There are a lot of horror stories circulating around Halloween; and some of them even come from the church. Some Christians are fearful of vigilante violence from disgruntled pre-schoolers who might egg their houses if there are no sweets on hand. Some are nervous of their children trick or treating at strangers' houses and being given chocolate bars with razors in them. Others bemoan the commercialisation of our calendar with Halloween now the third biggest grossing festival of the year. But the biggest fear is the celebration of evil being a satanic entry point into young impressionable lives. As a parent of five children I recognise the dilemmas facing mums, dads and carers across the country. Which costumes would I be comfortable with them wearing? Do I forbid them from joining in the trick-and-treating? What do I do when their zombiefied friends come round? Which of their regular TV shows do I now turn off?
I want to explore three paradoxes of Halloween which are leading me to perhaps, controversially, change the way I handle the festival with my family this year.
- Why, when Christians invented Halloween, are so many now fearful abstainers of the festival?
Most Christians I know are pretty negative about Halloween yet there wouldn't be a Halloween in the first place if it weren't for the church. As you are no doubt aware, Halloween is simply a contraction of 'All Hallow's Eve'. All Hallows Day (or All Saints Day) has been celebrated on November 1 since around 998 AD and celebrates the belief that those who die with genuine Christian faith have nothing to fear from death as they continue their relationship with God beyond the grave. Somewhere over the years the festivities evolved such that on the night before All Saints Day children began dressing up in spooky costumes. In medieval times it was known as 'A Danse Macabre'. This dance was a way of celebrating the victory over the powers of evil and death that Jesus won through his own death on the cross. The Apostle Paul does something similar in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56 when he mocks death, then celebrates victory with the chant:
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is employing the same kind of mocking tone that Liverpool FC fans in the Kop end use on the rare occasion when we are beating our local rivals Everton. He uses words to taunt death – personifying it as an enemy that has been vanquished by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Those early Hallow's Eve festivities were perhaps using a similar theological motif mocking the forces of darkness for having no power over those who have put their trust in Christ. Halloween offers us the opportunity to act out this belief ourselves – mocking the forces of evil, and celebrating the power of Jesus. But if we choose to abstain from the festivities, perhaps we lose the opportunity to explain Halloween's origins, or to talk about our own confidence in the face of evil forces through the death of Jesus. The commercialisation of Christmas and Easter has not stopped the church from celebrating their underlying message. Just as we can explain the birth of Jesus at Christmas, his resurrection at Easter, could we not take the opportunity of Halloween to explain Christ's victory?
- Why in a secular society are we more interested than ever in mysticism, magic and the macabre?
I find a lot of Christians lamenting the fact that we often struggle to get people talking about the spiritual and supernatural. Yet despite secularisation supposedly being in full swing, Halloween is a growing festival. In our apparently 'enlightened' age there are still a glut of horror movies filling our movie theatres. This weekend the Australian horror movie The Babadook was a smash hit and recent films such as a Occulus, Annabelle, Deliver us from Evil and As Above as Below all demonstrate an interest in the paranormal. It seems strange that our culture is more willing to talk about the supernatural than the Church is. Have we sanitized the Scriptures by ignoring the supernatural worldview that permeates its pages? Do we react to those churches who over-emphasise the demonic beyond the place that Scriptures affords, by taking the opposite stance?
CS Lewis helpfully observed: "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight." I would argue that the Church needs to be in the conversation around Halloween to bring our communities and families and churches back to the middle ground and to take the opportunity to talk about the darker side of life within the context of Christ's victory and power. Our gospel offers more than the forgiveness of sins; it also includes liberation from the power of evil, death and the devil, and Halloween could be the best time to communicate this, and best opportunity to help people see what they are really longing for.
"Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil" Hebrews 2:14
Why do we think our silence on Halloween will speak most loudly?
Many Christians seem to take the position that abstinence from the Halloween festivities gives us the best opportunity to witness. Refusing to open the door to trick-or-treaters or forbidding our children to go to Halloween parties is seen to be an opportunity to testify to Christ when we are asked why we are not participating. Historically this abstinence approach has at times been entirely appropriate, for example when Christians refused to go as spectators to the gladiatorial contests in the Coliseum. There was seen to be nothing redeemable in the barbarity of these gruesome spectacles. But its not the right approach when it comes to engaging in politics – Christians should not disengage because the system is flawed and broken, conversely, Christians should deliberately seize the opportunity to bring transformation. So when it comes to Halloween should we opt for involvement or avoidance? Of course believers should pay attention to their consciences and the counsel of wise Christian leaders and so there might not be a one-size-fits-all response to this question. In the past I have always abstained, deliberately engaging with the sandwich of festivals of Guy Fawkes Night and Remembrance Day and teaching my children that we do not celebrate Halloween. However this year, I am experimenting with a cautious in-it-to-win-it-approach.
Taking a blanket abstinence approach robs us of the opportunity to point people to Halloween's meaning, educate our children in the power of Christ's victory and build bridges with our neighbours. Either way we may be losing the opportunity to shape the festival, or stop the festival becoming something it was never designed to be – a mockery of disfigurement, a day of fear for those who live alone, or a budget-breaking contest between neighbours. By getting involved but challenging some of the more sinister activities, perhaps our voices will be more clearly heard.
I applaud churches who seek to balance this by hosting light parties and that take the opportunity to unpack the history of Halloween. I have witnessed some excellent youth events where the biblical zombie stories were expounded to great effect. Recently I was encouraged by one mum who wrote to her local supermarket not objecting to the bats, spiders and witches' hats that were recognised as an acceptable part of the Halloween festivities but requested they removed the offensive severed body parts and bloody machetes decorating the shop. By taking a nuanced approach she won the shopkeeper over and he rethought his position. Perhaps more of us could follow her example – we can't take Halloween away, but we could and should voice our objections to Ebola T-Shirts, or overly sexualised children's trick or treat outfits, for example.
So for the first time this year I am carving pumpkins (albeit with hearts of hope for Syria), hosting my own Halloween event (albeit a late night debate in a local church on the paradox of evil), and playing my favorite Halloween song (REM's version of the Classics IV song Spooky). One of my children is turning down party invites, whereas another is hoping for one. I am sure the debate will continue in my house and beyond....
Dr Krish Kandiah is founding director of the charity Home for Good and President of London School of Theology.
Helpful Halloween Resources:
A Night of Hope: resources for churches to highlight the issues facing Christians in Syria
Why God Loves Halloween sermon outline by Peter Dray.