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.