Should Christians celebrate Halloween?

And should they let their kids go trick-or-treating?

A few years ago, my answer to both these questions would have been an emphatic No. Halloween (I would have argued) is scary, dark and mixed up with the occult, and trick-or-treating is basically blackmailing strangers for sweets.

This year though, we’ve made the decision to let our two primary-school-age children get involved in Halloween rather than hiding away as we’ve done in previous years, pretending we’re not at home when trick-or-treaters knock. We’ve carved a pumpkin. We’ve let our son buy, of his own choice, a black plastic ‘vampire’ snake (his name for it) and a skull with glowing eyes. We’re letting him and our daughter dress up in Harry Potter robes and go trick-or-treating with friends, with some ground rules that they only visit houses of people we know (no strangers) and who we’ve primed to receive a visit, and that they don’t play any tricks on anyone.

Why the change of heart? A number of reasons. For one thing, it just didn’t seem a healthy way of dealing with Halloween to lock ourselves away in the darkness, pretending we weren’t there. It certainly wasn’t making the kids more fearless or able to deal with their natural fears – quite the opposite. So a kind of limited, regulated engagement just seemed a much more open and healthy way of dealing with something that none of us were entirely comfortable with.

For another, both our kids – and both their parents – love Harry Potter, which for us has taken quite a bit of the sting and fear out of ‘witchiness’, ghosts, Halloween and the like. (Some would say this proves that Harry Potter is softening kids up for the occult – I strongly disagree, but that’s for another article.) Halloween gives the kids the chance to have a bit of fun dressing up as beloved Harry Potter characters without the need to do anything too ghoulish or spooky.

Thirdly, I no longer have the almost obsessive, superstitious fear of all things distantly or reputedly associated with paganism or the occult that I once had – and where I do, I’m trying to lose that fear. Partly I no longer believe that all ‘pagan’ things are truly occult or evil (I’m not saying there isn’t a genuine occult or that it isn’t dangerous, just that not all things Christians pull their skirts up to avoid are genuinely occult). And partly I just don’t believe that locking ourselves away or pretending this stuff isn’t there is a helpful response. Much better to face it and see that it isn’t really all that scary or evil – that we’re not about to be possessed by demons for putting on a Halloween mask – than to terrify ourselves in ignorance and avoidance.

But what of other forms of active, oppositional engagement – light parties or even out-and-out spiritual warfare against the devil? I’ve nothing against light parties (a Christian alternative to Halloween celebrations) – our kids went to one last night. I’m glad they’re available as part of the mix. But I don’t see them as an alternative to Halloween particularly – more an addition.

And as for active spiritual warfare, you can count me out on that. We’re all engaged in enough battles with darkness just in living our lives and dealing with our own inner demons without going out picking new fights.

Halloween is not the devil’s festival, nor has it ever been. It arose from a fusion of the old Gaelic end-of-summer festival of Samhain (sawain), and All Hallows Eve (Hallow E’en), the evening before the Roman Catholic All Hallows Day festival for remembering the faithful departed whose souls were thought to be in Purgatory. The practices of trick-of-treating and of carving jack-o-lanterns both seem to have come from the folk Catholic practice of ‘souling’, poor people going house-to-house to receive alms in return for praying for souls in purgatory.

So we’re reclaiming Halloween this year – not so much for Jesus in the first instance as for ourselves. And maybe, just maybe, being involved in the festival can be not so much compromise as incarnation.

In the meantime, happy Halloween to you all.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Church calendar, Controversies, Evil and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Should Christians celebrate Halloween?

  1. Terry says:

    Hmm. Of course, as a fan of both the Harry Potter series and the closet occultist that is Clive Staples Lewis is bound to approve of Hallowe’en…

    There was an interesting article that I (skim-)read in this week’s Church Times, written by Simon Jenkins of Ship of Fools. As far as I understood it, he was arguing that light parties are all well and good, but actually Hallowe’en can actually be useful in ‘introducing’ children to the darker aspects of existence, such as death, etc. Light parties can actually sanitize Hallowe’en and so render the latter’s redeemable aspects void. He even suggests that as many churches are or look Gothic, they are ideal locations to host parties where children want to dress up as vamps, weres and zombies. And the story of Jesus’s death is, of course, a pretty grisley thing to talk about…

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  2. Rosie Edser says:

    We didn’t *just* hide away and pretend we weren’t in! That was kind of the point of ‘Light’ and ‘Rainbow’ parties to have a fun distraction and genuine reason to be out and besides they’re a lot of wholesome fun! And I remember handing out Jesus-loves-you pencil sharpeners one year.

