THE BLOG
10/28/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Satan's Birthday: A Brief Discussion on Halloween and Christianity

Co-authored by Brandon Withrow, Professor of Religious Studies; Author; Blogger.

So Satan's Birthday is coming up and I wanted to talk to an expert about it. Here's the transcript of a conversation I recently had with a Religious Studies professor about Halloween and the Christians who hate/boycott/are afraid of it.

First things first. Give us some background on Halloween.

All Hallows' Eve may go back as far as the ancient Romans, who honored Pomona, a goddess of apples, pears, etc. For the Celts, it was a time to mark the end of the summer, which dies on October 31, a festival known as Samhain. This made November 1 the start of a new year. It was a time of ceremony, sacrificial offering, and a time to put away cattle and store food. In the 8th century, Western Christianity moved the Springtime Saints' feast day, known as All Saints' Day, to November 1, unintentionally creating a sort of competitive religious holiday.

So then, there is historical precedent for the Christian v. Halloween thing?

Well, that conflict certainly isn't unique to the 20th century. History shows that there has been a long, rocky relationship between Christianity and Halloween. The Puritans, for example, were known for outlawing the holiday; this banning was also the case for Christmas. Puritans were big on abolishing anything that remotely resembled superstition to them. On the plus side, they enjoyed beer.

Let's bring it current. Is there anything in recent memory that might connect to the continued evangelical fascination with the holiday?

Among evangelicals, there was a strong backlash from so-called Satan fighters in the 1980s. National and local ministries began popping up with the sole intention of finding out where Satan was hiding -- usually behind every LP. Back then, evangelicals were fond of playing the music of rock bands backwards, looking for secret messages from the Prince of Darkness himself, who presumably did this as a hobby of sorts. These Christians believed that each demon-filled track was intended to manipulate the unaware listener and promote Satan worship.

This is the same timeframe as Mike Warnke, so-called Satanist extraordinaire?

Yes. So during the same decade there was the rise of figures like Mike, who claimed to have been taken into Satanism as a child and toured the country on an anti-Satan campaign. His memoir, The Satan Seller, was the original Million Little Pieces in that like James Frey's book it was entirely made up. His "ministry" was also a scam that was exposed in 1991. Like Warnke, there were others (e.g. Bob Larson) whose ministries were primarily about pushing fears of Satanic influence and demonic possession.

Halloween then ...

Halloween was an obvious target for the Satan haters. When I hear evangelicals talk about Halloween in nefarious terms today, it sounds very familiar to what I saw as a kid among these groups in the 80s. Those movements continue to have rippling effects today.

Like what?

Well, Halloween has a connection to certain evangelical sensibilities that appear on a regular basis. For instance, there's the whole phenomenon of evangelicals creating safe "alternatives" to popular secular culture. So we see Christian self-help books, and Christian music, Christian television, etc. So the evangelical tendency to create Halloween alternatives -- Hell Houses, Reformation Day, Harvest Festivals - is really just another example of the larger move to put a Jesus mask on what offends them. Evangelicals have a tradition of taking up various cultural trends for their own purposes, but they rarely just go along and have fun with them.

In general, what do you think these "evangelical sensibilities" suggest about the current state of evangelicalism?

For the evangelical, everything is about the euangelion or "good news" of Jesus, who is to redeem the world from the perils of sin. This is a salvation that, for the evangelical, starts by systematically transforming what isn't right in the world. While the Protestant work ethic may have said that whatever is done for God is sacred, eliminating a medieval division between sacred and secular, evangelicals still find the need to sacralize everything further. It has its pragmatic benefits in that evangelicals create hospitals and missions for feeding the poor, but it can also mean that sometimes they forget about how to just live with their neighbors and do mundane things without always working with an ulterior motive.

Are any of the Christian fears about the religious significance of Halloween grounded?

When you consider that most Americans surveyed still hold to very strong beliefs in the supernatural, it should be no surprise that Christians react as strongly to Halloween as they do. In 2007, for example, a Gallup Poll showed that 70 percent of Americans believed in the Devil. A more recent YouGov poll has that number at around 6 in 10 Americans who believe in the Devil, with 51 percent believing in demonic possession and 45 percent in the power of exorcism.

In some traditions the belief in a real Satan and literal spiritual world that battles against the heavenly is very much alive. There are mainliners, for example, who would find the conservative and fundamentalist views of Halloween and fixation on Satan to be almost primitively ancient, but I also know of Christians for whom these things are real threats.

You're saying some Christian beliefs in Satan reinforce the negative feelings they have toward Halloween?

Exactly. For instance, my very young niece -- whom I love dearly -- told me before that Halloween is Satan's birthday. But not all Christians cite Satan as their reason for not celebrating Halloween. Many Christians point to the practices traditionally associated with it. Some will claim that the Druids engaged in human sacrifice, which is a claim that is disputed. The more significant accounts of sacrifice are drawn from Roman leaders, and it is important to remember, however, that many Roman historians were not always careful in their understanding of the religious practices. For example, they misunderstood the Eucharist so poorly that they accused Christians of cannibalism, which would be a very literal interpretation of "this is my body." On the other hand, some scholars like Nicholas Rogers, argue that while some evidence for human sacrifice is ambiguous, there are reasons to not dismiss it entirely.

Do you think Christian fear of Halloween points to a larger problem with today's Christians. Namely, that they're largely ignorant of religious history?

I'm an educator, so ignorance is something I'm exposed to often. You might say that there is an overemphasis on what is done today versus what the history actually is. I would even say that what is labeled Halloween today is so divorced from the history itself that what is being opposed by many American evangelicals is often the Americanized version that resembles very little of the history.

Are there any similar boycotts in the annals of church history? What can we learn from that?

Christians have always had mixed reactions to what was considered questionable, supernatural practice. For example, the belief of many evangelicals that astrology is demonic was not always the case with their Protestant predecessors. Figures like Martin Luther and (especially) Philip Melanchthon were into astrology, and after them Pope Urban VIII was an astrology addict. Calvinists, however, rejected it. Those who accepted it had their reasons (God controls the stars, for example), while those who rejected it saw it as a pagan and demonic practice.

As I see it, there are similarities in how Christians approach Halloween. Christians not knowing exactly how they should handle days considered to be "questionable" have always had to find their way to address it. For some, there is nothing inherently wrong in costume and candy, and since God created all days alike, then Halloween can be redeemed in some way. For others, it invites demonic activity and is connected to a shady history, so it should be shunned or replaced with harvest or Reformation festivals.

Last question: Satan's birthday? Really? Is there cake?
There is -- just don't ask how many candles are on it. I hear there's hell to pay.