Do we really need Halloween?

As October comes to its end, children all across the country focus their attention on dressing up as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies.

Yet Halloween only started being a major event in the 1960s. It has grown dramatically ever since, largely because of commercialisation and the spread of American culture. This year, spending on Halloween merchandise in the UK is likely to top £200 million while in the US it is measured in billions of dollars. Many welcome this celebration, saying that Halloween should be promoted; in our all-too-divided society we need festivals that cross cultural, racial and religious boundaries.

However, it is not universally welcomed. Many Christians, along with many followers of Islam and other faiths, dislike its focus on the dark side of the spiritual world. And they aren't alone. As Halloween gets bigger and darker in emphasis, people with little or no religious faith also feel uneasy about it. So I suggest that it is about time we took a hard look at Halloween.

First, some background – although what a celebration was is not necessarily a guide to what it currently is. After all, most people are surprised to realise that Bonfire Night started off as an anti-Catholic celebration! In pre-Christian Europe there was probably a widely celebrated pagan festival around the end of October, marking the shift from the light six months of the year to the dark six months.

In some circles this was the feast of Samhaim and some modern pagans wish to reclaim this. Perhaps in an attempt to provide a more wholesome focus at this time of year the church designated 1 November as a festival day to celebrate the believers already in heaven, the ‘saints’. The result was All Hallows Day, still celebrated in some churches as All Saints Day. The evening before, 31 October, became All Hallows Eve – Halloween. So celebration of the dark side of things on 31 October was always followed by the declaration of triumph over evil through Jesus Christ. And so it was, until, in the 1960s, Halloween suddenly became a profitable business opportunity.

What is Halloween actually about now? It is an evolving festival composed of various elements and even within the UK there is no standard Halloween. However, there are three emphases: the magical (or supernatural); the macabre (or scary); and the malicious (the trick or treat side of things).

The strongest element is the magical – dressing up as witches, wizards, vampires etc. Most Christians are very uneasy about this. For us, the spiritual world exists, having both good and evil components and, whether we recognise it or not, we are involved in it. We believe that decisions we take in this area determine our eternal future.

The Bible does not talk a great deal about supernatural evil but wherever witchcraft, sorcery or spiritualism is mentioned it is condemned in the strongest terms (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; 1 Samuel 28:6-7; Acts 19:19; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:8; 22:15).

However, the Bible goes beyond warning and condemnation of evil powers, instead pointing out frequently in the New Testament that Jesus Christ destroyed the powers of evil through his death on the cross. That victory was demonstrated by Jesus’ resurrection (Colossians 2:15) and, through the Holy Spirit, God's people have power over evil (Matthew 28:18; Romans 16:20; Ephesians 6:11-18; Colossians 2:9,10; Hebrews 2:14-15; James 4:7; 1 John 3:8; 4.4).

Although these powers are ultimately defeated they still have enormous potential for harm. So for Christians, even if children dressing up as witches and wizards is not a serious attempt to get involved in the supernatural, it is not something to be encouraged. The precautionary principle of ‘when in doubt, don't’ applies here.

However, two sorts of people are likely to object to this argument against the magical or supernatural element. The first is the atheist, who says that there is no spiritual world and so Halloween poses no risk. Let me make two responses here. First, to deny the existence of the spiritual world is as much an act of faith as to say that it exists. Second, if we examine human culture worldwide and over time, we find that the vast majority of people have believed in spiritual forces of some kind or another. Complete rejection of the spiritual world is rare.

A second sort of person who would be unhappy with the Christian rejection of Halloween would be one who accepts the existence of a spiritual world but sees it as a harmless realm. But is there any hint of this at Halloween? What is celebrated is not the good side but the very darkest side of the supernatural.

Now let us turn to the macabre aspect of Halloween, the celebration of the ugly, the scarred and the horrific. This raises many issues. Why celebrate the macabre? Why dress up in a way that portrays death and decay? Even the most resolute atheist must surely be troubled at the growing trend for ever-more-gruesome masks and costumes. And why should ugly, scarred or burnt people be associated with evil? In an age where the media only parade beautiful bodies we need to say loudly and clearly that there is absolutely no relationship between having a deformed and distorted body and being evil. Being ugly and being wicked are two very separate things.

Finally, what about the malicious element in Halloween? I know that in most cases the tricks are fairly harmless but in some cases they aren't. But trick or treat is a curious principle, isn't it? Normally we would call it ‘demanding with menaces’. It may only be youngsters and sweets but it's the same principle: ‘Give me what I want – or else.’ Is this really something that we want to teach our children?

So in every area there are arguments against Halloween. To some extent it is immaterial whether or not we believe in the existence or not of spiritual powers. Halloween stands condemned on other grounds: it is a dark celebration that focuses on evil, horror and wrong. A key point is that in the modern Halloween there is no element of good triumphing over the darkness. No, there is too much bad news and no good news about Halloween.

Practically, if you are someone who has to make a decision about whether you and your family or your organisation is involved in Halloween, can I suggest that you at least limit, if not cancel it? If you are at home and you don't want to subscribe to Halloween then I recommend that you put a note on your door saying ‘Halloween not celebrated here, but we do celebrate life and truth so knock on the door and we will give you some delights’. To defuse any ill feeling, draw a nice smiley face underneath!

I urge you to think through the issues that Halloween raises. Do we really want to celebrate evil, glorify the macabre and encourage the malicious? I think not.