A chance to play on the dark side

26 October 2011

Hallowe’en offers an opportunity to address the big questions, argues Simon Jenkins

Coffin-shaped sandwiches, any­one? Or how about a battery-operated grim reaper — only £10? The frightful festivities of Hallowe’en are upon us, although the supermarkets, in their eerily efficient way, have been flogging the grisly merchandise for several weeks.

Hallowe’en used to be quietly non-commercial — schoolchildren hollow­­ing out turnips into lanterns, or constructing witches’ hats with bits of black felt. But, since 2001, it has loomed ever larger in the shopping aisles. In that year, sales of spooky costumes, food, and ac­cessories were worth £12 million, but, by 2009, that figure had ballooned to £235 million.

The big festivals of the UK year are now (from the top, moneywise): Christ­mas, Easter, and Hallowe’en, with St Valentine’s Day and Guy Fawkes’ Night completing the top five. All of them have a religious history, and Christians can be relied on to grumble about the way the top three are celebrated every year.

Like Christmas, Hallowe’en has a tangled story. Its roots can credibly be followed back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which means “summer’s end”. The medieval Church dressed it up in Christian clothes (as it did for Yuletide), and declared it to be All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before Hallowmas, or All Saints’.

The Church’s creation of Hallowe’en was intended to divert people from telling Celtic horror stories, and to get them thinking about the heroic stories of the saints instead. The clerics of the time must have rubbed their hands over their cunning plan: paganism had been defeated. But a peek into a super­market now shows that the strategy has failed spectacularly.

Just as Dante’s Inferno is much more enjoyable than his Paradiso, so the “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legetty beasties and things that go bump in the night” (of the Cornish or West Country Litany) have grasped the imagination of children more readily than “I sing a song of the saints of God”, to quote Lesbia Scott’s rather dated hymn of 1929.

Yet, more recently, the Church has been fighting back against the ad­vance of Hallowe’en. Christians in the more excitable pews paint the festival in the most lurid colours, condemn­ing its imagery of death and horror, accusing it of dabbling in the occult, and sounding the moral trumpet at its naughty pranks.

They have another cunning plan. They want to give Hallowe’en a second baptism.

In his introduction to Better Than Halloween by Nick Harding (CHP, 2006), a book of positive resources for churches, the then Bishop of Bolton, the Rt Revd David Gillett, announced: “I believe it is high time we reclaimed a Christian stake in this night.” (Presumably he is unversed in the method of dispatching vampires in horror movies.) He continued: “So when I am asked, ‘Should we ban Halloween for Christians?’ My answer is ‘No — let’s re-christen Halloween!’”

Most attempts to give Hallowe’en a sprinkle of holy water come down to running “Bright parties”, or the marginally more inviting “Saints and sausages” events, where activities for children are organised by grown-ups. Mercifully, these plodding attempts to domesticate Hallowe’en are doomed to failure because they misread what it is all about.

Hallowe’en is a feast of fools, where the normal rules are reversed for one night. Kids go out after dark. Fright­ening others is good. You might bump into a ghost. You can dictate terms to a grown-up with trick or treat. You can expect lots of sweets. For a child, this is exhilarating stuff.

This is why Christian attempts to impose an adult-led, rules-based al­ter­native are misconceived. They miss the point with pinpoint impre­cision.

What happens at Hallowe’en is play. The themes of this, like all the best play, are serious: darkness, horror, monsters, decay, phobias, danger, fear, and unpleasant surprises.

Children want to think about these things — in fact, they need to, if they are going to grow up as people who can cope in a threatening and un­certain world. They play in the dark in order to tame it.

Hallowe’en derives its appeal from an unreconciled relationship with death, and the playful elements of the festival are, however trivially, an attempt to make terms with the great enemy.

In northern latitudes, it is the steady creep of autumn evenings, leading us into the approaching gloom of winter, which turns our thoughts to Last Things, and which also lends Hallowe’en its Gothic flavour. Just as spring turns us to life and love, autumn turns us to death and the dark.

Perhaps the Church needs a new cunning plan if it wants to engage successfully with Hallowe’en in its natural season of the year. Invite all the little witches and werewolves, zombies and ghosts into church. After all, your church is probably the most Gothic and spooky building in the neighbourhood. It is the perfect place for Hallowe’en.

So how about Hallowe’en in the crypt, with hideous laughter? It’s a pity that churches have crypts, but don’t know how to ham them up. If some churches can welcome Santa Claus into the service on 25 Decem­ber, why not ghouls and mummies on 31 October?

Like Christmas, Hallowe’en is one of those rare moments in the year when gospel and culture share the same space. It is a moment when Christians have good and positive things to say in response to what is happening on the streets and in people’s homes.

If churches can let Hallowe’en playfully ask its big questions about the dark side, and welcome people as they are — costumes and all — then there is a golden opportunity to talk about Jesus, who faced horror for our sake, overcame the Devil, and des-troy­ed the power of death.

Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, this is when we need to be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.

Simon Jenkins is the editor of Ship of Fools, and blogs at www.simonjenkins.com


Simon Jenkins is the editor of Ship of Fools, and blogs at www.simonjenkins.com


Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)