PumpkinsA few days ago, as I was pondering what I might write about Halloween, I came across an article by well-known British evangelist J. John that was published on the website of the Daily Mirror, a UK tabloid newspaper. The article has been widely circulated on social media and, since its author is such a respected figure, will no doubt have some degree of influence in shaping people’s opinion. Since I was struggling a little for inspiration, I thought I might reproduce J. John’s article here and share some brief thoughts of my own in response to each of his main points.

Before I do so, let me just clarify a couple of things. First, I very much respect J.John and his ministry. I think he is a great force for good in the church and in the land. As such, my comments here should not be taken as a personal attack on him or a condemnation of his right to hold and share his views. I’m simply sharing some alternative views in response to the opinions he shared in his article.

Second, I don’t wish to suggest that my views are “right” and that anyone who doesn’t share them is wrong. Christians, and Christian parents in particular, understandably have strong views about such matters, and if you feel it’s important or even crucial for your family not to engage in Halloween in any way, I absolutely respect that stance. Indeed, it’s the one I myself held for many years. The flip side, of course, is that neither should you condemn any Christian who doesn’t adopt that same stance and chooses instead to let their children participate in Halloween. (I think Paul’s guidance in 1 Corinthians 10 on whether or not Christians should eat meat offered to idols is relevant here. Paul’s bottom line is that it’s a matter of personal conscience, but that we should also be careful not to cause those whose conscience differs from ours to stumble.)

With those introductory comments out of the way, let’s get to J. John’s article. The original article can be found here; I’ll reproduce it section by section below, adding my comments where appropriate. (Indented text is from J. John’s article; my comments are unindented.)

Finally, feel free to share your own views in the comments!

Six reasons why I believe Halloween is far from harmless, by Revd Canon J. John

Halloween has become one of the biggest events in the British calendar.

There have always been traditions associated with 31st October, but the present extravaganza, with its epidemic of ‘trick-or-treating’, is a recent phenomenon.

A decade ago, spending on Halloween in the UK was only £12m; now, boosted by Hollywood and marketing, it is £300m.

Financially, Halloween is now, after Christmas and Easter, our third highest grossing celebration.

Being mainly factual information, there is little to disagree with here. I will note that I too find the increasingly rampant commercialisation not only of Halloween but also of Christmas and Easter concerning. But that’s a different discussion.

Yet Halloween has seized this position without any serious consideration of what it stands for and whether or not we even want it.

When people talk about what happens on 31st October a little phrase commonly heard is that Halloween is ‘harmless nonsense’.

But is it indeed harmless? Is it merely nonsense? It’s time to do some hard thinking.

Let me give you six reasons why Halloween is not harmless:

I think there’s a danger of overgeneralisation here. While it may be true that some (perhaps even many) people give no serious consideration to what Halloween stands for, certainly there are plenty of thinking people who do.

Similarly, whether he does so intentionally or not, the author seems to imply that anyone who considers Halloween “harmless nonsense” is unwittingly playing into the devil’s hands. I also note that he introduces his six reasons not as opinion but as categorical fact.

1. HALLOWEEN CELEBRATES EVIL

Although people celebrate Halloween in different ways it remains, at its core, an event that glorifies the dark, creepy and scary side of life.

Children and adults dress up as figures that are ‘evil’: witches, vampires, ghosts and demons.

If you want to be different you can hire costumes to make you look like a chainsaw killer, a psychopathic butcher or even a shooting victim (‘with authentic-looking bullet holes’).This is hardly harmless.

Whatever view we have about life, we all take it for granted that our society should spend time and energy encouraging children to care for others and to know the difference between right and wrong.

Yet on this one day, we throw all those values away and glorify everything that is evil and unpleasant. Talk about sending out mixed messages!

While Halloween certainly acknowledges the “dark, creepy and scary side of life”, I’m not at all convinced that it necessarily glorifies it. The world is full of strangeness and mystery, and some degree of fascination with such things is entirely normal. The author’s implication here seems to be that if you even acknowledge the spooky and the scary, you’re dabbling in dark and dangerous things.

It also occurs to me that some Christians who would shun Halloween in order to protect their children from “everything that is evil and unpleasant” are quite happy to allow all manner of evil and unpleasantness into their homes through the TV screen. Hmm.

(Note that I don’t like the idea of Halloween being used as an opportunity to dress up as a “psychopathic killer” or a shooting victim. But the fact that some people might choose to do that isn’t a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater by boycotting the whole thing.)

2. HALLOWEEN IS UNHELPFUL

We live in a world where every parent and teacher takes care to warn children that strangers may pose a threat and that they need to take precautions.

