Trick or treat?

Is Halloween a fun, harmless event, providing an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes? Or is it a pernicious celebration of evil spirits?

I was raised to believe that latter; allowed to dress up as something benign, like a nurse, or a pink rabbit, but not allowed to trick or treat. That ritual dates back to pagan appeasement of the spirits in the Middle Ages, we were told.

I haven't swung entirely to the other end of the pendulum -- I find some currents even in a mainstream celebration uncomfortably death-focused -- but I certainly take a different view of things now.

The explanation my pastor gives for why he allowed his children to participate in Halloween (when his wife wouldn't even allow harmless kids' stories about witches in the house) strikes me as thoughtful and Christian. He realized that for that one night of the year, all the parents in the neighbourhood were either out on the street greeting each other, or waiting behind brightly lit front doors to welcome visitors with candy and kind words. Why, he asked himself, should he pass up this opportunity to get to know his neighbours?

Sure, there are complex underlying theological issues, but ultimately, we're supposed to love our neighbours. Doesn't presence in the neighbourhood on such a night do a better job of that than huddling behind darkened doors, fearing fiendish fairies?

I recently read a church bulletin announcement about Halloween practice that came so close, but seemed, in my estimation, to miss the mark. It said the church community wanted to be a light to the neighbourhood on what could potentially be a dark evening. "Yes," I cheered inwardly. "This church gets it! They're going to be friendly, and meet the folks around them, instead of in huddling in the basement for some 'alternative' fun night." But as I read on, I groaned. To accomplish this, they were planning to gather at the brightly lit church building to hand out hot chocolate.

Seriously?! Who's going to go stop at a church on Halloween, especially if the church is merely handing out hot chocolate for chilled parents? And risk, at best, some preaching, at worst, attempted exorcism? No way.

If you really want to be a light to the neighbours on Halloween, I wanted to say, stay home, turn your lights on, and stand by the door, ready with a big bag of treats.

I'm not unsympathetic to those with real concerns about spiritual and occultic powers turned mainstream at Halloween. A friend of mine, having spent much time in a sub-Saharan rainforest African village -- where people say in all seriousness that the witchdoctors drove all the elephants away, and that when hunting, before you return to the village for help, you should always cut off the ear of the wild boar's carcass just in case it transforms back into a human while you're gone -- does not participate in Halloween. I respect her position given her experience. But when anti-Halloween sentiment merely motivates an Oct. 31 costume party at the church, something just doesn't feel right.

In all the historical sketches about the pagans and druids and ghouls that the anti-Halloween folk give us, I've never heard about the role the hope and peace of Christ played, even for our medieval friends. The ever-insightful Steve Bell related in a blog post called "Keeping Christ in Halloween," that on the pagan Samhain, a night when folk were cowering behind their doors in fear of restless roaming spirits, Saint Patrick went knocking on doors, handing out sweet cakes to his neighbours, reminding them Christ has overcome death -- we don't need to fear the dead, though we may wish to honour and celebrate saints who have gone before. Thus the rituals of Halloween became attached to the night before All Saints Day, namely, Oct. 31.

What's your take? Are your lights on or off on Halloween, and why?


Anonymous said…
Good post, Karla. I like your pastor's idea about it being neighbour time. -- Our lights were on. Too bad we didn't have enough goblins come by to use up all our candy though; what will be do now except eat it ourselves (sigh)? :)
well, this year my lights were off and I was not at home. But that's a first. Usually, my lights are on, and to be truthful, in the past I haven't thought a lot about the spiritual significance of it. But I'd say my lights will continue to stay on because I dare say the last thing us church-goers should be doing is segregating ourselves even more from our neighbours.
Eric Jordan said…
My pastor has told me the exact same thing - even outright disapproving of churches who do the in-the-basement-alternative-party thing.

I don't have a problem with it (thinking ahead to the possibility of children), as long as it's kept 'innocent' - even if the occult overtones remain in the back of mine head. But, like with all things, I do think there is something important about knowing where the celebration came from - how it was and where it has gone.

I wouldn't mind reverting to the early 'Christianised' observance of Hallowmas.

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