Thinking through Halloween

Here in Sweden Halloween isn’t a big deal but it’s getting bigger as shops cash in. But wherever Halloween is present in the culture it poses a few problems for Christians and families in particular. My friend Mark Powley (Associate Rector at St Georges Leeds & author of Consumer Detox: Less Stuff, More Life) has kindly written a few answers to some common questions to help us think things through.

1: Is participating in a Halloween-themed activity like attending a demonic feast or is it more like eating food offered to idols?

In writing to the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper, Paul says, “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor 10:20). Paul here rules out active participation in a feast offered to an idol at a Temple. However, cuts of meat from those feasts was frequently later made available on the market, so much so that the only safe way to avoid meat offered to idols was to eat only vegetables (see Romans 14:2). On this secondary issue, Paul has a much more lenient view: “if an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat anything put before you without raising questions of conscience” (1 Cor 10:27).

So, on the one hand, Paul is clear that Christians should not actively participate in the worship of idols, with its implicit links to the demonic. On the other hand, though, he warns against over-sensitivity to things that are effectively harmless to Christians. He may have in mind evangelistic reasons here. Paul doesn’t want Christians to ‘leave this world’ (1 Cor 5:10) and sets an example of extreme flexibility for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 9:19-23). The question with Halloween is which of these two approaches: avoidance or discerning involvement, is most appropriate.

2: Is Halloween a festival of evil or something more ambiguous?

The origins of Halloween, as far as I can tell, are difficult to trace clearly. There are obviously some pagan roots, but the church through the ages has also made use of the date. Its position in our calendar is set because of the Christian feast of All Hallows the following day.

At the simple level of dressing up as a monster or wizard, Halloween can’t really claim to be helping children enter into the Christian story. But I do wonder if we need to be aware of the need that all children have to engage in play – to fantasise, to toy with strange concepts and unsettling realities in a safe environment. Something of this is at work in cultural notions of ‘carnival’, even of the ‘grotesque’ (all kids can be pretty grotesque at times!). It also takes place in fictional worlds. From Narnia to Harry Potter to Star Wars (I would not see these stories as vastly different in essence) the idea of magical power plays out on a fantasy stage. In each case, as it happens, good use of power triumphs over evil, accompanied by the need for courage, humility and love (one thinks of the two powers at work in Acts 8:9-24 as a potential parallel). To engage imaginatively with the tension between light and dark powers is arguably part of the normal creative life of children and, in different ways, of adults too.

3: What is actually involved in Halloween activities?

Looking through the wikipedia entry on Halloween I am struck by the variety of ways to mark Halloween: from the positively repulsive, to the mildly dangerous, through the quirky to the deeply devout. Can Halloween as a whole be dismissed as a bad thing? Even a church Light Party, organised to offer an alternative and exclusively positive celebration, ends up ‘marking’ the season of Halloween, just in a different way.

Perhaps we need to be more specific about what activities are involved. At one end of the scale would be occult activity. TV stations will doubtless broadcast horror movies, some deeply disturbing (personally I won’t even watch or listen to trailers for horror). In some communities ‘trick or treating’ can carry real threats from unruly teenagers. But, at the same time, some children will simply be enjoying a disco dressed as a skeleton. Others will be going out to give and receive treats from neighbours. Isn’t the key point here to ask what is actually going on? To distinguish good from evil rather than tarring the whole day with one brush? Could Halloween have something in common with New Year – a festival with many potential meanings which some use for ill (in the case of New Year, drunkenness and predatory sex) but others mark differently?

4: What is happening in our neighbourhoods?

For us, an interesting reflection is the way it works in our local streets. Whereas, like most places, neighbours seldom have a reason to mingle, on Halloween there is a festival atmosphere in which children and families are involved. Houses that want to take part put out a pumpkin. Children go from house to house collecting sweets, and sometimes offering gifts at the same time. Neighbours connect. No one seems to interpret the evening as an opportunity to perpetrate or celebrate evil.

In fact, Halloween is the only opportunity we have for this kind of engagement with neighbours in different streets. We see it, therefore as a gentle gospel opportunity. So this year we sent our kids to the church Light Party – which they loved and took friends to – but we will also be hanging up a pumpkin and going out to visit other neighbours (not dressed as devils, though, we draw a line there). Our aim is to use something culturally ambiguous for a good purpose, and to bring a redeeming presence in the way we give gifts to others and build bridges in an age of fragmented community.

5: Is this the battle to fight in our context?

From our point of view it feels that there are greater battles to fight at the moment with forces just as potentially dehumanising as misuse of Halloween, though in different ways. Every day TV and games consoles promote a sedentary lifestyle and carry a set of materialistic values which frequently exclude Christ. Every week sports clubs and schools inculcate a highly competitive mindset and fill up children’s timetables with activities that may well soon conflict with church involvement at many levels. Like Halloween, neither of these challenges is irredeemable or exclusively bad. Unlike Halloween, however, they seem to have a much more direct bearing on the development of our kids into followers of Christ. Our judgement at this point is that involvement at a simple level in carefully monitored Halloween activities once a year is not a priority issue.

I hope the above is helpful as we think and pray for discernment in our parenting.

[Along similar lines you might also find this video helpful]

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