His Grace Bishop Serapion. May the Lord preserve him and keep him for the Church and his flock for many years.