1. Halloween, Reformation Day and Guy Fawkes’ Night

1. HALLOWEEN, REFORMATION DAY AND GUY FAWKES’ NIGHT

R. S. Bartle
October 2012

Scripture

Deuteronomy 12:29-32:

29 When the LORD thy God shall destroy the nations before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou shalt possess them and dwell in their land,

30 Beware, lest thou be taken in a snare after them, after that they be destroyed before thee, and lest thou ask after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods, that I may do so likewise?

31 Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God; for all abomination, which the LORD hateth, have they done unto their gods, for they have burned both their sons and their daughters with fire to their gods.

32 Therefore whatsoever I command you, take heed you do it; thou shalt put nothing thereto, nor take ought there from. [K]

Discourse

On the calendar of popular festivals, few seem as visibly Satanic as Halloween.  It is therefore surprising to find that, in a current poll, only 38% of professing Christians consider it wrong to celebrate Halloween[1].  Is this testament to ignorance of the history of the day and the symbolism incorporated into the celebrations, or a symptom of the low view that many in the visible Church hold of God?   Your penman supposes both to be true.  Whilst fearing that trivialisation of the omnipotence and the omniscience of God in human minds is a major factor behind the trivialisation of the sin of Halloween celebration, such a discourse is beyond the scope of our enquiry here.  Yet if the Christian informs himself as to the many reasons why the celebration of Halloween is wrong, he will prove a better witness against it.

There are two interrelated lines of argument against the celebration of Halloween:

  1. The Bible instructs us as to how we must worship God; it does not permit the inclusion of any element devised by man.  This argument draws from the Regulative Principle and concerns All Hallows’ Eve, All Hallows’ Day and All Souls’ Day as elements in worship.
  2. Halloween has its origins in pagan religion, retains much of pagan imagery and practice, and therefore ought not to be celebrated as a civic festival.

We shall investigate both lines of argument by reminding ourselves of what Scripture testifies as to the adoption of man-appointed festivals into religious life, as well as outlining the pagan history of All Hallows’ Eve.  We shall also consider whether a Christian can celebrate Reformation Day on 1st November, and whether Guy Fawkes’ Night has a place in the calendar of a Christian.

All Saints’ Day is a part of the calendar of the Church of England, which published the following statement:

“Whilst no-one can deny that Halloween has pre-Christian roots, and that the original pagan event was assumed by the spread of Christianity, the fact is that since the eighth century All Saints’ Day has fallen on 1st November and the word ‘Halloween’ derives from the term ‘All Hallows’ Eve.’  Few would argue that Easter or Christmas, which similarly assumed old pagan festivals, should predominantly be celebrated as a pagan celebration in the UK today and marketed by retailers as such.”[2]

It is most noteworthy that English and New World Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians found themselves unable to adopt pagan festivals, be they Easter, Christmas or Halloween, into their religious life.  In Deuteronomy 12:32, the Lord instructs us not to introduce into worship any elements or events which He has not commanded.  Galatians 4:9-11 and Colossians 2:16 forbid us from observing special days.  How a Christian individual or denomination can adopt such religious festivals without being either Scripturally-ignorant, or denying Scriptural authority, we cannot understand.  We agree with the Church of England insofar as the Christian does not argue for the celebration of these pagan festivals as pagan festivals; rather we say that the Christian must argue against their celebration, period.

The earliest forerunner of Halloween was the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, a two-day festival beginning on October 31st.  Historians suggest that, as religious thought developed in Celtic culture, Samhain developed from a simple harvest festival to one in which human sacrifice was intended to placate the powers of blight, which were manifested in death and so in the onset of winter[3].  “Bone-fires”, from which we obtain the word “bonfire”, were lit to burn the offered sacrifice.  Deut. 12:31 echoes in our ears.  In its most developed state, the Lord of the Dead received sacrifice, not only in the hope of reducing the deadly effects of winter on men and livestock, but also to diminsh punishment on the souls of the dead.  Samhain can effectively be argued to provide the first evidence of peculiar Halloween dress.  Evidence from France and Germany shows that men would don the skins and skulls of sacrificed animals in the belief that this would increase their own merit, having already eaten the sacrificed animal to bodily incorporate its divinity.

