Halloween these days provides a time for the predictable annual debate about whether or not Christians should participate in Halloween, and many participants in the debate express themselves very strongly. As we approach that time, I would like to offer a few irenic reflections on the controversial October event.
Everyone presumably acknowledges that there is nothing wrong with children dressing up as fairies, Disney characters, Marvel superheroes, and (my own favourite when I was a child) black cats in order to go door to door with their friends after dark to collect candy. The argument against Halloween is that it also glorifies violence, gore, and death, so that it is unsuitable for Christians to participate in Halloween. Collecting candy is fine; it is the frightening stuff that comes afterward that is the problem. Halloween trades in things like graveyards and corpses and ugly witches on broomsticks and bats and cobwebs and Frankenstein monsters. So, the question arises: why do people delight in such scary stuff?
In this regard it is interesting to observe that such scary stories once formed a part of Christmas celebrations here in the West. Yep: Christmas, not Halloween. Thus the verse from the Christmas song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: “There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and carolling out in the snow. There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” Why “scary ghost stories” at Christmas? Because people delighted to huddle around the hearth and tingle with excitement. They loved to be scared and experience the chemical rush that came with it and then to laugh about it afterward.
That is also why scary stories of monsters and dangerous people and ghosts were a staple at scouting camp-outs: children would huddle around the campfire while the Scout-master told scary stories and the children all jumped with fear and then laughed and giggled afterward. That is the point of the spooky fun house at amusement parks. When I was a child, there was such a fun house where one rode in a little car and monsters jumped out at you to scare you. Significantly the ride was called, “Laff in the Dark”.
Children delight in being thrilled by such things, for the same reason that they delight in being thrilled (that is, terrified) by the roller-coaster—because they know the thrill will not last, and will not harm them. They return to real life energized from having received a quick shot of childish adrenaline. Monsters and ghost stories are fun and energizing. And children are not stupid: they can distinguish between scary things that are not dangerous (like monsters and ghosts) and scary things that are dangerous (like bullies and strangers inviting them into a van). They know that monsters are safe and bullies are not.
I suggest then that the presence of scary ghost stories at Halloween now functions in the same way as scary ghost stories once functioned at Christmas—not as a glorification of ghosts, goblins, monsters, but as a kind of campfire adventure. And—for some adults dressing up at Halloween—as a fond attempt to recapture some of their all-too-soon vanished childhood. These adults do not relate to scary ghost stories like the children do, but like the Scout-master telling the stories to the children. It is all a part of the game.
Today our culture is in a time of change and transition, and this change may include Halloween also. The pastoral challenge for the Church today is to discern what the various things in our culture mean, and to respond appropriately to each one in turn. If a Halloween celebration has large amounts of graphic gore, this is a problem, since this does indeed seem to glorify violence—or at least contribute to our being desensitized to it. But if the Halloween celebration consists of pictures of bats, spider webs, and old hags riding brooms, of wearing funny costumes, and of eating lots of junk food, this is less problematic.
The debate about Christians celebrating Halloween is therefore too broad to answer directly. One first needs to answer the question, “Which Halloween?” Obviously, all these things exist on a spectrum, with ghost stories at one end of the spectrum and dripping mangled bodies at the other end. Where along this wide spectrum is “your” Halloween? (I leave out of our reckoning certain groups that co-opt the celebration as a vehicle for their own strange practices. Obviously, their celebration of Halloween is problematic.)
If we fail to denounce things that are genuinely evil and worthy of denunciation, we will justly deserve censure. If we denounce things that are essentially harmless, we may lose our credibility with the world we want to convert. Some Christians in the 1960s denounced the Beatles for their long hair, and Elvis Presley for his gyrations. Such things now seem harmless and benign, and no one now denounces the Beatles for wearing bangs, or Elvis for his moves when singing “Blue Suede Shoes”. In the same way, if the Church denounces the practice of children for wearing costumes and pretending to be fairies or Spider-Man while going door to door collecting candy, this may result in a loss of credibility in the eyes of the world. And it’s not like we have any credibility to spare. We need to distinguish and discern before we decide.
I lived in Europe twice in my younger years, four years in Germany and four in England. In neither place did I ever witness anything Halloween. Germany had October Fest and England celebrate Guy Fawkes day. I do believe Halloween is an American phenomenon without an ancient roots. I also lived in the Orient and there was no such thing either. I stay out of the debate but I don’t participate in it either. My children are long gone from the nest so I have no pony in the race.
