Halloween - a festival that consumer culture has subverted from Christianity: are we subverting it back? (with apologies to pagans?)


Today is 31st October, not just any ordinary Tuesday but of course that international western world fest known as Halloween. Thoughts in the Mayers household however have been pondering this day and its meaning for the last, oh week...

My wife, Deb, and I sat down to talk about Halloween recently. Our three year old son, Nathan, is getting old enough to realise that something is happening at this time of year and we were trying to figure out what we should tell him. The conversation went a little like this:

me: Halloween, it's mostly harmless, people just do it for fun

Deb: isn't it evil, some sort of witches, satanic thing?

me: well maybe, I don't know but, come on its kids running around, dressing up, having a good time and well going to parties, the only spirits they'll be communing with will be their high ones from too much chocolate and E numbers.

Deb: Right so why are all the shops full of scary costumes, everywhere you look its all monsters and witches for sale. And pumpkins. And even the chocolates are in halloween monster shapes.

me: about the only evil thing seems to be the tackiness of the items for sale and the sheer consumer spectacle.

Deb: yes well what are we going to tell Nathan?

Me: that it is meaningless tat/junk and we don't believe in it?

Deb: but what is it about and what does it mean? I don't feel happy just telling Nathan it means nothing so we don't celebrate it. What about when he gets older and wants to go trick or treating, I find that very scary, and the old people down our street will likely be terrified, you don't know who's at the door until you open it...

So this post is in a big way sharing my thinking of what I could tell my son about the meaning of Halloween, but more than that inviting you to tell me what you think, how you react and whether as Christians it is not just about whether we agree/disagree with the tat from the shops, trick n treating, dressing up as witches, going to parties etc etc but whether there is something we can find to re-discover/redeem/reclaim/re-subvert back from the overwhelming consumerist secular celebration that it is becoming (UK)/become(USA).

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Halloween - a secular consumer religious celebration of consumption?

Be afraid, be very afraid! No not another viewing of Michael Myers in action but a viewing of the facts revealed from this article from The Observer about the UK's consumer consumption of Halloween:

- this year expected we'll spend £120m up from £12m 5 yrs ago; - Halloween is the third most profitable event for retailers after Christmas and Easter; - the 7 shopping days before the 31st October are expected to be the 2nd busiest of the year; - in 2005 the number of anti-social behaviour orders issued at Halloween doubled to 786.

The UK is still behind the US where "an average family spends £65 on Halloween decorations, sweets and costumes in a nationwide industry worth $4.7 billion" By way of contrast Republicans and Democrats are expected to spend about $1bn on the mid term elections

Halloween has become big booming business, with major stores dedicating staff to research trends and providing marketing to drive this consuming experience. When I was a child we hardly bothered with Halloween, not because we were Christians but because no one else did either, apart from a few parties and the occasional child knocking on the door. Now it is a feast that we are invited to participate in, to spend, to experience, to enjoy a night of all age celebration with a price tag to match any other the family market manufactured experience (a fun day out at a theme park for instance cost us around £50 for 2 adults and children). In and of itself I do not see it is wrong to choose to participate in this consumption but I do think it is important that I do so with my eyes open in what I am celebrating is a secular subverted market manufactured feel good experience. So as a Christian how can I engage in the process/project of subverting Holloween back to something that connects with my culture and the traditon of Halloween in its Christian traditional heritage?...

All hallow's eve - the evening before the saints day after

Wikipedia explains the etymology of "the term Halloween, and its older spelling Hallowe'en, is shortened from All-hallow-even, as it is the evening before "All Hallows' Day"(also known as "All Saints' Day")." So Halloween is the night before the church calendar celebrates All Saints Day which has been celebrated on 1 November since 835AD and the feast has been offically celebrated in one datein the church calendar from around 610 AD (and a whole of host of celebrations on different days in different parts of the church from the 400s AD). For 1400 years parts of the church have celebrated All Saints Day and this may help us then understand more of the Christian context of Halloween.

"Lord, how I want to be in that number, when the Saints go marching in..."

All Saints Day is in the words of Pope Gregory III a celebration of "the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world." It is a time when Christians can celebrate all those who have gone before us and who through their faithful service and sacrifice allow us to be Christians today - that long chain of faith that ripples back from us through millenniums and millions of ordinary Christians, and going forward from us will extend onwards into the future. It is a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of the river of faith that we stand in and in some way "honour all the saints, known and unknown." Part of the marking of this celebration would have been a vigil that would have become on the evening before All Saints Day and hence All hallows eve became marked as well. The All Saints Day for the Eastern Orthodox Church is still celebrated in the summer period (actually the Sunday 8 weeks after the Easter Day).

