It might be quickly catching on as an Australian calendar fixture synonymous with horror-themed costumes and teeth-rotting lollies but what should Christians make of Halloween? Rev David MacGregor examines the history behind the commercialism and the practice of “trick or treat”.
What do you make of Halloween each year? I’ve long wondered that. Halloween is of course huge business in places like North America and Great Britain, and increasingly catching on here.
Family trips to the US over the years have revealed black and orange Walmart aisles chock-a-block with ghoulish merchandise and roadside stalls selling huge orange pumpkins of awe-inspiring dimensions!
All of this draws on pagan practice going back to ancient Celtic times, when Celts would celebrate the New Year beginning on 1 November. That night they would pay tribute to the spirit world with gifts of food, to ensure as harvesting finished and winter approached that next year’s crop would be bountiful. Huge bonfires would be lit to frighten away evil spirits.
Down the ages the church has “Christianised” this practice, as they have done similarly with Christmas and Easter. In medieval times the pagan and Christian traditions merged, with children going door-to-door begging for “soul cakes” for the wandering spirits. If no treats were offered, the beggars would play pranks. We now know this as “trick or treat”.
For Christians, Halloween derives from “Hallowe’en”, which in turn derives from All Hallows evening. Yes, this is the night before All Hallows or as it is better known, All Saints Day.
What an irony that a day and its preceding evening—when Christians celebrate those “saints” of all shapes and sizes who have shone the light of Christ into a world of darkness—has somehow been hijacked by that very darkness, and all that comes out of the human woodwork one late October evening!
For me, so much about Halloween has this sense of darkness, creepiness, ugliness or just plain silliness. I’ve never “trick or treated” nor do I plan to! Mind you, over the years a garage door or driveway-parked car has somehow copped the tomato or cracked egg “trick” while strangely my family missed out on the opportunity to “treat”.
I reflect on the reality that is the darkness. The darkness, however it comes to us (or perhaps to Jungians, our “shadow”) is something we all struggle with. It brings out our fears, and yes, it brings out our violence and ugliness, however that manifests.
Could it just be that Halloween gives that fleeting one-night opportunity for participants to (even superficially) deal with “the night”, connecting with a world that has way too much darkness, creepiness, oppression and fear, and to then wake up into the light of a new day, with all that darkness gone? If life and living were only that simple!
Could it be that in the mischievous little ritual of “trick or treat”—children almost invariably and thankfully traversing the neighbourhood in a group—they encounter the stranger, and the stranger opening their door offering the simple hospitality of a few goodies encounters them? Surely that’s good for community!
Debra Dean Murphy in a 2013 opinion piece for The Christian Century makes this great point: “When we offer a gift to a stranger … we are also learning to receive gifts from strangers—to be transformed by encountering Christ in them. They might be wearing a mask (a vampire mask, say, or the mask of loneliness or irritability), but we all wear masks, all the time. Discarding them is the work of a lifetime.”
And the darkness? Well, Christ has and will always have the final, illuminating, life-giving word. “The light keeps shining in the dark, and darkness has never put it out” (John 1:5).
Rev David MacGregor
David MacGregor is a minister at Wellers Hill Tarragindi Uniting Church in Brisbane. He is passionate about inclusive worship, faith formation for all ages and the place of music in shaping discipleship, and is a published worship song writer.