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To trick or treat or not?

Halloween is increasingly popular in Australia despite the fact that in October here it’s not exactly heading into the darkness of winter and it’s certainly not pumpkin season. We don’t’ come close to the $7 billion that Americans spend on this holiday each year (that’s about $70 per American) but nonetheless the shops are stocking witches hats and Halloween-themed lollies, more people are decorating their houses with spider webs and skeletons than ever before, and it’s probably the case that you’re likely to get trick or treated this Halloween.


Some people love the opportunity to get dressed up and have an event that really brings the neighbourhood together, but not everybody is a fan. Some people complain that it’s an American tradition, even though it was actually brought to the US by Irish and Scottish immigrants. Others object to Halloween on religious grounds. Is Halloween, in some sense, evil? Is it something that Christians in particular should refuse to take part in?

John Dickson has been asked this question many times before. He thinks no. In this transcript of a chat between John Dickson, Simon Smart and Natasha Moore from Centre For Public Christianity, John tells them why. (You can listen to the audio of this interview, here).

Simon Smart: John, do you yourself celebrate Halloween?

John Dickson: Oh, we allow our kids to go out and do trick or treating, and we welcome kids who knock on our door. Unless we’re feeling too tired, in which case we park our car around the corner, turn down the lights and watch TV.

SS: But you’re not against the spirit of the thing?

JD: No. I mean, like any good thing it can be a bad thing. And many bad things can be redeemed as good things. It depends how you approach it. I don’t think, in principal, Halloween is an evil thing.

‘All Hallows Day’, the 1st November, was a day to mark the departed in Christ

Natasha Moore: John, why do you think it’s becoming so popular in Australia?

JD: Partly American culture – we’re influenced by American culture massively. And I’m not as cynical as some people about American culture. I love America. And like anything, it’s got good and it’s got bad. And there are some good parts of the Halloween tradition, and some bad parts. The idea of the community coming together and seeing each other is a fantastic part of American culture. And then there are other parts of it – the commercialism is amazing, $7 billion spent … those sorts of things actually can make Halloween evil far more than dressing up in a pointy hat.


NM: People say that Halloween is a pagan festival, but it’s also got quite a long Christian history as “All Hallows Eve”. John, where does Halloween actually come from?

JD: It was a pagan festival – like a few Christian festivals, there were pagan parties before the Christians decided to make them Christian. I think there’s a nice lesson in that.

Originally, the 1st of November marked the end of the summer months and it was believed, in pre-Christian Celtic culture, that the spirits of the departed could return to your home on that day. But also some bad spirits could turn up as well. And the masks and disguises put on by villagers were designed to scare off the bad spirits, but of course the family members knew their way home and you could greet them on the 1st of November.

But as Christianity spread throughout Europe, and throughout Celtic culture, it was decided that this probably wasn’t the best reflection of the gospel of Christ. It was one of the popes in the early 7th Century who decided that we should transform this pagan celebration into a Christian one.

There was already a day in the church calendar dedicated to remembering the departed in Christ, “All Saints Day” or “All Hallows Day”. It was celebrated sometime in May in the 7th Century, and the Pope thought, ‘Let’s just move it to the 1 November’. And in a sense co-opt a pagan festival into a Christian one.

Because many people were becoming Christian in this period it wasn’t like this was imposed. People actually enjoyed the idea that they could still have this ancient tradition but think of it in Christian terms. And so ‘All Hallows Day’, the 1st November, was a day to mark the departed in Christ, to remember their example and to think about our own deaths and our own experience of God.

And the evening before it also became a time for special prayer. So both All Hallows Day (All Saints Day) and All Hallows Eve (Halloween) became sacred days where there were special prayers where you’d think about the departed in Christ. So that’s its origin. But it kept some of its pagan flavor – the dressing up in masks and those sort of things.

Protestants have been pretty good at banning parties for most of their career

In the 16th Century many Protestants banned it, almost 1,000 years after it was made a Christian festival. Protestants banned it and Protestants have been pretty good at banning parties for most of their career. But it’s still on the church calendar of the traditional church. Like in the Anglican church, “All Hallows Day” is a sacred day, and the eve you still mark as a day to think about the departed in Christ.

SS: John that sounds a lot like Christmas to me, in the sense that it’s a pagan festival that’s been Christianised and then secularised and then very much commercialised.

JD: Yeah, these things are weird how they go from pagan to Christian, pagan to Christian. I think it just underlines how you can approach these things either from a pagan point of view or a Christian point of view.

But you’re right – Christmas as 25th December was the Winter Solstice, the turning point from the shortest day of the year to the day the hours get longer. That was marked in ancient Greece and Rome with great celebrations, and quite lavish orgiastic celebrations at times.

The commercialism has the potential for far more evil than any pointy hat you might wear on Halloween

And of course as the empire became Christian, people thought that wasn’t the best idea, to worship the sun. Now that the sun is coming back into our life – which is what the Winter Solstice marked – instead of worshipping the sun and entering into licentiousness, the Christians decided, ‘let’s make it a Christian festival’. And they just decided to make it Jesus’ birthday.

It wasn’t that anyone thought that Jesus was born on 25th December, nor were they trying to trick anyone. They just thought, well instead of cancelling the party, let’s claim it for the true Lord of the world. The Lord of the world is not the sun; the true Lord of the world is the Son of God. And so we’ll mark his birth on the 25th December. And they kept some of the traditions, gift giving and that sort of thing.

So Christmas is definitely, in origin, a pagan festival that was thoroughly Christianised and in the course of history it was paganised again, particularly by the commercialism by which we approach both Halloween and Christmas. And frankly, I think the commercialism has the potential for far more evil than any pointy hat you might wear on Halloween, or any relic you might use on Christmas Day.

SS: Although, some people might feel it’s making light of evil to be going around dressed as ghouls and dev
ils and that sort of thing, and they have concerns about that. Do you have no concerns in that area?

JD: I have concern, in the sense that we don’t allow our kids to dress up as evil characters. So, we’ll let them dress up in Spiderman outfits or whatever, or characters out of Harry Potter. But the idea of dressing up as a devil or a demon or whatever, there’s just no way. And for precisely that reason; not because I think there’s any power in these things, but I think there is power in these things when you trivialise them. And I don’t want our kids to think that devils and demons are just trivial jokes.

I think that’s the devil’s greatest ploy in the West, to make people think he’s just a joke so that he can get on tempting to us to all the things that aren’t jokes.

I think that’s the devil’s greatest ploy in the West, to make people think he’s just a joke

But the fact that my kids will be mixed with other kids who are engaged with that doesn’t trouble me at all. I want my kids to be part of culture, to be part of the world but being different in that context.

NM: But some Christians do have concerns about these things, to the point of deciding not to participate. Do you think that there are better ways to respond to cultural practices like this?

JD: Well, there are definitely Christians who even boycott these things. They’re the same Christians who boycott Harry Potter books and movies. They’re not the majority, actually. I really feel the majority of the Christian population just may be a little bit annoyed at the Americana – certainly at least amongst my own Christian friends. They’re more upset about American cultural imperialism than they are about the devil in Halloween. And I get that.

But personally, I just think engaging with your culture, and reclaiming all that you can in the culture for the Christian faith is a beautiful and ancient practice. Because fundamental to my belief is that everything in the world is God’s anyway, so there is God in just about everything … in every cultural artifact you can find some reflection of God in it. And in this case, there is a strong Christian component to Halloween that has been excised, but I think it can be recovered really easily.

And as I say, in Christian tradition, there is a celebration of this All Saints, All Hallow’s Eve, and even a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer to mark the occasion.