Welcome a Halloween ghoul to church
Posted on 30 October 2011, 6:51
Coffin-shaped sandwiches, anyone? Or how about a battery-operated grim reaper – only £10? Yes, the frightful festival of Halloween is upon us, although the supermarkets, in their eerily efficient way, have been flogging the grizzly merchandise of the season for several weeks.
Like Christmas, Halloween has a tangled story. Its roots can credibly be followed back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which means ‘summer’s end’. The medieval church dressed it up in Christian clothes (as it did for Yuletide), and declared it to be All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before Hallowmas, or All Saints.
The church’s creation of Halloween was intended to divert people from telling Celtic horror stories, and instead to get them thinking about the heroic stories of the saints. The clerics of the time must have rubbed their hands over their cunning plan. Paganism was defeated. Job done. But a peek into a supermarket now shows that the strategy has failed spectacularly.
In more recent times, the church has been fighting back against the advance of Halloween. Christians in the more excitable pews paint the festival in the most lurid colours, condemning its imagery of death and horror, accusing it of dabbling in the occult, and sounding the moral trumpet at its naughty pranks.
And they have another cunning plan. They want to give Halloween a second baptism. Most attempts to do this come down to running ‘Bright parties’, or the marginally more inviting ‘Saints & sausages’ parties, where activities for kids are organised by grown-ups. Mercifully, these plodding attempts to domesticate Halloween are doomed to failure because they misread what it is all about.
Halloween is a feast of fools, where the normal rules are reversed for one night. Kids go out after dark. Frightening others is good. You might bump into a ghost. You can dictate terms to a grown-up with trick or treat. You can expect lots of sweets. For a child, this is exhilarating stuff.
This is why Christian attempts to impose an adult-led, rules-based alternative is so misconceived. It misses the point with pinpoint imprecision.
What happens at Halloween is play. The themes of this, like all the best play, are serious: darkness, horror, monsters, decay, phobias, danger, fear and unpleasant surprises. Children want to think about these things – in fact, they need to, if they are going to grow up as people who can cope in a threatening and uncertain world. They play in the dark in order to tame it.
Halloween derives its appeal from an unreconciled relationship with death, and the playful elements of the festival are, however trivial, an attempt to make terms with the great enemy. In northern latitudes, it is the steady creep of autumn evenings, leading us into the approaching gloom of winter, which turns our thoughts to Last Things, and which also lends Halloween its Gothic flavour. Just as spring turns us to life and love, autumns turns us to death and the dark.
Perhaps the church needs a new cunning plan if it wants to engage successfully with Halloween in its natural season of the year. Invite all the little witches and werewolves, zombies and ghosts into church. After all, your church is probably the most Gothic and spooky building in the neighbourhood. It’s the perfect place for Halloween.
So how about Halloween in the crypt, with hideous laughter? It’s such a shame that churches have crypts, but don’t know how to ham them up. If some churches can welcome Santa Claus into the service on 25 December, why not ghouls and mummies on 31 October?
Like Christmas, Halloween is one of those rare moments in the year when gospel and culture share the same space. It is a moment when Christians have good and positive things to say in response to what is happening on the streets and in people’s homes.
If churches can let Halloween playfully ask its big questions about the dark side, and welcome people as they are – costumes and all – then there is a golden opportunity to talk about Jesus, who faced horror for our sake, overcame the Devil, and destroyed the power of death.
Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, this is when we need to be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.