It’s the time of year when my kids start bugging me again about Halloween.
Growing up in a Christian household in England, the festival on the 31st of October was always a complete non-event. The schools, as I recall, never wanted to make too much of a big deal about it because of the dark, spooky, scary nature of the “festivities”. I don’t remember the shops doing anything at all. You might find a pumpkin in the greengrocer’s, but fruit and vegetables were a lot more seasonal back then anyway. And we certainly didn’t do anything about it. I don’t even remember trick-or-treaters coming to our house. But then again, we lived on a fairly busy main road and kids didn’t really play out in front of the houses.
I remember some of my friends talking about trick-or-treating, though. I had only the vaguest of ideas what they were on about; the idea was apparently that you dressed up as a witch or a ghost or something (that part was always especially hazy) and went around knocking on random strangers’ doors. To an incredibly reserved and withdrawn child that found introducing himself to strangers about the most nerve-racking thing in the universe, this was worrying, right there. When they opened the door, you were supposed to say “trick or treat”, and then the people were supposed to give you sweets. Or play a trick on you. Or if they didn’t give you stuff, you were supposed to throw eggs at their house or something. Again, that part was a little hazy.
To my ignorant child brain, the reaction to all this was always “do the people on whose doors you’re knocking know to do this? Because I’m pretty sure my parents don’t”. The part about playing tricks was especially worrying, because I could never work out whether I was the one supposed to play the trick or get tricked, and either way I wanted no part of it. Even in my university years I always resisted joining in on any prank wars because I always felt guilty about playing tricks on other people. I still do.
As I got older, I eventually figured out a little bit more of what Halloween was supposed to be about, and that more than confirmed to me that I wanted no part of it. If you were a teenager in 1980s and 1990s England, any Halloween events that there were (and there weren’t that many) were resolutely horror-themed. Goblins and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and all that. I’ve never really been that into horror at all, even though it’s often one of the most moral genres of film and literature in terms of the end message. I don’t enjoy being scared. I’ve spent far too much of my life in a perpetual state of low-level scaredness, and the thought of deliberately inflicting scares on myself is not a good one.
Anyway, I was a follower of Jesus. What fellowship does light have with darkness? I knew Whose I was, and I knew that all these dark pagan things that an English Halloween celebrated were the antithesis of my faith, and I wasn’t about to enter in. A festival honouring and celebrating all the powers of darkness and evil? Mmm, let’s not, eh?
Cut to the present day, now that I live in America and have kids in American public schools.
American Halloween in perhaps the hardest holiday for me to get my head around the why of. At least with the Fourth of July I understand the reasons behind it, even if it is the Day of Feeling Weird About My Country. But Halloween… Why?
Why celebrate it at all? And more, why is it so crazily inescapable? In Walmart, around the beginning of September, right after the Back to School stuff that’s been there since May comes down, everything turns black and orange and you’re leered at from on high by skeletons and zombies and grim reapers. Adults’ clothes all become black and orange or horror-themed. As I said, I don’t like horror, and I look dreadful in orange.
More bizarrely still, the Halloween aisles’ costumes for kids aren’t the deaths and wolfmen and vampires and whatnot that I automatically associate with the day, but Captain Americas and Thors and Barbies and Princess Elsas.
I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that if you insist on making a big deal about it, at least it’s not unremittingly dark. But every neuron of my subconscious brain is screaming at me that it’s unnatural. Like sugar-coated hemlock pills, or bubblegum-flavoured deadly nightshade. Creepy and dark isn’t supposed to be fun.
Even stranger, there are the churches’ thinly-disguised versions. The “trunk or treat” events in which your kids go from car to car in the church parking area collecting sweets in a safe, family-friendly black-and-orange environment. Now, you can call it a “fall festival” or a “harvest thanksgiving” all you like, but we all know it’s a disguised Halloween. Harvest is something else entirely; Americans know it as Thanksgiving Day. Given the Halloween non-experiences of my formative years and the resolutely dark nature of the beast in my home country, you can understand my hesitation about the whole thing.
I was happy with Halloween basically not existing. It still seems one of the craziest holidays in the whole calendar, and one of the weirdest reasons to have a celebration in existence.
In my later teen years, when Britain started to catch the American Halloween disease, churches in Britain started to go back to the Christian calendar whose date Halloween stems from. It’s a broken-down version of “All Hallows’ Eve”, that is, the day before the feast of All Saints. Churches would ignore the 31st of October and hold All Saints parties on the 1st of November, though many still did nothing either way. And the All Saints parties were as resolutely light-themed as the secular Halloweens were dark.
Regardless of your personal theology of sainthood, honouring some of the great servants of God both living and dead seems a much better reason to have a celebration. You could argue that the direction that American churches have taken Halloween is an equivalent, and that’s certainly reasonable, but the whole thing seems weird, pagan and strange to me.
My kids, of course, don’t care about all my personal hesitations. All they can see is that they’re being denied an opportunity to have fun and get sweets. But here I am, still back at “it isn’t supposed to be fun”. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the whole thing. But my kids deserve a better explanation than “we just don’t do that”, and I’m stumped for one.