Whatever concerns we should have about Halloween’s origins and its connection to Celtic practices associated with the end of summer and the onset of winter in the festival of Samhain, we should also be concerned about “the organized creation of dissatisfaction” by which retailers encourage a cycle of endless “want” that combats contentment.
The cultic context from which Halloween originated certainly distorts God and opens doors to the spiritual realm. However, in the context of 21st-century America, Halloween and various other holidays are also problematic because they reinforce commitments to ways of life that hinder us from reflecting Christ. Today, Halloween’s rituals are different though not less problematic.
Suggesting that Halloween’s rituals are different now than at the time of its origins does not make its potential spiritual influence trivial. Yet, focusing too narrowly on the threat of Halloween’s origins can cause us to neglect the modern-day rituals in which Halloween and other holidays are now immersed.
These rituals involve a logic that presses us to link celebration with consumption. Rather than making sacrifices to protect ourselves from “the forces of darkness and decay” as was done in the original Celtic rituals from which Halloween emerged, we ward off the “evils” of dissatisfaction by casting our cash (or credit) into the coffers of those who can deliver fleeting satisfaction.
Halloween isn’t Halloween without costumes, candy and decorations of various sorts. For many, the holidays, including Christmas and Easter, involve rituals that are less reflective of Christ than of a culture in which we pursue our endless cravings and misdirected desires.
For instance, in September, Target announced that it would be instituting early holiday shopping plans in an effort to encourage consumers to part with hard-earned dollars (and to avoid potential overcrowding in stores in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic).
Walmart’s press release noted that it would be taking steps to help shoppers make the most of this year’s shortened holiday season by offering “more savings, more ways to shop, more top gifts to shop for, and more fun in stores than ever.”
Retailers aren’t mustachioed villains hatching plans for world domination while petting their favorite kitty. They are simply following the logic of the market.
If we have largely forgotten how to celebrate without elaborate costumes and candy (Halloween), big meals where we eat more calories than most of us need in two days (Thanksgiving) and multiple gifts under elaborately decorated trees (Christmas), it only makes sense that we need retailers to “assist” us in our celebrations.
Halloween, like other holidays, has been reoriented to make sense within our world. Sacrificing to the Celtic god Samhain makes less sense today, in part, because it doesn’t have a strong business model, whereas “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” do little to reinforce our Christian formation but fit within the economic logic and shopping rhythms that too often characterize our collective lives.
Without denying the ongoing influence and practice of the occult in the United States, we should recognize that our view of God, the world, others, and ourselves may also be distorted by cultivating a “social imaginary” that encourages us to make sense of the world as if God did not exist. Social imaginaries shape our understanding of what is normal by prompting us to question practices that seem to stand apart from our underlying sense-making apparatus. Immersed in social imaginaries that deny God, Christians must be intentional about “being strange in the right ways.”
My concern is not to deny the dangers of mysticism, but to highlight the equally pernicious problem of new Halloween (and holiday) rituals that have emerged as a consequence of the world’s sense-making apart from Christ. We don’t always see these rituals as sufficiently problematic and, as such, do not adequately separate ourselves from them.
For instance, focusing on Halloween’s cultic origins has prompted Christian groups to celebrate Halloween under a different name. “Harvest Festivals” often resemble Halloween in that they incorporate costumes, candy, games and other similar imagery as Americanized Halloween gatherings. Harvest Festivals may make Halloween more palatable and wholesome, yet they don’t generally confront the consumerist rituals that are embedded within Halloween in the United States.
Holidays can and should be times of celebration and worship. Harvest Festivals offer Christians an opportunity to do just that. Yet, being held at a church doesn’t automatically sanctify everything about Halloween. We should think about the way we celebrate holidays and how our way of celebrating may be hindering us from walking in newness of life.
Halloween and Harvest Festivals can become another excuse to shop. They can prompt us to spend an inordinate amount of time as shoppers and buyers as we seek to “keep up with the Joneses” or one-up our neighbors. Scrolling through the virtually endless number of costumes, props and decorations, finding that our Jack-o-Lantern doesn’t stack up with that of our neighbor, or making sure the kids coming by will remember us as the house with the great treats embeds us within a narrative is, at best, Christian adjacent. Similar dynamics could be identified at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter as we busy ourselves (with cooking, baking, shopping, etc.) like Martha rather than sitting at the feet of our Savior like Mary.
I’m not anti-holiday or even necessarily anti-Halloween. I am, however, concerned that Christians (myself included) celebrate the holidays in a more deliberate than default manner. We are always in the business of being and making disciples, which means that we need to learn to respond faithfully to the ever-present God who continues to be active within and among us. As we rightfully consider how to avoid the evil spirits associated with Halloween, we would be wise to remember that those spirits are not limited to supernatural beings, but to the spirits of the age that lure us away from the peace and contentment that Christ can provide.
Dr. James Spencer currently serves as President of the D. L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the gospel and challenging God’s follow Jesus. His book titled Useful to God: Nine Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody was released in March 2022. He previously published Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind, as well as co-authoring Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.