Happy New Year!
These Islands (UK) are rich with history, moments and events of great significance. Among our many customs and traditions we have had, at different times, three New Years. The current New Year with which we are all familiar dates back to the days of the Roman Republic. January is named for Janus the Roman god of endings and transitions, of doorways and entrances. This was the time when two consuls were elected to lead the Republic for the year ahead. This is a metropolitan new year.
Another New Year, marked in England until the adoption of the modern calendar, is 25 March, which coincides roughly with the Vernal Equinox when day and night are of equal length. This is an agricultural new year. It marked the end of winter and it was a time when taxes were paid, contracts ended, were renewed, or first entered into.
If you have ever wondered why our tax year ends on April 5th it is because in 1752 the new, Gregorian calendar was introduced and the following Spring people woke up to find that March 25th had suddenly and mysteriously become April 5 because of an 11 day disparity between the old, Julian, and new, Gregorian calendar.
We might think history is dry and academic but we are influenced by it more than we can imagine. So often what we do today is dictated by what they did then.
In the ancient world 1 November marked the Celtic New Year's Day which, when you think of it, has its own logic. Another agricultural new year, it too was related to the seasons. By this time the crops should be harvested and stored in barns and animals brought in from distant fields.
In Wales November 1st was Calan Gaeaf, Winter Season, and October 31st was known as Nos Calan Gaeaf, Winter Night, and sometimes Ysbrydnos , Spirit Night. It was also the Winter Eve Massacre, when prime stock was prepared to be wintered ready for the next season while other animals were slaughtered to supply the meat over the coming winter.
In the Celtic world this time was known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in). While the New Year was “born” on 1 November, the old year “died” on October 31st – Halloween. This was seen as an appropriate time to honour the dead. The Celts believed it was a time when the barrier between our world and the spirit world was at its weakest, a time when evil spirits roamed the land. It was considered a time of the wandering dead, when the dead revisited their homes. The tradition of putting pumpkin candles in windows goes back to a time when folk would light candles to guide their departed loved ones home.
It was felt appropriate to placate supernatural powers abroad on this day, especially those controlling nature. Folk left offerings of food and drink for masked and costumed revellers representing evil spirits to keep the spirits out. Bonfires were lit and a combination of fire and noise were said to frighten away evil spirits. In England bonfires were moved to 5th November after Guy Fawkes but retain their pagan roots.
Druids were concerned with making contact with the dead, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration, guardians of the root wisdom of the tribe. Others thought this a good time to seek the Devil's help concerning marriages, health and various enterprises.
The Devil was thought to be a master builder and anyone facing a building project, especially bridges, that seemed beyond the skill of man might enter into a contract with the devil in which he would build the structure in exchange for a soul. Stories abound of how he was usually cheated out of his reward. There are at least forty nine places in the UK called Devil’s Bridge.
People tended graves to honour the dead but avoided grave yards after dark, journeys had to end before dusk. Folk believed they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes on this night and so they wore masks and dressed up so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. Trick-or-Treat originated in the fact that this was also Mischief Night when children would knock on doors demanding treats – a sort of early-medieval protection racket.
So am I saying that the children who will be knocking our doors at Halloween are in the service of the Devil? Are they in thrall to evil forces? Of course not. But I am suggesting that this is not simply the harmless fun they so obviously have as they dress up for the occasion..
The challenge and influence of Culture
Our culture and history have a profound influence on how we live our lives today of which we are often unaware. As Christians we are as much a product of our culture as of our faith and thoughtful Christians find themselves challenged about where we can compromise and where we cannot.
Consider Daniel who co-operated with Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king when he and his companions had their names changed and were given a Babylonian education but who stood firm and refused to eat meat from the king's table because it was forbidden in the Law.
We too compromise on some things and not on others. Any JW will tell you that Christmas and Easter are originally Pagan festivals on which the church has painted a Christian gloss but then our days of the week and months of the year are named after Pagan gods but we don't insist on giving them Christian names. To do so might make us not of the world but it would make being in the world impractical, impossible. Some things we compromise on.
spiritual forces of evil
The Bible tells us that we struggle against “the rulers, authorities and powers of this dark world and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.” (Eph.6:12) We are told that Christ ascended far above these powers, conquering and ruling over them (Eph.4:8; Col.2:15) We might ask then whether we should be “celebrating” those things from which Christ died to free us.
You see, this is a time of year that is taken very seriously by pagans, witches and Satanists (three very different groups). It is a time when ancient rituals are recited, gods and spirits are worshipped, some worshipping the Devil, others repudiating Satanism but conjuring the dead to help them in life and love. It is a time for divination and spirit worship.
The ironically named Christian Day, a “modern day warlock”, has written The Witches Book of the Dead. In it he claims to help you “summon the spirits of our beloved to help you discover hidden opportunities, influence the minds of others, seduce the object of your affection, and even reach into the dreams of the unwary.”
As someone who has ministered to the cults for many years I know people who have been wonderfully saved out of witchcraft, Satanism, the occult – occult meaning hidden. They tell stories to make your eyes water and cause you to thank God for his power and grace in salvation. They have seen the powers of darkness at work. Halloween for them, far from being the fun event it might be to others is a time to lock their doors, ignore the persistent knocking and pray for it to be over.
It is not that they haven't faith in Christ so much as that they know first hand what this night means to millions around the world who are trapped by principalities and powers, spiritual forces of evil.
Come Out of Her
When Abraham was called by God he was called out of such a Pagan society (Genesis 12), in which gods were worshipped, the help of spirits sought and in which men sought to become gods themselves. In the Bible’s last book God’s people were urged to, come out her my people,” Rev.18:5) meaning pagan Babylon. This has been the pattern throughout the history of God's people, a people set apart by God.The Bible tells us, to be a nation of kings and priests to God. (Rev.1:6) A people so different that in the Old Testament even what they ate and what they wore marked them out from all other nations.
With Daniel we are challenged to consider carefully our choices, where we can safely and reasonably compromise to continue being in the world and where we must stand and not compromise to avoid being of the world.
Like Paul we are to weigh what the world values and counts gain, what we once valued and counted gain, against what we now hold dear above all things, counting everything else loss compared to this one thing – knowing Christ Jesus as Lord, for whose sake we are surely prepared to lose all things (Philip.3:7-11)
So, when spooks, ghouls and witches come knocking on Halloween by all means smile on them, have a treat and an appropriate look of horror ready to make them giggle at having shocked you. But think soberly also about what this time of year is all about. Remember the most innocent of fun can blind us to dangers that others know first hand and warn us about Remember, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Ps.1:7)