Handling Halloween Wisely
Christians are almost united in their dismay at Halloween becoming a major cultural festival but they struggle to know what to do about it. On many other social issues – caring for the environment, stopping people trafficking, giving aid to less developed countries and so on – we find that even if our neighbours don't understand where we are coming from, they will often agree with us. But when we raise objections about Halloween we are met with utter incomprehension. Surely Halloween is harmless fun for children – dressing up, collecting sweets and meeting the neighbours? How can anyone object to that? And don't we need a celebration that crosses cultural, racial and religious boundaries? In the face of such arguments, how are we to persuade our friends and neighbours that they should not celebrate Halloween?
Firstly, you could see Halloween as the revival of a pagan festival. But this is not a terribly convincing argument against it. What a celebration once was is not much of a guide to what it currently is – most people are surprised to realise that Bonfire Night started off as an anti-Catholic celebration! Although there were all sorts of strange local customs on 31 October, the modern Halloween only really started in the UK in the 1960s. Its growing popularity is largely because it is a major element in popular American culture – and a huge marketing opportunity. This year, spending on Halloween merchandise in the UK is likely to top £200 million, while in the US it is measured in billions of dollars.
Secondly, it is always possible that as Christians we are overreacting. But Halloween trivialises a real issue: spiritual warfare. It is clear throughout the Bible that there is a continuous, bitter cosmic conflict between God and the forces of evil. There is supernatural evil and supernatural good and whether we acknowledge the existence of the spiritual realm or not we are all caught up in the battle. Through God's salvation offered to us in Christ we can be transferred from the side of evil to God's side. Yet Halloween trivialises all this – devils, demons, witches, ghosts are all figures of fun. Halloween also glorifies such things as witchcraft and sorcery, which are condemned in the Bible (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; 1 Samuel 28:6-7; Acts 19:19; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:8; 22:15).
Thirdly, Halloween fails to acknowledge that evil has been defeated. The Bible doesn't just condemn evil powers, it affirms that Jesus Christ destroyed them through his death on the cross. That victory was demonstrated by Jesus’ resurrection (Colossians 2:15) and through the Holy Spirit God's people also have power over evil (Matthew 28:18; Romans 16:20; Ephesians 6:11-17; Colossians 2:9-10; Hebrews 2:14-15; James 4:7; 1 John 3:8; 4:4).
So Halloween distorts the reality of spiritual warfare, glorifies the dark side and overlooks the victory granted to God's people through Christ. For me, this is reason enough to condemn Halloween, but these arguments carry little weight with those who deny the existence of the spiritual world. However, it isn't just Christians who dislike the festival. Many followers of Islam and other faiths also dislike Halloween. And as Halloween gets bigger and darker in emphasis each year, many with little or no religious faith feel uneasy about it. How are we to enlist support against Halloween? I suggest that we need to look at its three emphases: the magical (or supernatural); the macabre (or scary); and the malicious.
The strongest element is the magical – dressing up as witches, wizards, vampires etc. We would no more dress up as a witch or a wizard than we would don a Gestapo uniform – because we do not wish to glorify evil. Two sorts of people are likely to object to this argument. The first is the atheist, who says that there is no spiritual world and so Halloween poses no risk. But denying the existence of the spiritual world is as much an act of faith as saying that it exists. Moreover, if we examine human culture worldwide and over time, we find that the vast majority of people have believed in spiritual forces of some kind. Complete rejection of the spiritual world is rare. The second sort of person would be one who accepts the existence of a spiritual world but sees it as a harmless realm. But the testimony of almost every society that has ever existed is that there is a dark side to such a world. And at Halloween what is celebrated is not the benign but the very darkest side of the supernatural.
Turning to the macabre aspect of Halloween, the celebration of the ugly, the scarred and the horrific, raises many issues. Why celebrate the macabre? Why dress up in a way that portrays death and decay? Even the most resolute atheist must be troubled by the trend for ever-more-gruesome masks and costumes. When the media only parade beautiful bodies we need to say loudly and clearly that there is absolutely no relationship between having a deformed or distorted body and being evil.
Finally, the malicious element in Halloween – tricks that are mostly fairly harmless but not always. But ‘trick or treat’ is a very curious principle. We would normally call this sort of thing ‘demanding with menaces’. The principle is: ‘Give me what I want – or else.’ Is this really something we want to teach our children? So there are arguments against Halloween and to some extent it is immaterial whether our friends and colleagues believe in the existence of spiritual powers or not. Halloween stands condemned on other grounds: it is a dark celebration that focuses on evil, horror and wrong. In the modern Halloween there is no element of good triumphing over darkness. So what are we going to do? I would suggest that:
• We need to think and pray through the issues. There is a temptation to focus on the demonic but this can lead to Satan getting the attention. Instead we should remember that Jesus Christ is Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the greatest power in the universe.
• There is something clearly unhealthy about Halloween and we need to oppose it. It celebrates evil and darkness. We spend a lot of time as parents and teachers encouraging children to follow what is right and Halloween inverts all this.
• We need to take a stand and one way is to provide alternatives. It is good if churches provide sensible and fun alternatives and invite others along. If you are at home and don't want to subscribe to Halloween then you could put a note on your door saying ‘Halloween not celebrated here’ – and defuse any ill feeling by drawing a smiley face underneath. Or offer sweets – but together with invitations to church youth and children's activities.
• We should try to build alliances against Halloween. You might just say that you think it trivialises and distorts what's going on in the spiritual world, but your position may be strengthened by going into more detail.
• Whatever your response, it is important that you explain it. This is particularly important for parents with their children. It is far better to talk about the issues involved than just to say, ‘We don't do Halloween.’
Finally, let's use the opportunity. Halloween allows us to talk about some of the deeper issues in life. Is there life after death? Are their spirits? Is there a force of evil? Why, in our scientific age, are books and films with a supernatural theme so popular? Halloween presents dangers but also opportunities; let's not waste them!