Redeeming Halloween

October 31st: the date of the year’s most controversial ‘festival’ for many Christians. So should we ignore it, replace it, or try to navigate a path somewhere between the two? Experienced children’s worker Margaret Pritchard-Houston explains her passionately held belief that children need to explore the darkness in order to truly understand the light.

If you’ve ever seen the film Fantasia, you probably remember the final sequence. It’s a powerful contrast of light and darkness, beginning with Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain.’ At first, we see a mountain with a night sky behind it. We move closer, clouds moving fitfully behind the dark mountain top. Suddenly, the top of the mountain moves, twists and contorts itself into a demon – with muscular arms, bat wings, horns and eyes that glow white against its shadowed face. It spreads out its hands and darkness covers the town below. Through the piece, all manner of evil spirits rise up, from the town, from graveyards, from the sky, joining the devil in its dance.

Then, with a surprising sweetness, the music changes. The dawn breaks. The demons flee and their leader becomes, once again, just a piece of rock.

The next thing we see is a procession of pilgrims with lights, walking over a bridge and through a forest, to the accompaniment of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’. As the film finishes, the sun rises from behind a mountain, and bathes the countryside in the light of a new day.

Children are instinctively drawn to drama, which includes stories of darkness, death and the questions of what happens afterwards. And as Christians, we want them to understand the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the promise of the kingdom, addressing these questions in a very real way. This is why the question of what, if anything, Christians should do about Halloween is so emotional. It cuts to the very heart of our faith – what is darkness? What is light? What does death mean? And how do we, as Christians, relate to the secular world?

Understandable concerns

Part of the difficulty is that the origin of Halloween is complex, reflecting the history of religion in Britain and the colonies. The festival was widespread in Medieval England, celebrated as All Hallows’ Eve, a prelude to the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Many of its traditions were condemned as ‘Popish’ during the Reformation, and its popularity diminished.

It was still common in Scotland and Ireland, however, and immigrants from those places brought it to the United States. There it grew in popularity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and became, as many festivals have, very commercialised. Many of these modern American traditions are now coming back across the Atlantic, and becoming popular in Britain. In his book Better than Halloween, Nick Harding writes, ‘Many Christians have a feeling that there is something inherently wrong about [Halloween] [while] others view it as a commercialised American import.’

Even among those who fall into the first category, there is still more distinction. ‘There are those who argue that Halloween is the highest Satanic festival of the year, and who believe that under the cloak of the “fun” aspects promoted to children, the “forces of darkness” are at work. Many others are concerned at the focus on a pre-Christian festival.’

Children are instinctively drawn to drama, which includes stories of darkness, death and the questions of what happens afterwards

Churches respond in different ways to these concerns. Some do not mark the festival at all, choosing to opt out. Others celebrate ‘light parties’, in order to provide an alternative to Halloween. But some Christians are starting to believe that there is a third way, between ignoring the festival and seeking to replace it – one of active, thoughtful engagement with the secular celebration from a Christian perspective.

Light without darkness

Rev Ruth Pyke, children’s advisor in the Diocese of St Albans, says that there are ways to engage with Halloween that help ‘put it back into its proper context of the Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day.’ She recalls a time when a local school hosted a ‘Spooky Sleepover’ at Halloween. She went with the children into the dark classrooms decorated with streamers, ghosts, and skeletons, and, during the night, led activities with the children to ‘help them understand the significance of all that brings fear – darkness, the turning of the year, evil – seen in the context of renouncing it in the light the saints bring.’

Christian educator and author Gretchen Wolff Pritchard agrees, adding that if you show children the light without the darkness, the story loses its power and, more importantly, doesn’t accurately reflect children’s experiences of a world in which they are small and often powerless. ‘[Christians], of all people,’ she says, ‘should be able to admit that, yes, there most certainly are monsters under the bed. You are not  imagining them. The world is a scary place. Our life is not merely a journey in which we may sometimes get tired or lost or discouraged; it is a dangerous venture through a war zone, in which we may be attacked, ambushed or tempted to join the Enemy’s side; in which we  may be assigned to missions calling for all the courage and intelligence we can muster. And in that cosmic battle, we have by our side the unlikely superhero from Nazareth, the meek-and-mild carpenter who proved to be stronger than sin, stronger than death; who by his courage and loyalty has faced and defeated the Enemy, and who invites us, and empowers us, to follow him through the darkness to the final victory, with the saints who ‘nobly fought of old’.’ 

