Tying ourselves in knots: What’s so scary about Halloween?
It seems like every year, the church gets itself in a tangle over how to best engage with Halloween. Scripture Union’s Revd Tim Hastie-Smith suggests that the festival provides churches and families with a great way to engage culture with the dark side of spirituality…
Take a traditional, widely observed, pagan festival. Add a brand new Christian dimension. Borrow some of the pagan elements. And ‘Hey Presto!’ you have an annual event which engages with popular culture and becomes a vehicle for expressing Christ’s sovereignty over the whole created order…
The sceptic may well argue that this combining of two practices and beliefs could cause confusion of thought and belief. And of course there is that possibility. However, having adopted this strategy quite well with Christmas, which was deliberately superimposed on pagan midwinter festivals, why not do the same with Halloween? After all, many consider that the feasts of All Hallows’ and All Saints’ were placed at their particular position in the year to ‘take over’ the Gaelic, end of Harvest festival, ‘Samhain’. Many consider that consumerism has done a pretty good job at reclaiming Christmas and is now seeking to take over All Hallows’, completely forgetting about All Saints’. Despite all of its confused messages, Christmas is still a brilliant outreach opportunity for the Church, and one that many of us take advantage of. Why don’t we see Halloween as an opportunity as well?
We see time and again in the Bible accounts of people bringing loved ones to Jesus and his disciples who have been possessed by evil spirits (see Mark 1:21– 28, Mark 9:14–32 or Acts 16:16–21 for just a few examples). So we can’t deny that things of darkness exist, but the stories don’t end there. Rather than letting darkness conquer, we see Jesus overcome these spirits, commanding them to leave the people that they are occupying. This is something to be celebrated!
If anything, Halloween provides us with the opportunity to share the gospel more fully. Often at Christmas we find the festivities and our services centring on God’s wonderful and perfect gift to us of his Son. However, rarely do we continue the story of explaining that Jesus was born so that he could make the ultimate sacrifice, dying for our sins.
At Halloween, we have the opportunity to explain the full gospel more easily, discussing things of darkness and the miracle of God’s light. All the captivating fairy tales of our childhood contain evil – ghosts, witches, wicked queens and jealous rulers – and yet we read these stories with our children, helping them to explore ideas of a scary and dangerous world in safety. But we shouldn’t forget the second half of the story, that of All Saints’ Day: death is not the end, but a glorious future living with Christ, as depicted at the end of the book of Revelation. If we deprive children of this narrative, then we are in danger of depriving them of the core of the gospel.
We’ve recently been doing some reflecting at Scripture Union as to how the context in which we are operating has changed. Next year we celebrate our 150th birthday and much has changed over those years. For a children and youth mission charity such as ourselves, one key change is the realisation that somewhere in the region of only five per cent of children and young people have any meaningful engagement with a Christian church today. This is drastically different from 1867 when we first began, as most children were attending Sunday Schools; the Church needs to find ways of creating new bridges into society without that regular contact point.
For Scripture Union, a significant moment in our establishment was in 1868 when Josiah Spiers, holidaying in Llandudno, found himself inadvertently leading the first British beach mission. The significance of this event was that rather than waiting for children to come to church, Spiers brought church and the love of Christ to the children. Today the Church needs to rediscover that ability to make Christ known normally and naturally in the public place rather than seeking to remain within our comfort zone within church buildings.
At its simplest Halloween presents an easy point of connection. Secularised, commercialised, paganised though it may be, it is still a place of connection where God’s love can be declared. Unless we are willing to venture into the secularised, commercialised and paganised world we risk withdrawing into ‘safe’ little huddles which are increasingly isolated from the world God made and came to save. We’re not glorifying Halloween and the ‘spooky’ elements often celebrated at this time. We realise that, for some, this can be a difficult, damaging time. Instead we’re celebrating that light will always defeat darkness. It’s a great opportunity to share the Christian message of hope.
Part of our work at Scripture Union has been helping churches to find a year-round means of building bridges into the world around them. At Easter there are special comics and booklets designed for distribution in school, in the summer there is holiday club material, and in December, a Christmas comic. The light party materials for Halloween are simply another part of this year round bridge building. None of the resources are, on their own, a ‘magic bullet’ but they all give churches a reason and a means of building bridges and relationships.
To give a concrete example, let’s travel to Gloucestershire, where I am a part-time Anglican vicar of a group of three churches. There are rarely children in church on Sunday, but there is a village school of 40 pupils next door to our biggest church. So last year our light party was very low key, taking place on the Sunday evening prior to the second half of the autumn term. There was a barbecue, some fireworks, a wide game involving hunting for human pumpkins, a short talk and distribution of booklets. We were joined by about 30 children and another 30 adults, all un-church. This year we shall build on the success of last year’s event which is part of an integrated programme that is working towards a regular midweek service for children and parents. We have taken the view that our traditional Sunday morning service is not the natural destination for the children and their families, and that we need to be tailoring a form of presentation and worship that is shaped to their needs.
Like Remembrance Sunday, Harvest and Mothering Sunday, Halloween provides a touchpoint in many communities which the church has the opportunity to use carefully and thoughtfully. SU seeks to provide one such way of doing this. We remain passionately committed to our vision to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the next generation, and see it as our duty and joy to help Christians find new ways of reaching out to those who in normal circumstances would have no connection with the church or Christians. To use Halloween in this way, may indeed raise a few eyebrows, but for the sake of the gospel, and in order to reach those far away from the church, it is a risk we believe is worth taking.
