And then there is Halloween.
Before ET hit our screens in 1982, hardly anyone in Britain bothered with Halloween, but somehow the cinematic representation of a bug-eyed, reptilian alien, going trick or treating, birthed a new social phenomenon. Fast-forward 37 years and Halloween is massive, economically and socially. What should Christian parents do in response? Do we batten down the hatches, lock our front doors, cut ourselves off from society, put our fingers in our ears, sing la-la-la and pretend nothing is happening? Do we just go with the flow, and let our kids dress as ghosts and witches, without any kind of spiritual reflection? Do we hold alternative light parties and attempt the kind of takeover that an earlier generation managed when pagan Saturnalia morphed into Christian Christmas? Or, is there a better approach?
When my children were very young I tended towards the ‘ignore and deny’ approach, not opening the door to trick or treaters and certainly not allowing my kids onto the street. I resented this American import on cultural and spiritual grounds, and didn’t want my children to have any part in deeds of darkness. Over time, however, my attitude softened.
Partly this was for theological reasons. With an increasing appreciation of the Lordship of Christ over all things I realised that I do not need to be nervous that my children might somehow be spiritually infected through Halloween. “Greater is he that is in us than he who is in the world.” The greatest con-trick the devil can pull against Christian parents is to make them more afraid of his power than they are of the all-conquering power of Christ.
I also become more relaxed for cultural reasons. I might object to what Steven Spielberg unleashed in 1982, but for my kids that is such ancient history it is irrelevant. The world they and their friends have grown up in is one in which Halloween has always played a prominent part, and this means that if we are to engage with their culture we can’t just pretend Halloween doesn’t happen.
My third softening was the result of more missional thinking. We have worked hard at cultivating friendships with our neighbours and a lot of that good will could be lost if we shut our door to their children on 31 October. The reality is when they take their kids out trick or treating they are not deliberately entering into pagan worship – they are merely out for some fun. For us to shun them for this would look as weird as it would be to ban Guy Fawkes night.
How we have worked this out practically has shifted with the age of our kids. They never went out trick or treating, because fundamentally we don’t much like it, and part of our Christian freedom is the ability to not enter into everything our culture promotes. But we have tried to join in in a way that is helpful. For a while we practised “treat no trick” – our daughters would bake cakes and take them round to the neighbours, which was a nice inversion of the normal process. Now the kids are older this phase has passed but we carve a pumpkin to put outside the house and have a stash of sweets ready – to which we attach a slip of paper saying “God loves you!” and with an invite to our church.
Halloween is just one more opportunity to build friendship with our neighbours, and we’re not going to close the door on that. Given the opportunity, we speak to our friends about spiritual realities and why we haven’t encouraged our kids to make a big deal of Halloween. But we don’t get spooky about it, because we are confident in the power of Christ that is at work in us. As a Christian parent my job has not been to scare my kids with how big the devil is but to disciple them in how great Jesus is. With clarity about they have been able to navigate the choppy waters of Halloween well enough; just as they have to navigate many other social and ethical challenges in their culture.
Lots of people enjoy a coke, and proms are here to stay. These things might not be to my taste but I’m not going to stop other people from enjoying them or be judgmental about their enjoyment of them. I do think there is a better way to live though, with healthier outcomes, and hope that I can be a witness to that in some way. Halloween feels pretty much the same to me.
(A version of this post previously appeared on the website of the Evangelical Alliance.)