The rubber horror masks, witch costumes and pumpkins that have appeared on supermarket shelves can only mean one thing: Halloween (Hallowe'en) is upon us again, and is bigger than ever. This kitsch celebration of the ghoulish, promising confectionery-fuelled mischief for children, and alcohol-fuelled mischief for adults, is promoted not just by the retail industry, but growingly by the entertainment industry, where film and television have made vampires synonymous with hedonism and sexuality, and music artists like Lady Gaga don fetish wear and devil horns just to buy a pint of milk. To many eyes, Halloween has come to represent not just pumpkins and sugar, but the culmination and validation of a year round media diet of horror, the supernatural and the occult.
These aspects of the festival have always been troubling to many of the Christian faith, but most have failed to find an effective reply. Many Christians simply join in, with the emphasis firmly on light hearted and child-focused fun. At the other end of the spectrum, some distribute pamphlets warning of the dangers of celebrating the occult – a protest which seems likely to founder in a secular culture where Christian disapproval has become a much sought-after credential. 'Un-Halloween'-themed costume parties for children organised by local churches are great fun and get closer to the mark, but seem unlikely to have much social impact, as indicated by the often sizeable percentage of little skeletons and witches whose parents amusingly missed the point.
While confronted by the rise and rise of Halloween, what many fail to appreciate is that what Christians have on their hands could be what Simon Cowell would call a 'high class problem'. Halloween is believed to originate from the pagan festival of 'Samhain', but has long since been Christianised into 'All Hallows Eve', in a bold, ruthless, and far-sighted move that was typical of our indomitable forebears. Halloween revellers are in fact celebrating the eve of a Christian festival – All Saints Day or Hallowmas, if they did but know it – partaking in the symbolic last gasp of darkness before it is extinguished by the light. However, unlike similar success stories of Christmas and Easter, the duality of Halloween and Hallowmas is largely forgotten. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the main activity of the traditionally Catholic feast day is to pray to Saints, a no-no for Protestants. It is followed by All Souls day, which features prayers for the departed faithful. Both festivals are sombre affairs that are not universally observed by Christians, and are certainly devoid of any appeal to the masses.
As our distant ancestors knew instinctively, banning or protesting against frivolity does little to promote the Church's message. Clever marketing does not attempt to change society's attitudes overnight, but works with the grain of human nature to shift perceptions by degrees over time. I would therefore propose that Hallowmas (a name preferable to All Saints Day for its connotations of Christmas and its lack of doctrinal ambiguity) be made into an ecumenical event. This sombre day of the dead could become a joyous celebration of the Christian Communion, for all denominations; a day when the great works of the likes of Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, and Williams Booth and Wilberforce could be celebrated, in the context of the faith that sustained and inspired them. The sterling work of Christian charities and the plight of Christians around the world could be highlighted. We rightly recognise the cultural and technological achievements of the Islamic faith; Hallowmas could become a day to trumpet the manifold gifts bestowed upon the world by Christianity. Mass thanksgiving services, gospel concerts, school visits and parties could be held, food and drink (the traditional recipe for Hallowmas cakes can be found online) consumed, and small gifts and cards given. This initiative would not only complete and answer Halloween by reviving its malnourished sibling, but by providing an additional day of celebration instead of bemoaning the existing one, would surely put a dent in the unearned reputation that Christians have as wet blankets. And who but the most churlish could object to children donning sheets and fangs on Halloween if, the very next day, the message of light overcoming darkness would firmly and joyfully be reinforced?
Whether or not this vision of the future appeals, it would appear unlikely that such an initiative will come from the Church of England, with its seeming determination to undermine itself and its message at every turn. Indeed, the Rev’d George Pitcher, the Archbishop of Canterbury's former press secretary, recently denounced the CofE's media and public affairs unit for employing people who would not 'last 20 minutes in the private sector, let alone in private enterprise'. But then, all the best social trends begin from the grassroots up. Why not wish someone a Happy Hallowmas this year. Who knows where it might lead?