    Not sure about ‘incarnation’, that might be a bridge too far. Also, I would argue that hallowe’en has sort of become ‘the devil’s festival’ for some…I can’t so lightly shake off the memory of all those tales of nasty things people get up to in books such as “from Witchcraft to Christ”.

    But ironically just as Christians often wring hands at the commercialisation of Christmas diluting the point of Jesus’ birth, I think the commercialisation of hallowe’en has separated it for the mainstream quite far from its dodgy associations. So just as walking past a polystyrene display of penguins and snowmen in the shopping centre won’t somehow rub off on you spiritually positively, so dressing up in a black hat and knocking on auntie M’s door at number 45 won’t spiritually rub off on you negatively.

    I heartily agree that trying to explain to one’s small children that we don’t *do* hallowe’en because there really are nasty spiritual dangerous things out there which we don’t want to associate with isn’t emotionally healthy. Just like at age 5 they don’t need to know about paedophiles, just that stranger might mean danger.

    I’ve tried avoid-the-issue side-step fudgy explanation tactics but they’re basically cop-outs; “well it’s just rotting-your-teeth” (destroyed by a sceptical look at the last birthday party bag) and “well it’s demanding-money-with-menaces which is basically blackmail” but it’s not if you don’t do the trick bit which presumably no well-supervised small child would anyhow. Besides, consider the Christmas tradition of wassailing epitomised in the line of “We wish you a mery Christmas.. We all want some figgy pudding/ we won’t go until we get some/so bring some out here”.

    I’m still not entirely comfortable – will get back to you after experiences tonight – but it is here to stay and we have to find positive ways of engaging.

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  3. Terry says:

    I went to Surrey Quays this morning. The Clinton’s had an inflatable gravestone balloon in the window. Not sure what I thought about that. And as for the spiders: well, for that reason alone, Hallowe’en should be banned.

    Rosie, have you thought about doing alternate trick or treating? Like giving something to the people on whose doors you knock? So just treating, rather than tricking…

    Or you could all just follow Jack T. Chick’s sage advice and hand out his tracts. Tracts like this one: http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/1076/1076_01.asp

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  4. Rosie Edser says:

    Ha ha ha Terry Clive the closet occultist! Well the White Witch is pretty powerful!
    V intersting re Ship Of Fools/Church Times article… I do think relaxed age-appropriate discussion with kids abotu all aspects of life, death and humanity is really helpful to their spiritual and emotional growth.
    Didn’t the great Clive himself (can’t we call him Jack?!) say that he put the evil in his stories deliberately because we all need a bit of tingle-down-the-spine scaring in manageable-fantasty doses?

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  5. Rosie Edser says:

    Just read your link Terry – *gulp*
    Re the treating, it’s all a bit academic anyway as Auntie M comes round next day with the sweeties if we’ve not called for them on hallowe’en. I think she’d be a bit offended if we gave her sweets. Oh I know she’d love a cat shaped gingerbread cookie tho and maybe some pumpkin soup?!

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    • Good points all. No, I’m still not entirely comfortable with Halloween either, but I think that positive engagement is a good start. Children and adults alike, we all have fears of the dark and of ‘monsters’, be they vampires, killers or just burglars. If approached in the right way, maybe Halloween can help take us to acknowledge and face some of these fears and take a bit of the sting out of them.

      I should have mentioned that we live pretty much next to a massive graveyard, something which would have terrified me in my childhood. This one has become something of a surrogate garden for us; it’s where both our kids learned to ride their bikes, and we’ve spent hours playing games and spotting wildlife there.

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      • Ben Newton says:

        Thanks for offering an interesting reflection on Halloween and how you’ve tackled it this year Harvey. I must admit, I was totally the kind of guy who ignored the door bell last night (anxiously as I was expect my home group a bit later on!!!) I’m not so sure I would be ready to engage in trick or treating just yet (or my kids, if I had them!). For me it still seems like playing with fire a little…but I’m glad you’ve got the courage to tackle these issues openly. I think you can be an incarnation of Christ in the broader sense of trying to show the love of Christ in the way you conduct yourselves when trick or treating (but maybe not by dressing up as a witch…?!!)

