Happy Halloween? My son is obsessed.
At first I blamed the food. All those mini chocolate cupcakes with little candy ghosts, strawberry-jam-blood marshmallow teacakes, pumpkin balls, themed jelly sweets… but actually he can still mainly take-or-leave junk food. (Long may this phase continue).
Then I thought it might be the costumes. He’s just reached dressing up phase. Now, I have some friends whose children I rarely see in normal clothes because they are really knights, space explorers, princesses, fairies, pirates… We’re not at the stage of refusing to leave the house unless in costume (perhaps helped by early establishment of the need to wear school uniform) but we now have a dressing up box, and the best thing is the full Harry Potter quidditch uniform, complete with cape, pads, gloves and Beckham-style number 07 on the back. I thought the broom he wanted was to go with the Potter get-up.
But no. I was firmly informed that he had badgered his grandparents into buying one as a Hallowe’en witches broom and not to use to try to fly for sporting purposes. I guess we should be grateful for small mercies – apparently flying on broomsticks is not real so we don’t need to worry about attempted leaps off the trampoline.
Most children’s TV shows do a Hallowe’en special. All the magazines he wants to read do a Hallowe’en version with spooky things to make and do (as in furry spiders and greetings cards, rather than Ouija boards). Hallowe’en is clearly a big deal and something to be celebrated, right?
So what are we celebrating?
I asked my son and was informed that Hallowe’en is when all the leaves go brown and fall off the trees. Hmmm. Some confusion there. But then we live in a world where so many people think Christmas is just a celebration that we’ve reached the darkest point of winter and want to be with loved ones. So why wouldn’t Hallowe’en just be about autumn?
Halloween used to be a folksy American thing, little kids trick or treating. For some reason it was really big in Belgium when we lived there – presumably the legacy of so many US TV shows (but the Wittamer’s window in the Sablon really does need to be seen).
And now, suddenly, over the last 10 years here in the UK, Halloween has arrived. Shops have aisles of cheap plastic tat. We buy the aforementioned sweet things as self-defence in case of trick or treaters. Supermarkets are asked not to sell eggs. And we start to wonder what it is all for – why are we encouraging kids to dress up and go around the neighbourhood demanding chocolate with menaces?
I’m a bit of a sci-fi/ fantasy fan. I’m a bit more drawn into the fan forums for Doctor who/ Torchwood etc. than I like to admit, own all the box sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and occasionally experiment with the shows my TiVo suggests (Being Human, Supernatural, True Blood, the Vampire Diaries, Ringer…) and I like murder mysteries. But even I have to wonder, are we normalising the ghoulish, the supernatural and the downright unpleasant through this annual focus on darkness? Like videogaming normalising violence against women, drug dealing and car theft, are we going to find that our children’s generation is more superstitious and drawn to scenes of horror?
I’m pretty sure that these days there’s nothing really connecting the plastic pumpkin celebrations to the origins of Halloween – to Beltane, All Saints and All Souls. The celebration of skeletons and skulls has echoes of the Mexican Day of the Dead – but then a lot of things are a bit confusing to me that are involved in South American Christianity.
But as my church, like many, hosts its annual Light Party (bright colours, fun games and not a skeleton in sight), I’m left to wonder: you don’t get much more Christian as a society than the USA and yet our approach to Halloween originates there. Is it something to be scared of?