What To Do About Halloween On The Sabbath?

There are three major questions here: Halloween, the Sabbath, and how Christians ought to relate their faith in Christ to their life in the broader culture.


Halloween falls on the Lord’s Day (October 31, 2021) this year. Recently someone wrote to ask how Christian parents should handle this. As a practical matter children like dressing up, going out on a crisp Autumn evening, and collecting candy. Some Christians have concluded that Halloween is demonic and Christians should not participate. Others (e.g., Romanists and some evangelicals) emphasize the roots of Halloween as All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints Day, which is observed (mainly by Romanists) on November 1. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the first reference to a feast held in honor of those Christians who had died and gone to be with the Lord is found in the work of Ephraim the Syrian (d. AD 373). In the Western church it was Boniface IV who formally instituted All Saints Day in the early seventh century in connection to the Christian consecration of the Pantheon in Rome. The November 1 observance dates to Gregory III in AD 741 in connection with the dedication of St Peter’s Basilica. It was ordered as a universal feast day in the Roman calendar about a century later by Gregory IV in AD 844.

Over the centuries the cultural significance of what became Halloween has evolved along with its observance. Today, there is very little that is distinctively Christian about what Halloween signifies or in the way it is observed. For adults, and I use the word loosely in this context, it has become an opportunity to dress in sexually suggestive costumes. For children, at least post-World War II, it has become an opportunity to beg for candy under the threat of pranks or worse. It is true that the costumes (e.g., ghosts, goblins, witches, and monsters) evoke themes of death and fear. Now, I enjoy the old horror films as much as anyone (the slasher films produced after the end of Hays Office are an abomination) but death, demons, and hell are not a joke. Mary Reed Newland’s 1956 defense (linked above) of Halloween is the best case for Halloween that I have seen but it is obviously a product of the 1950s and not the 2020s. She notes in passing that even Elizabeth I, no radical she, banned observance of All Saints Day in England after her accession to the throne. It takes little imagination to think what our Reformed forbears would say about dressing up our children like devils, monsters, and ghouls.

At best All Saints Day and Halloween are a mash up (i.e., syncretism) of ancient pagan Autumn rituals, Medieval invocations of departed Christians with candy and fun before, in most places, it gets too cold to be out in the evening. Still, parents face a lot of pressure from children whose friends are all going trick or treating and who, the next day, will be recounting what they did and how much candy they collected. This may be the first real pressure young Christians face from the broader culture. The thing children want least of all is to stand out in a way that leads to exclusion from the group and they do not want to miss out on the fun and the candy.

Christian Sabbath

Our Lord Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). The Apostolic church met on the “first day of the sabbaths” (John 20:19; Acts 20:7) and the Apostle John called it “the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10). The early post-apostolic church rejected the Jewish (Saturday) Sabbath and was fiercely attacked by their Jewish critics for doing so. Their practice was to meet twice on the Lord’s Day for worship. Contra the antinomians, our Lord did not revoke every idea of the Sabbath. He rejected rabbinical abuses of the Sabbath and reclaimed it, as it were, for himself and his people. Truly, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8). He restored the original purpose of the Sabbath: rest, worship, and acts of mercy. In his resurrection, he inaugurated the new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15) and reset the calendar. After all his resurrection from the dead on the Lord’s Day was hardly an accident. It was just as deliberate as the institution of the Sabbath pattern in creation.

The Didache, a church order from very early in the second century used the expression “the Lord’s Day.” Other early Christian documents spoke the same way (e.g., Ep. Barnabas, 15:9). C. W. Dugmore wrote that very early on the Christian observance of the Lord’s Day achieved the same place among them that the Saturday Sabbath had among the Jews.  In AD 321 Constantine made the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day a holiday but he did not invent the idea or practice of the Christian Sabbath.

For the Reformed, including Calvin, the Christian Sabbath is grounded not in the Mosaic ceremonial laws, which expired with the death of Christ, but in creation and the re-creation, which was inaugurated in Christ’s resurrection. Despite some minor variation in the way the Christian Sabbath was understood and explained, there was universal agreement among the Reformed that the day was to be set aside for rest, worship, and the ministry of mercy (e.g., alms taking etc). In the Modern period, particularly since World War II, observance of the Christian Sabbath has fallen on hard times. It is a given for many evangelicals, especially among those influenced by Dispensationalism, that the Sabbath is purely Mosaic and any Sabbath principle or practice ended with the death of Christ. For the vast majority of evangelicals then Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is regarded as the day on which Christians gather for worship in the morning and otherwise to be spent in recreation. Thus, they have become some of the more enthusiastic celebrators of Halloween. For confessing Reformed Christians, however, any programmatic recreation on the Christian Sabbath raises some questions and Halloween is doubly problematic.