Thank you for this balanced view of the Halloween tradition Father!
Amen! And many Christians and non Christians react to the name and celebration of GOOD FRIDAY for similar reasons. Yes the argument goes but the Resurrection comes 2 days later… and with Halloween the argument goes… but all Saints day comes in the morning!
Thank you, Father Lawrence, for this. Some years back I attempted to contribute to an on-line discussion about Halloween (and Christian involvement therein). My take was that it was innocuous fun for the most part, with a dollop of laughing at death (which is inevitable for us all, so why not share our fear of it, along with the knowledge that death will one day be defeated?). I’d also included some mention of the hospitality of Halloween, expressed in doling out handfuls of candy to the children who come to our doors. A Christian writer had expressed that Christians should obviously take part in such hospitality, and I agreed with him.
So I wrote, and posted, and promptly began to doubt it all. Was I encouraging people to sin? Is this really such a simple topic?
And as you’ve said, it is not. Like everything else, our very lives as Christians include things that aren’t so black and white. The boundaries aren’t clear.
I wrote out of remembrance of my own childhood and how much I enjoyed Halloween for its scary spookiness, for being out after dark with my older brother and sister to collect candy from strangers, for the fun of dressing up, etc. This was back in the 1960s and ‘70s – not what we might call “a more innocent time.” There was bad stuff even then, including warnings to have your parents check your candy before commencing consumption. We were dealing with that as far back as the mid-1960s.
It all gets hopelessly complex for me, especially if I add to the mix the fascination with scary movies full of supposedly demonic characters. I keep in mind that our real enemy comes as an angel of light, not a slathering, drooling, befanged monster – although there might be some reality in the monsters, in that they embody and express the inner motives of that angel of light.
Elvis and The Beatles – as innocent as we think they appear today – may have functioned as steps downward in our culture. Not purely evil, of course. Not perfectly good, either. But this is another truth about our existence in the world as Christians. Not many of us are truly wicked, but then not many are very good, either. It’ll take God to sort us all out.
I do appreciate, though, how you’ve brought some “irenic” sense to the discussion, so thank you again.
As for “Laff in the Dark” . . .
They had one of those rides at the Crystal Beach amusement park in Fort Erie, Ontario, a once-popular destination for western New Yorkers looking for fun. My older sister took me through Laff in the Dark when I was pretty young – mid single-digits, I believe. Probably not a good idea. That ride was evil. EVIL!
Father forgive me but the problem is that the “scary ghost stories” did not stay in the realm of harmless, even beneficial. They have morphed into an alternate reality in which God and Christ do not exist and are indeed harmful in some cases. A whole separate universe is created in which evil has genuine power and goodness is sometimes seen as weak, akin to Hobbs and Nietzsche.
That does not mean we should fight them as that gives them strength. We should emphasize prayer, fasting and repentance as the tools that defeat evil as well as teaching the true nature of evil i. e. not part of a balanced dialectic that has a chance of winning.
Of course, that is not easy and definitely not of this world. Nevertheless it is the real power of tools such as the heroic beauty of icons, the transforming grace of the Sacraments and the impenetrable armor of the Jesus Prayer that give this old battered man the hope to soldier on confident of Christ’s victory in each heart, in my heart. … and we will each be given at least one final opportunity to confess the Truth so that His Grace and Mercy is victorious over my pride and quest for power.
Lord, forgive me, a sinner. Father, forgive me and pray for His Mercy to be in my soul.
Well, it may work OK in the USA, but when introduced to other countries – in order to sell merchandise – it can become a thing dreaded by people who do not want it.
For example, my old parents who lived on a ground floor flat, got raw eggs thrown on their windows and doors, they felt very unsafe even if it was only kids doing it.
While it might start as an “innocent thing” it can quickly become an excuse for some kids to behave very badly and then you have to switch off your lights in the evening and hope that the evil will pass you by, I have done that.
In the shops you now have Halloween and Christmas merchandise next to one another, I do not know about you, but I find it offensive.
Also, you can now opt out from Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, but you can’t opt out of “Pride Month” and Halloween. All things exported from the US.
“In Mammon you trust”, that is all I can say. Lord have mercy on us sinners.
I must say “Amen” to what Michael Baumen said.