        By the way, have you checked out Occupy London? I refer you to an excellent article in the Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/30/occupy-london-nursery-mind?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038 – and also to http://occupylondon.org.uk/ – what they are trying to do uncannily mirrors the emerging conversation some people in the church are trying to have. Bless you lots dude!

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        • Thanks Ben – good to hear your thoughts. I’ll admit I’m still not totally comfortable with the whole Halloween thing, and I take your point about playing with fire. I had enough genuine occult experiences in my prodigal days not to take this stuff lightly, but I do think there’s a big difference between dressing up, playing games, telling spooky stories etc and actual occult involvement. I think it’s one of those cases where you have to make your own judgement about what you’re comfortable with in your own conscience, while trying not to cause undue concern to those brothers and sisters who see things differently.

          I haven’t checked out Occupy London but will have a look now!

          Cheers Ben – and bless you lots too!
          H

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  6. johnm55 says:

    When I was a kid growing up in the South of Scotland, Halloween a party night. Generally a party was organised in the village hall. We would all come in fancy dress, not necessarily as witches, ghouls and goblins, but there were no rules against it. We would have games traditionally associated with Halloween such as ‘Dookin for Apples’ or eating treacle scones hung on a string. There was also a competition for the best turnip lantern – we didn’t grow pumpkins in those days.
    We would also go ‘guising’ similar to trick-or treat, except that we were expected to sing a song or recite a bit of poetry for our treat. I saw no harm in it, and still think that there is no harm in it.
    I think that children like to be and need to be “safe-scared” and that Halloween is part of that along with hiding behind the sofa at the scary parts of Doctor Who and imagining what a Tyrannosaurus Rex might do to you if you met one on Croydon High Street..
    Trick-or-treat is obtaining sweets by blackmail (invented in the Scottish Borders, blackmail that is not trick-or-treat) but in general the victims are willing participants in the scam.

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    • Hi John, Scottish Halloween sounds fun! Like the idea of having to sing a song or recite poetry to get your treat – bit like carol-singing at Christmas (but probably better quality).

      Totally agree that children need and like to be ‘safe-scared’ – that’s a good way of putting it. Adults aren’t always averse to it either!

      All the best,
      H

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  7. Rosie Edser says:

    Positive parts –
    1.family dressing up and creative art and craft (pumpkin-carving, spiders webs on the front door and making the You-have-to-put-your-hands-in-the-spaghetti-or-jelly-and-courgette-guts-to-get-your-haribo Box.
    2. Having assorted strangers briefly come into our home to play the game – including a pair of hoodie and balaclava-ed teenager lads who were really enthusiastic and came back half an hour later for more jelly-dipping (and wiped their hands meticulously on a wet wipe afterwards) …chips away at sense of seige and stereotypes from the recent rioting
    3. Fun and freeing from fear of the dark (handy with dark winter evenings coming up) running up and down the pavement all excited in the dark seeing other people’s decorations and receiving unexpected acts of generosity from passing adults like the chap who walks the fierce-looking alsatian

    Negative parts-
    1.someone pinched our pumpkin (hmm, possibly undermines “2.” !)
    2. Little school friend who was here was very into playing ‘vampires’ which makes for rather boring imaginary games as our kids don’t really know about that stuff
    3. Moaning because sibling got more sweets than them and we didn’t call on strangers (not to do with hallowe’en specifically )
    4. daughter feeling a bit moral-low-groundy when another Christian school friend announced “we don’t celebrate hallowe’en” and half the girls in the class copied what she said. Probably very good for my soul!

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    • From my vague backgroundy participation in the latter part of the proceedings, it felt generally quite positive to me, with the exception of the pumpkin-nicking (though that’s not because of anything negative to do with Halloween, just local kids and human nature!). And yes, it’s hard not occupying the moral high ground but I’m sure it’s very good for us!!

      By the way, did you know that Halloween is an anagram of ‘O, a new hell!’. It’s also not far from being an anagram of the West Midlands town of Halesowen. Very significant, I’m sure you’ll agree.

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