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Halloween: trick, treat or harvest?

Wednesday 28th October 2020

How many of us have met a witch? Phil Wyman puts that blunt question to all Christians. Most of us would probably have to say that we haven't. Phil cannot avoid witches because he lives and works as a pastor in Salem, Massachusetts. Salem was the place where witch trials were held in colonial American times, and several people were executed for allegedly being witches. Phil was asked to leave his denomination because he was spotted at a witches' gathering, and it was believed that he had compromised his faith. Funnily enough many of his congregation agreed to join him in exile1.

Life in Salem for Phil also means that Halloween is unavoidable. He reveals it is a month-long season, and anywhere
from half a million to a million people visit the town. He enjoys the fact  that the whole community is so open to interacting:

What other day of the year will people happily open their doors to a knock from a strangely dressed stranger saying funny things to them? In fact, they will be so happy to see you, they will give you a gift of candy. How often does that happen? You couldn't get that to happen on Christmas Day.2

Phil knows that many Christians are understandably disturbed about witches and sometimes believe the worst about them. The negative folklore is pretty strong including the absurdity that they sacrifice 'kittens and babies: As an evangelical pastor he has found little evidence that witches curse churches and individual Christians. Instead he has found the witches he knows are not devil worshippers but are 'generally kind people who want the world to be a better, more peaceful place: That's why, he says, 'I do not have to hide on Hallowe'en to pray the darkness away'.

During the month-long season in Salem, Phil and his church 'provide live music on the streets, give away free hot cocoa,free hugs, and will set up booths to offer a variety of spiritual counselling: He believes that this is an opportunity to genuinely and positively connect with all kinds of people who are on a spiritual search:

I believe that Halloween is the most open and community oriented holiday in our culture. It is filled with wild creativity, and off ers Christianity the best moment in the year to shine with its own creativity, love and giving. Don't let that moment pass you by, because you are afraid of some bogey man of urban myth in fundamentalist garb3.

The Scottish theologian John Drane has shared with us his childhood memory of Halloween is of the churches in Scotland having parties along the American lines of kids dressing up, and telling fun spooky stories. In fact the dark folklore side of Halloween has developed over the last thirty years. He believes English and other western churches have been heavily influenced by the spiritual warfare model we outlined in the introduction. As one Lutheran has observed we have shifted to a belief in a dour kill-joy devil, and lost confidence that Christ is in control.

Phil's position is definitely not going to be the same for all. Many feel very strongly that the crass commercialism and Pagan origins make the festival unrecoverable for Christians. No doubt what upsets many of us is the perverse way that everything to do with Halloween is overrun by commercial interests. In most western countries it is now one of the three biggest shopping days and rivals Christmas for its appeal. Sociologists have noted that the child's collection bag of goodies is an icon for the future consumer-shopper at the mall. So much money changes hand with the festivity that it sickeningly reinforces selfish values about me, me, and me. As one Catholic leader has said of the trick or treat ritual:

As a boy I grew up with the custom in the US, where it was completely harmless and lots of fun for everyone ... What I do not like about it is the fact that it introduces children to what in adults would be called a protection racket: threatening people with harm if they do not pay a sum of money.4

A survey in England

A limited qualitative survey was undertaken in two parts of England - London and Lincolnshire. It was among primary school pupils in years two and six. The findings in some respects were quite predictable and not surprising, and corresponded to results found in other global surveys. The survey supplies some interesting insights into what families perceive about this day. It was intriguing to discover the extent to which children from differing backgrounds were participating in Hallowe'en activities.

The survey disclosed that 88.6 per cent of children participate in some way in these activities. Of those surveyed 93 per cent of non-religious pupils, and 74 per cent of religious pupils were actively involved. When the children surveyed used adjectives to describe Halloween, 33 per cent called it 'fun-scary' and 19 per cent 'exciting' with just 2 per cent calling it 'boring' and 1 per cent 'dangerous'.

A substantial number of pupils enjoy the festival particularly in receiving treats/gifts (60 per cent), the opportunity to dress up (46 per cent), and meeting friends (11 per cent). It was also noted that the range of activities covers games, walking the streets, parties, dressing up, making pictures, and watching scary movies. For children dressing up as the latest Disney characters is very much a part of growing up today. Halloween is one festival that really embraces fun. It is also an opportunity for adults to dress up in character and tap into the 'child within'.  Also noted from the survey is that the perceptions held by parents and teachers are not necessarily shared by the pupils.5

The divide over Halloween is fairly intense among Christians and churches. Do we prohibit it, Christianise it, or just let it be as it is? We will look at the background, discernment, and case studies that come from a variety of approaches (...).

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Click here to download chapter 2, Halloween: trick, treat or harvest?, of Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson's book Taboo or To Do? Is Christianity complementary with yoga, martial arts, Halowe'en, mindfulness and other alternative practices? 

Written by Ross Clifford

Morling College Principal

Ross Clifford's Blog