Meanwhile in the Roman Empire, the festivals of Feralia and Pomona were held.  Feralia was a festival held on 21st February to celebrate the Manes, the souls of the dead.  Pomona honoured the goddess of the same name, who was responsible for agricultural produce and fruitfulness, and represented typically by the apple tree.

With the Roman occupation of Britain and consequent intermarriage with Celts, the ideologies behind Feralia and Pomona merged with that behind Samhain.

From the 5th Century AD, Christianity became the official nominal religion throughout the Roman Empire, and in the practice of common people gained ground in the subsequent centuries.  The policy of Rome, when dealing with entrenched pagan festivals, was to “Christianise” them.  Feralia received such a makeover in 609 AD, when Boniface IV declared that it would be henceforth known as All Saints’ Day, and that the celebrants would be only honouring dead saints, not all dead souls.  The mode of celebration was also officially changed, from drunken revelries, to prayer and fasting.  However, Samhain continued to be observed in Britain, and to eliminate this, Gregory IV relocated All Saints’ Day to 1st November.  It is from the infusion of Pomona with Celtic religion that the tradition of apple-bobbing, or ‘dooking,’ comes.  In Celtic belief, the pentagram was a symbol of fertility; it was observed that an apple cut through the middle produced a pentagram, and so the notion developed that the ability to catch an apple in a pool with one’s teeth was linked with gaining a mate[4].

There is agreement that jack-o-lanterns originated in pagan Celtic religion.  A number of uses have been ascribed to them, and it is likely that they are all correct and valid in different stages of history.  It is suggested that they originally consisted of skulls carried around to protect one’s self from spirits; this evolved to carving such objects out of root vegetables, and placing a flame inside, to heighten the terrific appearance and so fulfilling the same ends inside one’s home[5].  The Roman Catholic Church came to adopt it as representative of souls in purgatory[6].

In 988 AD, the Roman Church also instituted All Souls’ Day on 2nd November, to remember and pray for souls in purgatory.  We need not here expound on the errors of Romanist doctrine on the intermediate state; we instead invite the reader to examine Book III, Chapter 5 of Calvin’s ‘Institutes’.

All Hallows’ Eve played a small role in the Reformation.  A majority of historians accept Melanchthon’s account that Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Schloßkirch Wittenberg on All Hallows’ Eve[7]; it is speculated that he chose the day knowing that there would be many passing the Church door that evening.  In recognition of this, most Lutheran – and some other Protestant – denominations include 1st November on their calendars as Reformation Day.  It is still held as a public holiday in Slovenia and in a number of German states.

Can the Christian celebrate Reformation Day?  The argument in favour runs as follows.  It is purposely not a pagan festival, it has not merged with or incorporated anything identifiably pagan, and it is celebrating a major historical event of furthering the cause of Christ.

The counter-arguments are well expounded in Puritan writings.  Prohibition of holy days means not only the formal, ecclesiastical demarcation of a particular day as holy, but also the ritualistic estimation of one day above another (Gal. 4:9-11, ibid).  The Lord’s Day only must be set apart, and the other days used for the ends of labour and necessary recreation.  A secondary argument, aside from the Regulative Principle, is that Reformation Day is nonetheless unhelpful by focusing on Luther’s actions on one day and so slighting God Himself and His providence in the entire process of Reformation.

Perhaps we can allow that most excellent of documents, the Westminster Directory for Public Worship, to answer the question:

“There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.  Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.  Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.”[8]

A “special emergent occasion” is here defined as one that shows an “eminent and extraordinary” dispensation of God’s providence.  By its very etymology, something that is “extra-ordinary” is out of the ordinary, unusual, not repetitive.  Fasting is appointed when seeking the Lord’s guidance or deliverance on an extraordinary matter.  Laying aside time for thanksgiving is appropriate when the Lord’s goodness is discerned in His deliverance.  Times of fasting and thanksgiving can be apportioned privately or corporately – as individuals, or as the church.

Examples of individual fasting include our Lord Jesus Christ, prior to the commencement of His earthly ministry (Mt. 4:1-11); Cornelius fasted to seek deliverance into the presence of God (Acts 10).  David fasted to mourn the death of Saul (2Sa. 1:12), to mourn the death of Abner (2Sa. 3:35), and to seek that God would deliver his son from the death that Nathan had prophesied (2Sa. 12:13-23).  The final example is worthy of note in that, although David fasted, the Lord did not grant the deliverance that David was seeking.  Examples of corporate fasting include the Elders of the congregation at Antioch, prior to the ministerial ordination of Barnabas and Paul (Acts 13:1-5).  Also the people of Nineveh fasted, humbling themselves to the Lord in sackcloth and ashes, in response to God’s word to them (Jonah 3).

