It’s that strange time of the year when it’s acceptable to add pumpkin to your coffee, which at least helps with your five a day, and shops are filled with displays of vampires, ghosts and witches. Halloween is now the UK’s third highest spending festival and could be worth as much as £400 million to retailers.
We are still some way behind our American cousins who spend $350 million on costumes alone – for their pets! In the US, the fright economy is worth a staggering $7.4 billion.
As a parent of young children, it’s interesting to navigate Halloween – sometimes literally steering children between zombie outfits and the Grim Reaper just to reach the check-out. Why is it acceptable on this one night for children to accept sweets from strangers?
Halloween comes from All Hallow’s Eve, a Christian commemoration that – like Christmas Eve – introduces the feast day following. As with so many Christian feast days, it’s likely the Church co-opted a pagan festival for its own purposes, in this case Samhain, a Celtic festival that historically involved summoning the dead.
It seems we celts are responsible for trick or treating, as people used to dress up as souls of the dead, or Aos Si, and go door-to-door asking for food in exchange for a poem or song. Our ancestors believed it was a time when the walls between our world and the next became thin and porous, allowing spirits to pass through, come back to life for the day and damage their crops.
The whole notion of Halloween seems to jar with our modern, scientific, rational – and apparently secular – age. In his seminal work, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor talks about exclusive humanism, a worldview that is able to account for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine or transcendence. But he notes that in reality, while many are stuck in this narrow drive towards Godless immanence, they feel the simultaneous cross-pressure of various spiritual options. (Check out How not to be Secular by James K A Smith for a great summary of Tayl0r)
So you meet people who not only don’t believe in God, but think belief in God is unthinkable, while simultaneously watching Game of Thrones, True Blood and Vampire Diaries. Many are more open to the transcendent than they are prepared to admit, even to themselves.
CS Lewis said: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.”
Halloween provides all of us the space for some different conversations. It reminds us that evil is real and present in our world. It brings us face-to-face with death – historically children would dress up to mock death. The skeletons, ghosts and ghouls are a reminder of the afterlife few now believe in.
There is a certain irony that sometimes our culture is more willing to talk about the supernatural than the Church. Christians need be be bolder in proclaiming their belief in an unseen God, who died and rose again and who shows up today in spirit form.
Halloween is the moment when we join with culture agreeing there is life beyond death, that (holy) ghosts are real and proclaim the gospel – trick or treat?