Coffin-shaped sandwiches, anyone? No? Then how about a battery-operated grim reaper? If that doesn’t grab you, why not try a set of plastic Dracula teeth so you can leap out from behind the curtains and terrify the kids?
Yes, the frightful festival of Halloween is upon us, although the supermarkets, in their eerily efficient way, have been flogging the grizzly merchandise of the season from shelves and checkouts for several weeks. October 31st looms large in the supermarket year.
The festival used to be quietly non-commercial, with school kids hollowing out turnips into lanterns, or putting together a witch’s hat with bits of black felt. But since 2001, Halloween has staged a zombie-like resurrection in the shopping aisles. In that year, sales of spooky costumes, food and accessories were worth just £12m, but by 2009 that figure had ballooned 20 times to £235m.
The big festivals of the UK year are now (from the top, moneywise) Christmas, Easter and Halloween, with Valentine’s Day and Guy Fawkes’ Night completing the top five. Curiously, 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. But more of that in a moment.
Like Christmas, Halloween has a tangled story. Its roots can credibly be followed back to the old 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 Halloween was intended to divert people from telling Celtic horror stories and instead get them thinking about the inspiring and heroic stories of the saints. The clerics of the time must have rubbed their hands over their cunning plan. Paganism was defeated. Mission accomplished. But just a peek into a supermarket now shows that the church’s plan has failed rather spectacularly.
Just as Dante’s Inferno is a lot 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 a lot more readily than ‘I’ll sing you a song of the saints of God,’ to quote the hilariously dreadful Victorian hymn.
But the church of now has been fighting back against the advance of Halloween. Christians in the most excitable pews paint the festival in the most lurid, devilish colours, condemning its imagery of death and horror, accusing it of dabbling in the occult, and sounding the moral trumpet at the naughty pranks that go with it all. And they have another cunning plan. They want to have another go at baptising Halloween.
Most attempts to give Halloween a sprinkle of holy water come down to running ‘Bright parties’, or the marginally more inviting ‘Saints & Sausages parties’, where activities for kids are organised by grown-ups. Mercifully, these plodding attempts to domesticate Halloween are doomed to failure because they misread what it is all about.
Halloween 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. The monster under your bed might really be there this time.
How exhilarating is all that for a child? And that is why Christian attempts to impose an adult-led, rules-based alternative are so misconceived. They miss the point with pinpoint imprecision.
What happens at Halloween is play. The themes of that play, 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.
At heart, Halloween 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 Halloween its Gothic flavour. Just as spring turns us to life and love, autumns turns us to death and the dark.
Maybe the church needs a new cunning plan if it wants to engage successfully with Halloween in its natural season of the year.
Invite all the little witches and werewolves, Draculas and Frankensteins, zombies and ghosts into church. After all, your church is probably the most Gothic and spooky building in the neighbourhood. It’s the perfect place for Halloween.
How about Halloween in the Crypt, with hideous laughter? It’s a tragedy that churches actually have crypts, but don’t know how to ham them up. If we can welcome Santa Claus into the service on December 25th, why not ghouls and mummies on October 31st?
Like Christmas, Halloween is one of those rare moments in the year when gospel and culture share the same space. It’s a moment when Christians have good and positive things to say in direct response to what is actually happening on the streets and in people’s homes.
If churches can let Halloween playfully ask its big questions about the dark side, and welcome people ‘just as they are’, costumes and all, then there’s a golden opportunity to talk about Jesus, who faced horror for our sake, overcame the Devil and destroyed the power of death.
Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, this is when we need to be as harmless as doves, yes, but also as wise as serpents.