Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Halloween: a Trick or a Treat?

26 Oct 2017

Eve Poole considers the opportunity to affirm a Christian message and ritual around the festival of Halloween.

It seems like supreme irony to me that our local playgroup has been told by the church hosting them that children dressing up for their Halloween party should avoid ‘anything associated with dark magic.’ Perhaps it’s not news that a church should feel ticklish about Halloween; Christians often have. The Christian entrepreneur Gary Grant doesn’t stock Halloween items in his famous Entertainer toyshops either. But I think we’ve got the wrong end of the stick about this wonderful festival. Indeed, I should like much more dark magic, not less.

After Christmas and Easter, Halloween now eclipses even Valentine’s Day as a commercial festival. Many people dislike the creeping Americanisation that has made ‘trick or treating’ normal for today’s children, and such a bonanza for retailers. In my youth, we had the less threatening tradition of ‘guising,’ where children at least had to dress up in disguise and perform to earn sweets, rather than simply demand them with menaces. With my sisters, I had to learn the entire Witches’ scene from Macbeth to net a few satsumas and the odd tube of Spangles, and my poor brother had to drag his viola from door to door playing Bach cello suites. Admittedly we were raised in St Andrews, which sets a rather high bar for impressing the neighbours on the doorstep.

You don’t need me to rehearse the history of Halloween, which links to parallel festivals throughout the world – and throughout history – about death and remembering the dead. But with our complicated mixture of skeletons, witches and pumpkins it is sometimes hard to remember what on earth it’s really about, making it rather easier to focus on ‘dark magic’ than its deeper purpose.

It is supremely human to fear death, which is why all traditions have festivals about death, whether to honour ancestors and loved ones, or to scandalise death in general by being defiantly un-scared of it. That is why we dress up as death to make a mockery of everything we most dread. And even the benighted ‘trick or treating’ honours this tradition: what could be more outrageous than misrule by *innocent* children? In a similar vein, my Latin teacher used to delight in telling us that in Roman times children would be engaged to run behind a newly-wed bride and groom shouting obscenities, to scare off the evil spirits who were thought to be prudish.

But unease about ‘dark magic’ means that now more children are dressing up as pumpkins or Disney characters rather than as witches, ghosts or skeletons, which robs the festival of its purpose. And it seems that churches are encouraging this trend, when we should be doing the exact opposite. That’s why it is ironic that a church should worry about an association with ‘dark magic’: if Jesus harrowed hell we have nothing to fear from the dead: if God is both benevolent and omnipotent, we need not fear ‘dark magic.’ So if we collude with this idea that Halloween is somehow dangerous, we deny our very deepest Christian beliefs.

What we have this Halloween is opportunity. To ask, again, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’; and to rejoice in a festival that is gloriously about being alive and having nothing to fear from the darkness and from dark powers. As one of the faith traditions that has a particularly strong narrative about death, we can use this festival to explain anew why we are not afraid, and celebrate it as another Easter, albeit with pumpkins and sweets rather than with bunnies and chocolate eggs.

There is, however, one important element of this festival that the commercialisation of it neglects. Halloween is named for the days that follow it in the Christian calendar, where the emphasis is less on death in general and more about honouring the dead. In the UK we publicly honour the war dead each year, but the churches remain sparsely populated for both All Saints’ Day and All Souls. Yet we are here because of those who have gone before us, and there are those recent dead whose memory burns strongly in the hearts of those who mourn them still.

The Jewish tradition has Yahrzeit Candles to commemorate the dead, lit to burn for 24 hours on the eve of the anniversary of their death, and at other festivals throughout the year. Since the lighting of candles in churches and cathedrals seems a universally acceptable practice, could we not tempt people back into church after Halloween to remember their own dead in this way? Perhaps with orange candles, if you’re keen to capture some Halloween market-share.

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John Morris

26/10/2017 12:56

Absolutely right – I’ve often thought that the Church has hugely over-reacted on this matter.

John de Gruyther

26/10/2017 12:56

Brilliant and reasoned article.. an issue we face every year with parts of the congregation viewing it as evil (this has been said directly to some of our young people). This grounds it in the true meaning instead of getting caught up with the hype around ghosts and ghouls.

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