James 1:17 reminds us that “every good giving and every perfect gift is from above,” and Ps. 136 instructs us to “give thanks unto the Lord”.  There are many examples of individual thanksgiving; for example, David’s thanksgiving of deliverance from his enemies, found both in 2Sa. 22 and Ps. 18.  Paul gives thanks to God individually in Rom. 1:8, 1Co. 1:4, and with Timothy and sometimes Silvanus in other of the Epistles.  Corporate thanksgiving is found in many of the Psalms (Ps. 95, 97, 100, to select only a few).  It is found also in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, when believers corporately remember the Lord’s death with thanksgiving for the remission of sin it purchased for His people.  The Lord’s Day is an appointed day of thanksgiving (Ps. 92).  A period of public or private thanksgiving must therefore be one conducted with the same elements as the Christian Sabbath, that is, devoted entirely to the public and private worship of God, excepting works of necessity and mercy.

In every one of these examples, the matter being fasted over or given thanks for is extraordinary.  Can we give thanks to the Lord for the Reformation?  Yes.  Should we set apart one day every year for any celebration or thanksgiving?  No.  The Lord does not permit us to ritualistically observe days, so we cannot hold to the celebration of Reformation Day.

A good litmus test of whether or not the celebration of a day is acceptable before God, is whether or not the individual or body is being pressed-upon internally to seek God in fasting or in thanks.  A day of fasting or thanksgiving should be a manifestation of the desires of the soul, not a day to call attention to a particular event.  The call to a day of humiliation or thanksgiving must come out from within believers by the operations of the Holy Spirit, not pressed in from outside every year by a calendar.  The Holy Spirit does not operate in a certain way according to the time of the year.  Therefore, celebrating particular events because of the date is celebrating them without respect to the Holy Spirit.

Guy Fawkes’ Night is in a boat almost parallel with Reformation Day.  But whereas Reformation Day is without overt pagan influence, Guy Fawkes’ Night swiftly became the Protestant replacement for the prohibited Halloween[9], retaining the Samhain bone-fire and Pomona apples – this time dipped in toffee.  Again, if the Holy Spirit unctions it, we can thank the Lord for His deliverance in saving Protestant King James I (or VI) instead of replacing him with a Roman Catholic.  Again, we cannot mark a day on the calendar to be held commemoratively every year.

In conclusion, the Lord actively instructs us to disassociate ourselves from pagan events such as Halloween, and to avoid the rituals associated therewith.  We must not be seen to give tacit approval by creating jack-o-lanterns, or allowing children to go trick-or-treating, or bobbing for apples.  Furthermore, the Lord does not permit us to install days on the calendar to be observed every year, only permitting us to hold special days of fasting and thanksgiving when we are presented with extraordinary circumstances.  The implications of our findings on other festivals, such as Christmas and Easter, are plain and will be expounded at a later date.


[1] ‘Do You Celebrate Halloween?’ <http://christianity.about.com/gi/pages/poll.htm?linkback=http%3A%2F%2Fchristianity.about.com%2Fb%2F2007%2F10%2F10%2Fhalloween-poll-for-christians-do-you-celebrate-halloween.htm&poll_id=9806623063&poll=1> [accessed 30 October 2012]

[2] Martin Beckford, ‘Church of England Claims Halloween is ‘similar’ to Christmas Eve’, Telegraph, 17 September 2008 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2977644/Church-of-England-claims-Halloween-is-similar-to-Christmas-Eve.html#> [accessed 30 October 2012]

[3] J. A. MacCulloch, ‘Festivals’, in The Religion of the Ancient Celts (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1911)

[4] Roseanne Montillo, ‘Halloween and Western Commemorations of the Dead’ in Halloween and Commemorations of the Dead (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), p. 8

[5] Christopher Hill, Holidays and Holy Nights (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2003), p. 56

[6] Nicholas Roger, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 57

[7] Helmer Junghans, ‘Luther’s Wittenberg’ in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

[8] Westminster Assembly of Divines, ‘An Appendix: Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship’, in The Directory for the Publick Worship of God (Applecross: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1970), p. 394

[9] David Unterdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)

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