The final scene of Fantasia – and the  beautiful ‘Ave Maria’ – would still be beautiful without the fear and darkness that came before it. But it would not be redemptive. Imagine The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe without Aslan’s death and resurrection. Imagine the Gospel without the horror of the cross. It is tempting to show children a world filled only with light, but it is not realistic. As I write in my book There is a Season, if we leave out the darkness, ‘we deny [children] the opportunity to make meaning out of what they see and hear about death, leaving them with no imaginative framework on which to hang their inevitable experiences of loss, danger and grief, as well as their knowledge of their own mortality. This is why I think banning a mistake.’ 

If you show children the light without the darkness, the story loses its power

Let children explore the imagery of good and evil, let them confront, in their imaginations, both Harry Potter and Voldemort, both Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Let them make meaning out of the stories, and bring them to church on All Saints’ Day to remind them of what they know in their deepest hearts, where God is: that darkness and death pass over, that love and light are stronger and that when we die, we do not become vampires or ghosts but rather saints, beloved children of God, with a life that will last for ever. But in order for this news to be good, to be received with joy and meaning, we must allow children to explore the darkness as well. 

A wider issue 

Of course, the question of whether, and how, to engage with secular culture as Christians goes beyond one day in October. As Christians, we are called to be in the world, but not of the world. In  several places, particularly in the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about how he and his apostles and his kingdom, are ‘not of this world.’ And yet, here we are – in  the world, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Resolving this paradox has traditionally followed one of two paths –  isolation or engagement. 

Isolation can mean many things, from joining a closed monastic community, to more modern attempts by parents to create alternative Christian lifestyles, with Christian music, discos, films and so on, paralleling the secular lives of their  peers. Some home-school their children to keep them from the influence of a secular curriculum. 

Of course, we all want our children to understand where the values of modern society are different from biblical values. Dr Courtney Wilder, a professor of theology who works largely with students from these kinds of isolated Christian backgrounds, says that modern pop culture ‘affirms materialism and celebrates violence,’ which is clearly at odds with Jesus’ teachings on non-violence and a trust in the Lord rather than in riches. 

However, she goes on to say that attempting to shelter children from secular culture may be counter-productive. ‘I think the worst thing that can happen to a kid,’ she says, ‘is to have to choose between intellect and faith  – if your family has rejected things like modern science or rock music, the price can be really too high for some kids. Expressions of human experiences like  pain or anger or despair are not too big for Christianity, or too dirty or too awful, but we don’t do them very well in the Church.’ Very often, she says, isolating young people from secular society leads to ‘kids who have sex and drink and doubt and question and then lie about it,’ rather than leading to genuine engagement with the Gospel. 

Engage, not embrace 

The other option, then, is engagement with secular culture. Rev Mary Hawes, advisor on children’s ministry to the Archbishop’s council, says that media  without an explicitly Christian message can still be good for children. She points  to Philippians 4:8 – ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,  whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think  about such things.’ She recommends approaching secular media with that verse in mind – for parents to ask themselves, ‘Is there anything honourable in this? I wonder if this is just? What makes something excellent?’ 

Engagement with secular culture – thoughtful engagement that is respectful of your child’s opinions – helps guide them to think for themselves, and to trust themselves. This is the best possible protection for our children against the  troubles and temptations of the world. 

In practice 

Once you’ve decided to take the leap and start a process of engagement,  what can you do? Here are some practical ideas: 

The excellent book How to Talk  So Kids Will Listen and Listen So  Kids Will Talk (Piccadilly Press,  2011) provides great guidance  for helping your child engage  with what they’re seeing and  experiencing. 

Rev Mary Hawes says, ‘Think about  why you are anxious – are you  going on other people’s say so, or  have you read or seen the media that concerns you yourself? Why not start a book and film club with  other parents, to look at the things  that children might be exposed to. Talk together about your reactions, and how you might respond to your child’s request to read or watch it.’ She also recommends scanning TV and iPlayer schedules with your child and agreeing what will be watched, watching some of it together. 

Say yes wherever possible, then  ask your child what they thought of  what they saw or read. And when  you have to say no, give a reason and listen to your child’s response.  

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