Yet at Halloween we discard that rule and encourage children to go and knock on doors and accept sweets from strangers.

Another mixed message!

All I’ll say here is that I think we need to credit our children with some degree of intelligence. Given the proper guidance, most children are perceptive enough to know the difference between engaging with strangers as part of an organised cultural ritual and doing so in other contexts.

3. HALLOWEEN TRIVIALISES BAD THINGS

No one is in doubt that evil is serious and that muggings, stabbings and serious accidents are horrendous.

Yet, again, Halloween breaks the rules. On this day we pretend that death, deformity and injury are no more than kids’ play!

At this point, I feel the author is quite simply being unhelpfully alarmist. Most of what goes on at Halloween has nothing to do with “muggings, stabbings and serious accidents”, and to imply that it does is disingenuous.

By allowing kids to participate in Halloween, I don’t think for one moment we pretend that “death, deformity and injury are no more than kids’ play”. Or, if we do, perhaps we should also make sure no little boy is ever allowed to play cowboys and indians or any other imaginative game that involves fake violence and death – or, for that matter, to read or watch on television anything that portrays violence and death.

4. HALLOWEEN IS OFFENSIVE

You could simply say that scaring kids is unhelpful, but there is a more subtle and troubling issue. Halloween costumes frequently centre on deformities, gory wounds and disfigurement.

There are a number of websites that tell you how to create an effective disfigurement; for example, how to create realistic-looking burns and how to make yourself hideously ugly.

Now consider how you would feel about that if you yourself were a burns victim, were severely disabled or had suffered horrendous scarring.

Do we really want to spread the message that ugliness equates to evil?

Again, I feel the author is condemning Halloween in its entirety on the basis of what I see as one narrow aspect of it. In my perception, most kids who dress up at Halloween dress up as witches, ghosts, vampires and the like – not as disfigured or horrendously scarred victims.

There may well be an argument to made about some parents allowing or encouraging their kids to go beyond what is culturally appropriate and acceptable at Halloween – in which case the author should make that argument. What he shouldn’t do it use it as a blunt instrument to condemn all involvement in Halloween, including by those families and children who never cross such cultural lines.

5. HALLOWEEN IS GETTING WORSE

Concerns about Halloween do not simply come from those of us with a ‘religious agenda’.

Increasingly, other people are expressing concern, particularly about the way that Halloween seems to be getting darker and nastier every year.

Carved pumpkins were, I suppose, pretty harmless; the new blood-stained axe murderers are not.

If we don’t like the direction that Halloween is going in, then maybe it’s time to stop celebrating it.

I can only repeat what I’ve already alluded to: to say that Halloween should be boycotted or thrown out in its entirety just because some people take it too far is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps it’s time to stop giving gifts at Christmas because some people spend excessive amounts of money on it? Perhaps all alcohol should be banned because some people abuse it? Or perhaps the TV should be thrown out because some of the programmes shown on it are distasteful or offensive?

If some people don’t like the way Halloween is going, rather than simply point the finger and condemn the whole thing as unspeakably evil, how about if they sought instead to positively influence it by helping their children find ways to participate that aren’t distasteful or offensive?

6. HALLOWEEN ALLOWS EVIL A VICTORY

In some older Halloween traditions people dressed up in clothes that made them look evil and then, at the end of the evening, the outfits were burnt.

The message was clear if naive: in the end, good triumphs over evil. Yet there is no hint of that in the modern Halloween.

Now, evil is unchallenged and just slips away into the darkness, to return at some other time.

That’s not the message our world needs today.

Nor, I would say, does our world need the message that any activity that looks less than squeaky clean or acknowledges the spookier and scarier aspects of life is to be frowned upon by Christians and, by implication, by God.

Concluding thoughts

While I feel that J. John makes some valid points about the extremes to which some people take Halloween, on the whole I feel his approach is rather blunt and his tone needlessly alarmist. In my opinion, he would have done better to use his article as an opportunity to advocate for moderation rather than condemning Halloween in its entirety as unambiguously evil. In doing so, I fear that the most he will achieve is to perpetuate the perception that many already have of Christians: that we’re a bunch of narrow-minded killjoys who would rather find reasons to look down on and detach ourselves from contemporary culture than explore ways to engage with it positively.

Other resources

 – Canadian pastor Bruxy Cavey has written what I consider a very constructive blog post about Halloween.

– Internet Monk has republished one of the late Michael Spencer’s posts about Halloween. (In fact, they’ve been putting up Halloween-related posts all week. Some great stuff there.)

– I wrote post last year in which I shared a range of Christian responses to Halloween.

– Finally, here’s a video I shared in my Halloween post last year, and which bears watching again:

[ Image: Pedro Ferreira ]