Revd Tim Hastie-Smith is national director of Scripture Union England and Wales. You can get hold of Scripture Union’s Light Party resources at lightparty.org.uk
What can Halloween look like at home? Is there a role for embracing the dark side of the Christian story at this time? We asked some friends how they approach it...
“We make Halloween a community-focused event”
In the home of Lucy and Merrick Hartslief and their daughters, Halloween is a time of getting together with their neighbours
Lucy: I ‘did’ Halloween as a child (I was raised Catholic) and when we became parents, Merrick agreed to let our kids do it too, though it was all new to him. We find it a very social evening and a great way of interacting with the families in our community.
Merrick: We tend to make it a community-focused event where the girls get to dress up and spend time with the community. We are very big on the ‘Love thy neighbour’ thing and this is the only day in the year when a community tends to get out of their houses and socialise together.
Lucy: We don’t use it directly to talk about the gospel, but to interact with neighbours and to be generous to the kids who come calling. We do talk about the spiritual side with the girls, but not in a good versus evil way; we don’t really see Halloween like that. It’s an opportunity to talk about how there is a spiritual world and deep down everyone feels that and has some interest in it. We don’t like to tell non-Christians that Halloween is bad: in our experience it’s more a case of families and friends getting together to dress up and eat sweets, rather than the celebration of evil that it’s sometimes made out to be.
“Facing your fears is the only way to remove their power over you”
Becky Sutcliffe explores the value of Halloween in faith development
When asked if I thought there was a conflict between being a Christian and allowing your children to participate in Halloween festivities, for a while I struggled to respond. It never occurred to me that this was an issue. I have attended church, with my family, for my entire life, and there had never been a point when the question was raised. Admittedly, Halloween was never a huge deal in our family, we didn’t really go out trick or treating (it usually clashed with dance classes or orchestra rehearsals) and we only really dressed up if we were going to a party. But it was always there, and I never remember my parents expressing any kind of disapproval. So, when I became a mum, and my daughter was old enough to express an interest in Halloween, it didn’t seem strange to get into the spirit of things. We dress up, go trick or treating and carve a pumpkin.
I had never really considered Halloween in a spiritual sense until relatively recently. Last year, my daughter and I spent our October half term holiday on Arran. While we were there we had the pleasure of attending the local church. The minister there did something I have never seen before – she preached about Halloween and how it might relate to our spiritual relationship with God. The sermon was aimed at the children in the congregation, and I know that it had an impact on my daughter as she still remembers clearly what was said. The minister had a pumpkin, and with the help of the children she completed carving it and scooping out the flesh and seeds from inside. They discussed how messy that job was, and how the inside of the pumpkin could be quite unpleasant. The minister then asked the children to think about the parts of themselves that were not always very nice: the messiness and unpleasantness we can sometimes carry around inside ourselves. She then explained that God, if we let him, if we work with him, helps to scoop out the things we don’t like about ourselves, and that we will, if we believe in him, put a light inside us that shines out for all to see, and gives hope and guidance to others. By the end of the sermon, the pumpkin was placed on the altar, lit by a candle, which merrily shone through the rest of the service. It was one of the most powerful visual representations of the transformative power of God’s love and grace that I can remember, and my daughter, and the other children present, really got it.
I also remember my daughter asking some time ago why we dress up as scary characters at Halloween, again, it became an opportunity to talk about something spiritual. I explained that people dressed up as the things they feared as a way of stopping those fears having power over them. We talked about the way that fear has a way of paralysing you, if you try to ignore it and forget about it, and that facing your fears is the only way to remove their power over you. My daughter responded by saying that this was like prayer, that God can only help us if we talk to him, and that we can only be forgiven if we ask for it and admit the mistakes we have made.
“The graveyard is real”
Margaret Pritchard Houston reflects on how Halloween featured in her home
I am 6, at church, on Saturday afternoon, in my Halloween costume. We have acted out Bible stories about heroes and danger, followed throughout by an adult playing ‘Satan’ in devil horns, telling us God has forgotten us. We have shouted at him as we were ‘baptised,’ and watched him fall down. And now we sit in front of a flannel board filled with felt people.
“We are all different kinds of people,” my mother, the church’s children’s minister, tells us. “All colours and shapes and sizes. But we all have one thing in common.”
She takes down a figure and replaces it with a white cross. “Every one of us,” she says, “one day… will die.”
There is silence. “Is that the end of the story?” she asks.
When we finish, I’ll go home and, still dressed as a skeleton, go trick-or-treating with my dad. At 6, I could tell you that Halloween and All Saints’ are connected, and trick-or-treating is fun. A few years later, I can articulate that Halloween allows us to confront our fear of death, and All Saints’ Day reassures us that death is not the end. And now, as an adult, my childhood experiences with Halloween, All Saints’ and All Souls’ have instilled in me a deep belief that Halloween is a crucial part of the festival.
We can’t greet All Saints’ Day, with its promise of eternal life, without first confronting death. As the light fades and the leaves fall, the church year gives us a mini-Easter; Halloween is the mini-Good Friday. Jesus cannot triumph over death if we pretend death isn’t real. Halloween doesn’t introduce children to the fear of death – they already know about it. “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist,” GK Chesterton said. “Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
“Is that the end of the story?” my mother asked. “NO!” we shouted. In the end, the graveyard is swept away, replaced by the kingdom. But the graveyard is real. If our children are going to hear the true gospel, we need to admit that much.