Yesterday, I read this bizarre opinion piece in the Guardian by Andrew Brown. In it, he excoriates the idea of Light Parties. Whilst he treats it as something new and novel, cooked up by the Church of England top brass, they have been around ever since the Americanisation of British culture and Halloween became a thing in Britain (at least, in the form it takes today).
Bizarrely, Brown wants to argue that Light Parties are weird. Particularly weird given the Englishness of the CofE. But since when has Halloween been an English endeavour? Talk of All Hallows Eve doesn’t really help because there is no denying, in its current cultural form, Halloween is an American import propagated principally by retailers who reckon it to be the third biggest retail event of the year behind Christmas and Easter. However you cut it, ghosts, ghouls and zombies coupled to the purchase of costume and the great expense on sweets and activities does not have its roots in Anglicanism.
Brown wants to mock Evangelicalism and the view of many of its adherents that Halloween is not something to join in. He claims:
A certain sort of evangelical takes very seriously the idea of a child dressing up as a witch or a wizard, and the website of the evangelical alliance offers them all sorts of tracts to hand out with the sweets explaining that Jesus is the real light of the world. It’s almost a pity that the old-style hell and damnation comics showing children literally swept off to hell for dressing up have disappeared.
But is that really the objection of most Evangelicals? No doubt there are some who are scared of ghosts and ghouls – who fear that they will be attacked by demons if they put on a witches hat – but, as I mentioned here and here, most Evangelicals are not specifically scared of being dragged into Satanism because they wore a sheet and pretended to be a ghost.
Truth be told, it is becoming increasingly common for Evangelicals to join in with every aspect of Halloween just as everybody else does. Many have reasoned away the silly fears that wearing a costume and grabbing some sweets will give a foothold for the Devil and instead argue from a cultural or missional perspective. As these three Evangelical comments on Halloween suggest (here, here and here), there is no clear-cut answer among Evangelicals at large these days.
But of those of us (among whom I am numbered) who eschew Halloween, let’s be clear why we favour the Light Party. For us, the issue isn’t about our children being dragged away into the occult. The issue is what we are celebrating. For us, there is nothing to celebrate in Halloween. The things that people revel in – regardless of how spiritually dangerous they are in terms of Devilish attacks or demonic possession (which I am going to venture are fairly low probabilities) – are grotesque and evidently evil. The messaging is clear enough, Halloween is celebrating and revelling in what is evil, often things the Bible specifically condemns. At best, I find Christians celebrating such things as perverse.
Second, in our context, it would be missionally inappropriate to celebrate Halloween. Our area is replete with Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. They insist it is unacceptable for them celebrate Halloween. Most of them spend their lives in fear of the jinn (for which read ‘demons’) and to celebrate such evil is utterly perverse to them. So for them to see Christians celebrating the very evil which they are seeking to avoid would not endear them in any way to the church or its gospel.
It is not only the Muslims for whom it is a problem. Having spent time in Liverpool, many people lived in fear of ‘mizzy night’. This was effectively semi-licensed vandalism and pranks that led to people terrorised by gangs of youths roaming the streets. Following the horror of the perceivable-world mischief night was Halloween itself, that in many areas – particularly areas like where I lived in Liverpool and the one in which I currently reside in Oldham – amounts to little more than extortion and threats. To be associated with that as a church represents something of a missional problem.
Third, we are conscious that it can be miserable for our children to spend their evening sitting inside hiding from trick or treaters. It can be similarly miserable for them to go to school the next day and encounter all their mates with sweets and receive, what often sounds to them as, the killjoy non-explanation of the puritanical, ‘we don’t do that.’ That was precisely what I had throughout my childhood and it led to little more than a feeling of missing out. Whilst there may be good reasons to keep our children from engaging in what is not good, and celebrating what is evidently not God-honouring, we want to find a way of eschewing the celebration of Halloween that isn’t quite so miserable and pointlessly fear-inducing.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, we have something better to celebrate. In our Reformed Evangelical tradition, the 31st October holds an altogether greater significance. Indeed, it is a day to remember an event sparked by a man who was really quite aware of the devillish and demonic whilst similarly giving it minimal creedance (cf. ‘I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.’) We celebrate a Light Party to remember the light of the Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther on the 31st October 501 years ago. Rather than dressing up as monsters or celebrating what is manifestly evil, we remember the event that rediscovered the light of the gospel in Europe. Indeed, it is an event without which we wouldn’t be here.
What is more, remembering the Reformation gives us great opportunities to share our faith locally. We are able to invite our Muslim neighbours to a celebration that is not verboten for them to attend. What is more, we can tackle one of the most common questions we receive from them: what is the difference between Catholics and Protestants? We are able to explain directly how we understand salvation and why the Bible is our final authority in matters of faith. It gives us a genuine in-road for the gospel without having to feel we have in any way compromised our faith.
So Andrew Brown may well feel Light Parties are silly. He might count them as unEnglish and a bit weird. But I reckon it’s not quite as weird as dressing up in serial killer costumes and calling it good. I suppose it’s not quite as odd as alienating our neighbours by joining in a celebration of what they consider perverse. It’s not nearly as strange as appearing to join in, and even advocate, activities that cause many of our neighbours to sit inside, with the lights off pretending they’re out, because they sit in fear of the tricks. It’s certainly not as bizarre as trying to share our faith through a means that has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity and feels more than a little forced to try. And it’s certainly not as weird as trying to pass off American cultural imports as though they are as British as the Church of England.
But he may rest assured, none of us are worried our kids will become occultists or Devil-worshippers if they wear a witches hat.