30 October 2015
Trick or treat?
It’s that strange time of the year when it’s acceptable to add pumpkin to your coffee, which at least helps with your five a day, and shops are filled with displays of vampires, ghosts and witches. Halloween is now the UK’s third highest spending festival and could be worth as much as £400 million to retailers.
We are still some way behind our American cousins who spend $350 million on costumes alone – for their pets! In the US, the fright economy is worth a staggering $7.4 billion. I was in Canada last weekend and was struck by how many houses had Halloween displays and how extensive so many were.
As the parent of two young children, it’s interesting to navigate Halloween – sometimes literally steering them between zombie outfits and the Grim Reaper just to reach the check-out. I am surprised how many friends see no problem dressing their young children as vampires, witches and ghosts. Which costumes am I comfortable with my kids wearing and should I let them go trick or treating?
Halloween comes from All Hallow’s Eve, a Christian commemoration that - like Christmas Eve - introduces the feast day following. As with so many Christian feast days, it’s likely the Church co-opted a pagan festival for its own purposes, in this case Samhain, a Celtic festival that historically involved summoning the dead. It seems we Celts are responsible for trick or treating, as people used to dress up as souls of the dead, or Aos Si, and go door-to-door asking for food in exchange for a poem or song. My ancestors believed it was a time when the walls between our world and the next became thin and porous, allowing spirits to pass through, come back to life for the day and damage their crops.
The whole notion of Halloween seems to jar with our modern, rational, secular – and apparently atheist – age. In his seminal work, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor talks about exclusive humanism, a worldview that is able to account for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine or transcendence. But he notes that in reality, while many are stuck in this narrow drive towards Godless immanence, they feel the simultaneous cross-pressure of various spiritual options. So you meet people who not only don’t believe in God, but think belief in God is unthinkable, while simultaneously watching Game of Thrones, True Blood and Vampire Diaries. Many are more open to the transcendent than they are prepared to admit.
CS Lewis said: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.”
Halloween perhaps provides the space for some different conversations. First, it reminds us that evil is a very real and present force in our world. Second, we need to reclaim the celebration that we have nothing to fear in death. Children used to dress up to mock death – where O death is your sting? Third, there is a certain irony that our culture is more willing to talk about the supernatural than the Church. Surely there is a space to tell the stories of God at work to a culture that is seeking something more. And finally, whatever the history, All Hallow’s Eve is intended to whet the appetite for the feast of All Saints' Day — a holy day to commemorate heroes of the faith. On Saturday let’s celebrate and thank God not just for all the saints throughout history, but also those local heroes who have been so influential in our own lives.