The word Hallowe’en does not come in the Bible (in fact, it wasn’t invented until the 18th century). It means ‘the holy evening’. It has long been celebrated as the first of three days on which to remember those who have died, especially Christians whom we have loved and admired, but who are now dead.

Lovingly to honour those who have died is a wonderful thing for Christians to do. However, as in so much else in life, human nature has led people to look behind the Christian celebration and find a dark background. Shops have also found a way to make money out of it. So a once-treasured festival has become one with a controversial edge.

With a few exceptions, Christian churches recognise 1 November as All Saints’ Day. It is a joyful day which celebrates the fact that there is life after human death. It is a day for recognising the Christian hope that we will be reunited in Heaven with those we have loved. Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the living and the dead are not parted from each other forever.

Many countries have 1 November as a national holiday. In Mexico the Day of the Dead is a colourful day of parties and remembrance. Many other countries also follow that tradition, but not the UK. Instead, many Christians in the UK use church services on the nearest Sunday as occasions for joyful hymns and prayers because of the their confidence that death is not the end.

The following day, 2 November, is called All Souls’ Day. In the Roman Catholic Church, this day is marked out as one on which to pray that the souls of people who have died will rest in peace. Orthodox churches have several such days during the year. Protestant and Pentecostal churches tend to pray for living people, but not for those who have died.

So Hallowe’en on 31 October has historically been an evening of preparation for these Christian festivals. There have been superstitions that the souls of dead people visit their old homes seeking hospitality. However, there is no trace of this in Christianity. The superstitions may have come from pre-Christian times (possibly a pagan festival called Samhain).

The customs are more to do with entertainment than spiritual reflection. In the UK these have traditionally been carving pumpkins (originally turnips) so that they show human faces, with candles placed inside the empty shell. Bonfires are sometimes burnt, apples covered in toffee are eaten, and games such as apple-bobbing (trying to retrieve a piece of apple from a water container with teeth but no hands) were once popular.

In the US, the customs include holding costume parties (often garish costumes of witches or ghosts), telling scary stories, and trick-or-treating (visiting neighbours and asking for sweets with the threat of a prank if the answer is no). Increasingly these customs have been taken up in the UK, with shops keen to sell pre-packaged items of a slightly creepy nature.

In recent years UK churches have been eager to reclaim the Christian significance of Hallowe’en. Many churches offer ‘light parties’ to children. The more sinister elements that have become associated with the evening are replaced by joyful games that recognise the uplifting name by which Jesus is often called: the Light of the World.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

All things were created by [Jesus Christ], and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.  In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.

Where to find it:

John 1:3-5.

About these words:

This is the beginning of John’s account of the life of Jesus.  He repeatedly writes about what Jesus did in terms of light coming into the world.  This translation comes from the New English Bible.  It is a particularly vivid translation because it suggests that not only will the darkness never defeat the light, it hasn’t even understood it.

And they said…

Pope John Paul XXIII, 1881-1963:

We appeal to the whole Christian community not to promote this recourse to the macabre and the horrific … Be aware of this and try to direct the meaning of the feast toward wholesomeness and beauty, rather than terror, fear and death.

Nora Roberts, US author:

Evil cannot and will not be vanquished by evil.  Dark will only swallow dark and deepen.  The good and the light are the keenest weapons.

Brother Andrew (Andrew van der Bijl), whose determination to take Bibles into communist coutries at the height of the Cold War earned him the nickname God’s Smuggler :

Don’t curse the darkness but light a candle.  The bigger the darkness, the easier it is to spot your little light.

Martin Luther, theologian, 1483-1546:

The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him for he cannot bear scorn.

William Walsham How, Bishop of Wakefield, 1823-1897:

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might,
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well fought fight,
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light,
Alleluia, Alleluia!