Hallows? Thoughts about Hallowe’en

Three aspects of Hallowe’en and a reflection.

This is going to go on a bit, I’m afraid, as I want to look at

  • Hallowe’en and its modern popular expression.
  • Hallowe’en and Christianity (the longest section)
  • Hallowe’en and UK schools

“When I were a nipper” – the argument from memory comes first, here – Hallowe’en was overshadowed by the much more exciting Bonfire Night, which had a run-up in collecting for a guy, &c., carving a lantern from a swede (a labour of love) and somehwere, for a Catholic child, the Holyday of All Saints followed by the day of prayer for the faithful departed, All Souls (a reasoned, modern Catholic view of this day is to be found here, in the Dominican student pages, Godzdogz). For for my mother, as a war widow, the day of remembrance and the military solemnities around it, were especially important, too – something Dave Aldridge has written about  thoughtfully. This was all about the dead, but not all in sorrow: fireworks, and mischief were mixed up with sadness and silence, with black vestments and red poppies.

This is not the modern landscape, where the American Halloween (note the spelling) occasions fancy dress, trick or treat, pumpkins, and a much greater sense of gleefully enacted horror. I won’t bother with many links here, despite the fact that the bounds of taste do get overstepped in an effort to maintain the frisson. Yuk.

So Hallowe’en has become a feast of horror in some eyes, where the dead, the uncanny and the downright nasty are mocked and celebrated by small children and adults alike.

But what about Christianity? Where does Hallowe’en sit?

One of the key books in the history of the Reformation has got to be Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic, one of those books that, when I first read it, changed my opinion about so much I had been brought up with. After all, I had lived in the shadow of Pendle Hill, the stories of the witches and the story of my family’s struggles with Protestant Christianity part and parcel of the culture.  The overall premise – this is a gross over-simplification – is that the Christianity of the Word that comes in heightens a growing mistrust of popular practices from beliefs in fairies and spirits to dealing with “cunning men and women.” This is not to put Hallowe’en (yet) into a Merrie England which includes a pretty and rational Roman Christianity (I am choosing my words here) – but to suggest that opposition to it has a connection to a (very seventeenth century?) vision that any divergence from a particular view of Christian practice is wrong, evil, Satanic. A very broad brush-stroke account of this argument is to be found here, although the details are a bit dodgy.

Its roots with regards Christian practice, are in some ways about the celebration of a major feast, All Saints. Hallowe’en, as a name, is after all, shorthand for the Vigil of the Feast of All Hallows, or All Saints.  It might be that we should see the week or so of Church and popular festivals that occur here as having very different roots but all coming to express something similar: a celebration of the oncoming of Autumn, of shorter days and longer nights, of the dying of the light, and therefore the remembrance of the dead. Christians celebrate the same things as non-Christians at this time, maybe always have done. By this argument, this All-the-Dead celebration is just one more Christianisation of a different tradition; Christianity’s magpie proclivities are seen as stemming from the appropriation of the synagogue service and Passover, through Roman cults and the imperial court. Any purging of Christian practice has been a pick-and-mix approach which chooses one lump of tradition to keep and another to discard.

And yet, partly because of  its opposition to (or distraction from) All Saints and All Souls, or because it looks at the dead as menacing, some thinkers from Pope Francis to US Evangelicals have seen this is something to be viewed with a deep mistrust. As one writer puts it,

“…the underlying essence of our celebrations of Halloween is based upon  modern Wiccan interpretations of pre-Christian paganism and involve occultic  rites and practices that Christians should have no dealings with.”

Once upon a time, the missionary elements of Christianity might have been tempted to view the unchristian as anti-Christian. Matthew 12:30 (perhaps contra Luke 9:50) suggests that Jesus’ teaching backs this up; certainly “He who is not with me is against me,” and other similar sentiments, suggest an uncompromising attitude. Modern opposition to any kind of syncretism uses these texts, and lines from Paul about “having no dealings with darkness.” There is another strand to this, however: when Gregory the Great writes concerning the mission to the Angles he exhorts Mellitus to baptise, rather than destroy the pagan temples, so that “seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” It might be that this leads to a syncretism that Christians (or maybe some Christians) would find theologically unsound. I can’t make the time to rehearse this argument, from Basil on the use of pagan “classical” authors through to musings on Christian/Jewish or Christian/Islamic relations in Vatican II (and beyond), but there has been at least some uneasy dialogue with culture outside orthodox Christianity throughout its history, maybe from the moment Luke quotes Euripides in his account of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus.

So what of schools and Hallowe’en?

There seem to be two different practices developing here: one is to ban it as a modern invention, as American and/or anti-Christian (I’ve heard a teacher say she wouldn’t have it in her class “because it’s contrary to my belief”), as in the arguments glanced at above.  The other is to allow, or encourage some forms of celebration, whether with the whole pumpkin and fancy dress thing, or with a more muted event, with maybe a ghost story and witchy songs.

The first has an odd lack of logic, at least in a state school (not controlled or aided by a religious group): if Hallowe’en is the pagan festival of Samhain, then surely the school’s equal opportunities comes into play. The pro viso – as with any celebration – is that there should be some sense of respect and real knowledge, and that it should fit with the long-term planning for a school, or a class. And this is the caveat for the second: it’s got to be a learning opportunity. But then again, so has Christmas.

This has hardly been a proper sic et non, so my final reflection only hangs to the above by the fingertips, but here it is.

Winter is on us, or just around the corner. Our food is changing, too, and tomatoes give way to squashes. The days are shorter, darker. And when you are four, or five, or six, these are big changes. In particular, the child that is afraid of the dark, or who now has to come to terms with coming home in the dark after After School Club, needs time to explore it. They also might need a way of celebrating their control of it – through lanterns, through the sanitised parade in fancy dress, through seeing this potential occasion for fear minimised and mocked. Look it in the face and see it as something to play with.

There is certainly unthinking excess, a possibility for going over the top with children, and adults have a role to play here, but I would end with a plea: take Gregory’s injunction to baptise the nefas, to take the secular and use it. We live with this at so many levels; why not counter fear of the dark, the gloom of winter, with saying “I am bigger than this”? It’s not a bad message for children, after all.


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