Some believe the Church should have nothing to do with Halloween. They see as a rather horrible celebration of evil which is a bad influence on children.
Others believe that the Church needs to chill out and realise how daft it is to put a downer on a bit of harmless fun.
The ironic thing is that both perspectives can mean that the deeper issues raised by Halloween are not engaged with. Actually this time of year provides us with a great opportunity to engage with serious issues that we often avoid.
The roots of Halloween
The roots of Halloween are thoroughly Christian and lie in two Festivals which started in the Middle Ages: All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
All Saints Day was 1st November remembered Saints or ‘Hallows’ who had gone straight to heaven after death. All Souls Day on 2nd November remembered those in purgatory.
The night before this all began, the 31st October, became known as ‘All Hallows Eve’ or Halloween. Various rituals then developed for that evening, including people dressing in black to mourn those who had died and children calling on houses to receive ‘soul cakes’ in return for their prayers for the dead.
Of course most of those original associations, and the theology underlying them, have now gone. But the prominence of Halloween as an annual event has, if anything, increased.
Much of its growth in the UK over the last thirty years is ascribed to American influence. And for most people, dressing up as witches, ghosts and devils is perceived to be as harmless as having ‘baddies’ in children’s film such as Frozen and Shrek.
I think it’s an exaggeration to call Halloween a celebration of evil. But a strong case can be made for it trivialising evil.
Often, evil is something that we prefer to tell ourselves doesn’t really exist. Compared to previous ages we tend to put the problems of this world down to misfortune rather than malevolent causes. It is regarded as superstitious to think that ‘something deeper is at work’.
Until, that is, terrible things happen like 9/11, 7/7, the murders in Soham or of Jamie Bulger, or those by Harold Shipman. Then the language of evil seems appropriate and is often used in headlines of tabloid newspapers.
However because as a society, we are not good at thinking about evil in any depth, we then handle it immaturely. Often we think evil can be located simply within certain wicked people who only need to be dealt with for order to be restored. The statements of Tony Blair and George Bush after 9/11 about ‘ridding the world of evil’, the actions that they took and their consequences are examples of the danger that comes from such simplicity.
The common approach to Halloween does not help. Often it encourages a perception that evil is an odd, superstitious thing that we can laugh at because it doesn’t really exist. Rather than facing up to the real evils of the world, we encourage a cartoon-version for our children.
Meanwhile, the genuine nature of evil in the world and its manifestation in injustice, oppression and exploitation continues without serious consideration or analysis.
So what’s the answer to Halloween? Well probably not to have nothing to do with it. If we’ve got children, stopping them from dressing up and going out in the dark to get sweets is probably counter-productive.
A better approach to Halloween is to see it as an opportunity to engage more deeply with the problem of evil. To give more thought to why Jesus teaches us to pray that God might ‘deliver us from evil’? And then to put this into practical action.
The early Christians lived in a time when the mighty Roman Empire dominated the world. Like most empires, the Romans kept a majority in servitude in order to serve a rich elite. Yet it used spin and propaganda to present itself as a force for peace and blessing to a world it subjugated.
This Empire sought to crush the early church and thousands of believers went to their death because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
The book of Revelation uses startling imagery of beasts, dragons and prostitutes to describe the evil of the Roman Empire and how it oppresses people with its injustice and corruption. And yet, it also proclaimed that this terrible power had been overcome by the Lamb of God.
When the early Christians said ‘Jesus is Lord’ it was not just a theological statement. It was deeply political, because Jesus being Lord meant that Caesar wasn’t. Some religious sects withdrew from the world, but the early Christians, armed with the good news of Jesus Christ, challenged evil it in the public square, often suffering terribly in consequence.
Fear of bad things is a big issue for children and often parents want to insulate their kids from this reality. But it is surely better to teach them that evil does exist and it does great harm, but that God’s love is greater and more powerful.
This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus are all about. Evil did its very worst in the killing Jesus, but it did not have the last word. Through Jesus’ resurrection God’s love triumphed and proclaimed that he, rather than any other power, is Lord of the world.
Halloween is a time to be honest about the reality of evil…but also to be reminded that a greater power exists.
The empty cross of Jesus Christ tells us the bad stuff in the world will not triumph. It is the power of love that will win. Halloween is an opportunity for those who believe this to proclaim and embody this message.