And I’m not so sure I agree that it IS harmless for children to dress up as all of these things! (especially Disney these days!) Nor do I agree that just because many people today have become desensitized to the effect that the Beatles and Elvis had on our culture (no matter how catchy the tune )- was it harmless!
In the mid 1960’s when I was in 5th and 6th grades, my Mom would go through our Halloween bags of goodies and sort through them, and remove anything that was not manufactured-ly wrapped and sealed. When our daughters who are now in their late 20’s would dress for Halloween in school activities and in the evening would go treat-n-treating and having a wonderful time. We lived and still live in an active Christian community in the Mid-West with an abundance of Christian Churches of various denominations including our tiny Orthodox Christian Mission community. The Churches here (Methodist, Anglican/Epsicopalian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Preysberterian, Mormon, plus Jewish Synagogue, etc.) and the public schools very supportive of Christian traditions similar to what the 1950’s would have been. Today, however, there are a lot of UNChurched families, and Religious Nons. Thus, I believe that individual Christian parishes, and families have to discerned what is appropriate. Here, in our home town Churches do parking lot Treat- n- Treating, plus Colleges — Community and 4- Yr. Roman Catholic College, and in the past the Shopping Mall (although today that is greatly reduced, and the local city Museum has the Halloween and St. Nicholas Eve celebrations for children. I agree with you Fr. Farwley, if Halloween is fun for children, and safe and guided by Christian parents and connected with our Churches teachings (Orthodox have All-Saints in June as the Western Churches celebrate on November 1) then enjoy the childhood fun. We have to be Christian witnesses to the world and perhaps this is a good way to take what once was a Pagan Holiday in the British Isles and turned into a Christian Holiday.
As a child the prevalence of “store bought” costumes was not great and they looked pitiful. So my mother, an extremely creative woman, made our costumes which were quite fanciful. She made it fun and life affirming. But she also included a Medieval Scottish Prayer which was part fun and part serious: “From goulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.”
She also kept a big crate full of her old theater costumes (she was a dancer with Martha Graham 100 years ago.) that allowed us a lot of opportunity for creative play. Now , “dress up” has become controlled largely by TV marketing. Therefore neither fun nor harmless. That control of such activities for marketing and corporate culture preferences has made all such activities cultural propaganda. The can become agents of “culture change” Like the lewd drag shows being promoted for kids 6 and up here in Kansas as Halloween fun — in Kansas!!!
Hadn’t thought about the tradition of ghost stories on Christmas Eve vs Halloween in that way. I now recollect there was always a Christmas Eve ghost story on British TV when I was growing up that’s how I first became acquainted with the stories by M.R. James. I don’t think this tradition is quite so strong now.
All Saints Day (All Hallows Day) & All Souls Day took on various forms and names around the world, but in Ireland & Scotland it joined with local traditions to become what we now know as Halloween (All Hallows Eve/All Saints Eve). Like any holiday, it changed over time, and the U.S. has altered it so much that many mistakenly believe it began as an American holiday. Some claim it is a Catholic holiday being ruined by modern pagans, and others claim it is a pagan holiday that was stolen by the Catholic Church. Samhain (an Irish word that denotes the end of summer and is the name of an ancient seasonal celebration that occurred around the same time) either gets demonized or romanticized to support this battle, but very rarely is viewed objectively.
Halloween is what a person makes of it. When I was young, some local churches held Halloween parties. I don’t know if the local Catholic Church held an All Saints Mass (Hallowmas – here’s a word that rarely pops up), but the Presbyterian church we attended organized a fun, spooky party for us kids! The culture was far more Christian-oriented back then, with churches being quite full every Sunday morning, and no one ever had a problem with Halloween.
Gory decorations and skimpy costumes have become more common over the years, but so have a lot of other things Christians shouldn’t do. The best way to handle this is, don’t do them. Decorate for Halloween as you see fit and set a good example for the kids.
Father, it is good to see you mention the spooky side of Christmas. In certain countries, traditions foretelling the future, or having the gift of second sight, were associated with Christmas too. Costumes were worn at Christmas and children went door-to-door. Supernatural folklore was attached to other holidays, as well: St. Mark’s Eve, St. John’s Eve, New Year, and so forth.
You also make a good point that we need to consider what we are presenting to the world in our approach to Halloween. If the Orthodox Church starts channeling some of the unfounded accusations against Halloween, we will simply appear uneducated, legalistic, and extreme.