Subversion of Pagan feasts? There is a question of whether the church in moving the celebration of All Saints Day to 1 November was in some way trying to subvert an already existing Pagan festival which happened around the end of October to celebrate the end of summer a pastoral and agricultural fire festival or feast, when the dead revisited the mortal world, and large communal bonfires would be lit to ward off evil spirits. There are doubts that this was the main intention of moving the Church feast but it does raise an interesting issue of cultural subversion rather than cultural obliteration which is a tension we can see in the world still today (not least in an era of new colonialism/intervention in other nation states). Hence the maybe of the apology to the pagans who may or may not feel that the church has subverted their own celebration.

Perhaps tho the question for Halloween is whether as Christians we can rlearn from this contextual in-filling/transfoming process and make Halloween a subversive engagement rather than obliteration or cultuaral obligation?

Exploring how Christians could redeem/reclaim/re-subvert Halloween?

Finally, I would like to explore with you some possible ways of taking the hollowed out pumpkin of consumer halloween and look we could possibly begin to fill it back again with a deeper resonance...

1. "Deliver us from evil" - so far I have glossed over my wife's concerns that there might be something evil about, well what about the witches and the satanists? According to occult Wicca practices “Halloween is one of the four major Sabbats celebrated by the modern Witch, and it is by far the most popular and important of the eight that are observed. . . Witches regard Halloween as their New Year’s Eve, celebrating it with sacred rituals. . .“ (Dunwich, Gerina. The Pagan Book of Halloween, p. 120). But on the other hand some members of the Wiccan practice feel that the tradition is offensive to real witches for promoting a stereotypical caricature of a witch. Additionally, many Wiccans and other neo-Pagan adherents object to Halloween, which they perceive as a vulgarized, commercialised mockery of the original Samhain rituals which are traditionally celebrated on 31 October. In our subversive mindset, rather than reacting in horror from wiccans, pagans or satanists perhaps instead we could find ways to talk, we may already have the anti-consumerist theme as a common ground (HT to John for his modelling of incarnational conversation with these folks).

2. "Transform fear - or know your neighbour through loving them" - In The Observer article one woman describes her Halloween thoughts as:

'I loathe Halloween,' she wrote. 'Every year that night comes round and I know what will happen. Early on you get a few cute younger children all excited and dressed up. Then you start to get big groups of teenagers in no costume other than horrific masks shouting and banging on the door demanding "cash or food". Ignore them and you get your home attacked, open the door and you get nothing but cheek.'

Halloween has become a fearful time in part because we have strangers knocking our doors - we live in fractured streets where we know hardly any of our neighbours and have no idea whose kids are knocking at our door. We are probably fearful and suspicious of any stranger who knocks on our door at any time that we don't know - no doubt doubly so when we know it is strangers who will demand from us, threaten us and possibly hurt/damage us. That fear and isolation are powerful areas for redemption - maybe we as Christians can do something in terms of using halloween to get to know our neighbours more, maybe have a party for local kids in church? Invite their parents along so it’s a party they can enjoy too? Maybe take the chance to talk to the kids that come to your door and ask them where they live, say hi to the parents that come along?

It is not just about opening our front doors but opening the doors of our lives. It is something that we struggle with in a time pressured, disparate society but perhaps Halloween gives us the opportunity to reflect again that its perfect love that drives out fear and we are meant to be a people who reflect that perfect love.

3. Treat no trick - if Halloween stands for anything it is about me and my fun, my consumption, my outfit. Is there anything I can do to subvert some of my own consumerist self centred ways? What if instead of shopping for me I looked at buying chocolates for my neighbours, or looked for an opportunity to connect with them, or serve them in some other way? One year on halloween our house group went around the streets where we met giving away little wrapped bags of chocolate as a servant evangelism project. People were just so shocked to be given something nice for free rather than having to do something or pay for something.

What if I decided this year to use my halloween money for something else, something about life rather than death and found ways to engage my family, friends, and neighbours in this? What about those like me who were intending to take no part, maybe i can think of what I might have spent and give some part or all of that to a life giving cause, or invest it in connecting with friends and neighbours?

4. Vigil-lantern for All Saints Day - I need to be hallow-weaned, no longer fed on the sweet, high in fat, low in content, extra rich but ultra poor milk of the consumer version. I need to connect throught that to something that will feed me and grow me spiritually, not leave me soul saturated with consumer clobber...

So I am excited this year as this coming sunday for the first time ever in my life I will be attending church which marks All Saints Day. I am looking forward to doing so as part of a community of saints celebrating an even bigger community/cloud of saints. I wonder though if today I can pause to reflect on the vigil that is all hallows eve, maybe to light a candle (even the one in my pumpkin if i had one) or some other meaningful symbolic action, maybe read/reflect on Psalm 145 or Hebrews 12 that will engage me and my family back to the story of our faith and our faithful God? At least I have something to tell Nathan about what I believe Halloween is really about...

Tell us what you think? Well those are some of the ideas/ways/thoughts that cross my mind, but please tell me what you think? What will you be doing today? Have you been inspired to be more subversive, if so what/how? Are you already doing something different, please do share? Have you thought of any Qs as you've read, please do ask...

Paul Mayers