IT SEEMS like a supreme irony to me that our local play group has been told by the church hosting it that children dressing up for their Hallowe’en party should avoid “anything associated with dark magic”.
Perhaps it is not news that a church should feel ticklish about Hallowe’en: Christians often have. The Christian entrepreneur Gary Grant does not stock Hallowe’en items in his Entertainer toyshops, either. But I think that we have got the wrong end of the stick about this wonderful occasion. Indeed, I should like much more dark magic, not less.
After Christmas and Easter, Hallowe’en now eclipses even Valentine’s Day as a commercial festival. Many people dislike the creeping Americanisation that has made trick-or-treating normal for today’s children, and created such a bonanza for retailers.
In my youth in Scotland, we had the less threatening tradition of “guising”, where, as a child, you at least had to dress up in disguise and perform something to earn sweets rather than simply demand them with menaces. With my sisters, I had to learn the entire witches’ scene from Macbeth to net a few satsumas and the odd tube of Spangles. My poor brother had to drag his viola from door to door playing Bach cello suites. Admittedly we were raised in St Andrews, which sets a high bar for impressing the neighbours on the doorstep.
THERE is no need to rehearse the history of Hallowe’en, which is linked to parallel customs around world, and throughout history, about death and remembering the dead. But, with our complicated mixture of skeletons, witches, and pumpkins, it is sometimes hard to remember what on earth it is really about, making it rather easier to focus on “dark magic” than its deeper purpose.
It is supremely human to fear death, which is why all traditions have festivals about death, whether to honour ancestors and loved ones, or scandalise death in general by being defiantly unscared of it. That is why we dress up as death to make a mockery of everything we most dread.
And even the benighted trick-or-treating honours this tradition: what could be more outrageous than misrule by “innocent” children? In a similar vein, my Latin teacher used to delight in telling us that, in Roman times, children would be engaged to run behind a newly wed bride and groom shouting obscenities, to scare off the evil spirits who were thought to be prudish.
BUT unease about “dark magic” means that now more children are dressing up as pumpkins or Disney characters rather than as witches, ghosts, or skeletons. This robs the day of its purpose. And it seems that churches are encouraging this trend, when we should be doing the exact opposite.
That is why it is ironic that a church should worry about an association with “dark magic”. If Jesus harrowed hell, we have nothing to fear from the dead. If God is both benevolent and omnipotent, we need not fear “dark magic”. So, if we collude with this idea that Hallowe’en is somehow dangerous, we deny our very deepest Christian beliefs.
WHAT we have at Hallowe’en is opportunity — to ask, again: “Death, where is thy sting?” And to rejoice in a festival that is gloriously about being alive and having nothing to fear from the darkness and from dark powers. Christianity is one of the faith traditions that has a particularly strong narrative about death. We can use Hallowe’en to explain anew why we are not afraid, and celebrate it as another Easter, albeit with pumpkins and sweets rather than with bunnies and chocolate eggs.
Then there is the one important element of Hallowe’en that its commercialisation neglects: it is named for the days that follow it in the Christian calendar, where the emphasis is less on death in general and more about honouring the dead. In the UK, we publicly honour the war dead each year, but the churches remain sparsely populated for both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’. Yet we are here because of those who have gone before us, and there are those recent dead whose memory burns strongly in the hearts of those who mourn them still.
The Jewish tradition has Yahrzeit candles to commemorate the dead, lit to burn for 24 hours on the eve of the anniversary of their death, and at other festivals throughout the year. Since the lighting of candles in churches and cathedrals seems a universally acceptable practice, could we not tempt people back into church after Hallowe’en to remember their own dead in this way? Perhaps with orange candles, if you are keen to capture some Hallowe’en market-share.
Dr Eve Poole is an associate research fellow of the William Temple Foundation and an associate of the St Paul’s Institute. This is an edited version of a blog published at www.williamtemplefoundation.org.uk.