To understand Halloween, first you need to know about a Catholic holiday–or holy day–that is still celebrated today by Catholics around the world. It is called All Saints Day. At one time, almost all Christians were members of a single church, the Catholic Church, which was the only Christian Church in all of western Europe for over one thousand years. The Catholic Church grew up out of the very first Christians in the city of Rome during the days of the Roman Empire. Because of that, many people still refer to it as the Roman Catholic Church, but that is not its official name. It’s just the Catholic Church, catholic being a term that means worldwide.
When Christianity was still a new religion, the Roman Empire persecuted the Christians, and many believers were executed for their faith in Christ. Finally one of the emperors converted to Christianity and the persecutions were stopped. But many people had died for their faith, so a special day called All Saints Day was eventually designated by the Catholic Church as a commemoration of all those believers or “saints” who had been martyred for Christ under the Roman persecutions. As the years went by, the Catholic Church continued to add certain people to their list of saints to be honored. In the New Testament, the word saint just means a believer, so all believers are saints in that sense. But the Catholic Church meant something more by this term. They designated only particular people who had lived extraordinary lives of holiness and who had worked at least a few miracles, too. These people were (and still are today) proclaimed by the Catholic Church to be saints in that special sense.
In England during the Middle Ages, All Saints Day was known as All Holy’s Day, or actually All Hallows Day –hallow just being the old English word for holy. The date for All Saints Day varied from country to country at first, but was finally settled on November 1. Now, November 1 just also happened to coincide with a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain. From Samhain, which means end of summer, we get our celebrations for the fall harvest: pumpkins, jack-o’lanterns, bonfires, bobbing for apples, etc. But Samhain was also associated with honoring all those who had died during the previous year and with the need to help these departed spirits safely into the afterlife with various rituals (such as the bon–really bone–fires). It was believed, too, that some of the dead might manifest themselves at this time and make surprise appearances. As this pagan holiday became blended with the Christian one, superstitions arose that on the night before All Hallows Day, all sorts of devils and demons came out to possess the souls of innocent people. Many Christians believed that one should mock evil in order to ward it off, so they dressed up like demons themselves in order to frighten the demons away. Soon all these Christian and pagan activities had become one unified tradition that was celebrated on the evening before All Hallows Day. Therefore, it was known as All Hallows Evening (just the way Christmas eve is the night before Christmas). The word evening, or even, was often spoken and written as a contraction–e’en. Thus, you now had people dressing up like goblins and demons, lighting jack o’lanterns, bobbing for apples, and watching for ghosts on the night called All Hallows E’en… get it?
The interesting thing about Halloween is that one of the most important events in church history happened on that night.
It was an event which helped put a stake in a real Dracula’s heart, you might say, because, as mentioned before, the only Church in western Europe at this time was the Catholic Church, and the Church had become incredibly corrupt. That’s a story in itself. It’s important to understand that the Catholic Church of our day has reformed itself, and is no longer like this. Protestants still don’t agree with many Catholic doctrines, it’s true, but Catholics believe the Apostle’s Creed just as we do, and their church is in no way corrupt as it was back in the Middle Ages. But it took the huge movement of the Protestant Reformation to clean it up–and that brings us to Luther.
The Catholic Church was very corrupt in the years leading up to 1516. Priests and others in the ruling hierarchy of the Church used their offices for self promotion while living immoral lives. For instance, the pope of Luther’s day had three mistresses and several illegitimate children. Archbishops and cardinals lived lavishly and built opulent cathedrals while poor people went hungry and lived in squalor. The Church tried to raise money by frightening the poor with threats of extended time in Purgatory if they did not give money to the Church.
In the fall of that year a German monk named Martin Luther just couldn’t take it anymore (the abuses and corruption). For several years he had been studying the Bible for the first time in his life. (The printing press had just been invented shortly before, and Bibles were still rare–even among the clergy!) Luther began to see that the Church was not only misunderstanding some important truths in scripture, it was using some of these falsehoods and half-truths to get money from the poor. He made a list of ninety five points, or theses, which he wanted to present to the Church in order to protest these abuses. Then he nailed his list up on the big wooden doors of the town church because the doors served as a kind of town bulletin board in those days. Just to make double sure everyone would see his Ninety Five Theses, Luther posted them on the day before All Saints Day–All Hallows Day–because the whole town would be gathering there to worship. Thus, Martin Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany on Halloween.
Satan, the only true Dracula (living dead, wants to suck your blood, enemy of Christ–I think that qualifies him as a real Dracula), got staked that night for real because Martin Luther’s action was the match that lit the bonfire of the whole Protestant Reformation. That movement is what broke us free from the Catholic monopoly on issues of theology and faith. The Catholics, in turn, had a reformation of their own, cleaning up church abuses and getting rid of the corruption at the top. Demons of false clergymen with nothing but political power and self interest in their hearts were brought down. Goblins of doctrinal lies got eaten up by the Truth. Satan must surely have gnashed his teeth over that spunky monk who took his stand for Christ on Hallows E’en in 1516!
So, if you celebrate Halloween, just know you’re mocking the devil. He lost a great battle on this night five centuries ago, and as Martin Luther said,
“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.”
Recommended follow up: Watch the movie Luther!