Christ and Culture

The historic Christian observance of the Lord’s Day places Christians at odds with the prevailing 24/7 culture. We observe a day of rest in a relentless, restless culture. We stop to worship our Creator and Redeemer, an act that is bound to seem increasingly anachronistic and even bizarre in a culture of Narcissism and self-expression. The death and resurrection of Christ is that the center of our faith. The heart of the late-modern religion is self, self-realization, and self-realization. These two religions are antithetical. We are at odds in principle and practice or at least we should be.

Inasmuch as culture (e.g., literature, language, art) is an expression of creation (nature), Christians must engage it and we are free to participate. The Apostle Paul articulated this principle to the Corinthians. Should we be invited to a secular, i.e., non-religious, meal we are free to participate. Should we be invited, however to a sacred, i.e., overtly religious meal, we must decline. We have a religious feast. We call it the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. We may have no communion with gods that are not nor with demons (1 Cor 10:14–33). Insofar, however, as culture becomes cult., i.e, religious or sacred, we must abstain. Thus, contra those transformationalists who would make everything sacred and admit nothing as secular, the traditional Reformed appropriation of the sacred/secular distinction gives us a way to think about events like Halloween.

Insofar as Halloween is a religious event or an event with religious overtones, we must abstain. Whether it is a religious event is a matter of judgment on which reasonable people will disagree but it is hard to see how witches, graves, ghosts, and demons are purely secular. People are devoted to American football and it can become a de facto religion. It remains, however, formally secular. By contrast, however, Halloween, is laden with religious symbolism and imagery. It is true that not everyone appreciates that symbolism and imagery any longer but Christians should. We know what graves, demons, and witches symbolize.

One alternative to All Hallows Eve that arose fairly early on (Turretin makes a passing reference to it) is Reformation Day. Ideally it should be observed in April, when Luther stood for sola scriptura at Worms but for centuries now Reformation Christians have observed October 31 as Reformation Day in honor of what many regard as the formal inauguration of the Protestant Reformation with the mailing or nailing of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg, in 1517. Christians with strong Reformation connections have set aside the Sunday nearest October 31 as Reformation Day and, after the evening service, have even gathered to share candy, to play games, and to fellowship. This way we honor and remember our Reformation inheritance and give the children a way to have some fun while absenting ourselves from the more cultic aspects of Halloween.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories for relating Christ to culture were always defective. His analysis was a starting point not a stopping point. Our relation to the prevailing culture is more complex than he said. In some aspects, when it comes to cult or sacred matters, we stand in antithesis. When it comes to culture or nature or the secular, we are part of the culture. Like Tertullian we contest our opponent’s starting point but like Tertullian we capitalize on the goods provided by the culture to advance the mission of the church.

The early Christian church was born in a pagan world. We, however, live in an increasingly post-Christian culture, in the wake of the death of Christendom and we are still feeling our way. This transition makes for ambiguities. Nevertheless, let us be honest, thoughtful, and prayerful about how we relate to the culture. Let us be bold and fearless and draw lines where Scripture and conscience require but let us do so graciously and with a smile. This October 31 might be an excellent day to invite your post-Christian family and friends to join you in church, to hear the gospel and to see that, even though you are abstaining from Halloween, you are not a curmudgeon nor, as the pagan Romans said of the early Christians, a hater of humanity.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. I think there’s sort of a canard that goes on in conservative Christian circles that, by virtue of the costumes the kids are wearing *ghouls* *witches* *devils*, that the kids are halfway to participating in some sort of ‘sacrifice a goat on the coffee table’ style satanic ritual. In fact, the majority of the kids are going to be dressed as their favorite super hero’s, cowboys, Donald Trump (the most popular costume of the last few years BY FAR, nationwide), etc. I think that the way this ‘holiday’ has evolved it’s harmless and doesn’t have a whole lot of significant spiritual connotations one way or the other, not unlike the way that kids have birthday parties with their own little customs, pin the tail on the donkey, etc, Doesn’t seem like the kid going out dressed as Spider-Man coming back with a pillow case full of. Snickers Bars is going to prod the poor little lad down the primrose path to the eternal bonfire, right? Don’t we have better fights to fight than this sad little one that gets trotted out every year around mid September?

    • Hi Paul,

      That’s a fair point. In some places Halloween may be more anodyne. Here, where I am, in Southern California, however, Halloween has fairly strong connections to ghouls, demons, death, and even the occult. We have an annual celebration here known as “Day of the Dead” (Dia de Los Muertos), which looks a lot like Halloween and has strong occult overtones. The folks in our town will be turning their front yards into graveyards, spraying their houses with spiderwebs as soon as October arrives. There will be Wonder Women at our door too.

      As to trotting out fights, I’m just answering a question that was put to me. I don’t think that you will find much content about Halloween on the Heidelblog but how to relate Christ to culture and how to observe the Christian Sabbath are valid questions. Halloween is the presenting issue.

      I’m not binding anyone’s conscience here.

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