Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Halloween
Don’t get spooked by Halloween, advises Simon Jenkins
Imagine there was a time of year when everyone stopped thinking about everyday things such as shopping, Bake Off, what to wear, and green vs blue top milk, and instead gave some attention to the certainty of death, the infernal origins of evil and the mysteries of the afterlife. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Preachers up and down the country would find their Sunday sermons simply writing themselves – and not as per the pimp-my-sermon.com website secretly used by clerics who have run out of things to say.
Spookily enough, there actually is a time of year when that exact thing happens, and it’s right now. The supermarkets are full to bursting with it. Queueing up for the checkout, as far as the eye can see, are shelves heaving with pointy Dracula teeth, haunted house soap dispensers, plaster skulls from S to XXL, blood-stained bandages, Ouija cheese boards, mummies’ hands, and nets of chocolate eyeballs for 99p.
Yes, it’s Halloween, the Church’s least-loved night of the year. The pranks, ghouls and spookiness of the fiendish festivities are about as welcome as devilled kidneys served at an evangelical prayer breakfast.
Halloween looms larger and louder on the calendar every year, and it’s all thanks to the US, where the festival will be worth over $9bn USD this year. The UK’s big retailers now have the autumn market nailed down as tight as a coffin lid, with Halloween, Black Friday and Christmas pummelling wallets from October to December.
As well as getting filthy rich, Halloween has also become hugely bloated. Like a teenage rave pulverising your lovely home while you’re smiling and laughing on holiday far away, Halloween has been a magnet for all sorts of monsters who have no business being there. Vampires and zombies, witches and werewolves, Dracula and the Grim Reaper, mummies, Frankenstein and Beelzebub have all crashed the party. Last year, even Donald Trump turned up as a Halloween costume guaranteed to set off bouts of mindless screaming.
It’s worth remembering that Halloween is the Christian trick that blew up in the Church’s face. The trick was the Church’s too-clever-by-half habit of neutralising pagan festivals by crossdressing them in Christian clothes. The old Celtic festival of Samhain, at the beginning of November, a time of fairies, spirits and wandering souls, was repackaged as All Hallows, a time of saints, martyrs and the faithful departed. But a glance at the supermarket aisles shows that, 1,000 years on, the trick is up. Also blown to smithereens is that other brilliant Church invention: Christmas.
So, now the Church has a new cunning plan, which is simply to bash and bludgeon Halloween, year after year. Pat Roberston, the US broadcaster who often sees the evil one at work in earthquakes, recently described Halloween as ‘millions of children and adults dressing up as devils, witches and goblins to celebrate Satan’.
Maybe a version of the Lord’s Prayer, as misheard by a school kid, can help us: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Halloween be thy name.’ Might there be more in common between God and 31 October than we imagine? You only have to think of old-style Catholicism, with its love of death, wounds, relics, exorcisms, and sleeping in coffins to see the connections. And then there’s the traditional Protestant sermon, hammering away at sin, Satan, hell and the wrath of God. It seems ironic to be attacking others for focusing on things that fixate you. Why not join in the conversation, rather than try to change the subject?
A very old bit of theology, going back to the first Christian generations, has it that Jesus’ death was a ransom God paid the devil, who had a sort of gangster’s hold on the human race. The devil kept his side of the bargain and set us free, but God double-crossed him by unexpectedly springing Jesus from death. Aslan pulls the same trick on the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, invoking ‘a magic deeper still which she did not know’.
This old theory, lying forgotten in the attic of Christianity, might be worth dusting down, as it chimes with the tricks and mischief of Halloween. Here’s an alternative take on God as a trickster, with an almighty poker face, beating the devil at his own game. It could be just what we need to play the game of All Hallows Eve.
This article was published in the November 2017 edition of Reform