Mwa ha ha ha! So, we have just had Halloween (cue creepy laughter again) and although it’s not as much of a celebration in this country as in the States, for example, there will still be Christians deeply opposed to the dressing up, trick-or-treating and partying that goes on. They may be campaigning against it, they may be trying to subvert it by holding parties that use Halloween as a way to talk to teenagers about the possible horrors of Hell, but they will be misunderstanding it’s significance as a play experience. For pagans obviously Halloween has a deep spiritual significance, but for modern society it offers an arena for secular play. For the play around communal identity and around ritual.
In a post-scarcity society harvest and the changing of the seasons have become insignificant. Whether we should give thanks, appreciate our wealth, health and happiness is not something that is thought about around the changing of the season from summer to autumn, there is no fear of winter ahead of us. We reserve those feelings for Christmas, when we take our celebrations to excess and something inside niggles us that perhaps there are other less fortunate than ourselves,
Consequently we have no communal way of marking the change of seasons. No rituals to stamp the change from one time to another, yet all around we see the changes in nature, in temperature and decay and being human we feel the need to acknowledge this. We are also living in a society that doesn’t use liturgical ritual anymore – where would they use it? Sainsburys? So other rituals are substituted or reinstated to fill the spiritual hole. Halloween mischief reinstates the old plays that the Church failed to subdue with All Saints and All Souls as a key social play arena.
In addition to simply marking the season’s change in a public celebration the play of frivolity, trickery and dressing-up allow us to play with primeval fears of ghosts, witches with our God-given basic fear of evil, by reducing it to a “play”. The devil becomes a joke and so he becomes manageable, something that can be contemplated. Death is looked at and laughed at – not elevated, not feared. In doing this a society that is so afraid of death that it is obsessed with youth and will not discuss death, for whom the worst possible thing is to cease to exist, cease to self-actualise, is able to confront one small element of our lack of control over the universe and ourselves.
If Christians fail to understand this they will react wrongly to the play that is going on. It is important to remember that in the same way that society reduces its fear of death by embracing the public subversions of Halloween we can face their own fear that society is unreachable. Trying to stop society playing like this is a nonsense, recognising their deep spiritual need for play could enable us to connect more deeply with people who need the space of ritual and liturgy to become themselves and to face the agon of playing their part in the universe. Early Christians took pagan festivals and Christianised them, we need to learn to approach such secular festivals in the same way.
And now if you will excuse I must go and carve a pumpkin.