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With Christmas only around the corner it may seem strange to reflect back on Halloween, but this year I as I traipsed round with my child on a grisly quest for sweets I found myself somewhat unsettled by aspects of the whole festival.
I am the first to admit Halloween was one the highlights of my year as a child growing up in rural Ireland. As the shock of finding ourselves back in school in September gave way to autumn leaves and the excitement of trick-or-treating, we got down to planning our costumes, with old clothes, cardboard, paint and glue. The usually clement weather almost guaranteed a clear, cool night — with a full moon if we were lucky. Even in decay, nature was a beautiful sight as silver-lined moonlit clouds drifted in dusky skies past half-bare branches dripping with dew. Trick-or-treating meant an hour’s trek round rural roads unlit apart from the odd sodium lamp here and there. Half the adventure was simply being out so late in the company of an older, supervising sibling. The sweets and few pence collected were a welcome boost in the lean period before Christmas. Back home, we ate barmbrack whilst looking for the ring or were told rather formulaic ghost stories to torch-lit faces.
These days, even as childhood memories remain cherished, I find I have rather different feelings about the whole business. I suppose some might accuse me of suffering from that condition affecting many of us as we grow older: Which causes us to get irritated by people doing the same things we once used to enjoy. Yet I believe there is more to my disquiet than mere ageing.
For a start, the horror factor of the costumes in my day was largely limited to the worst that could be conjured up by the imagination of your average 8 to 12-year-old armed with cardboard, glue and paint. Nowadays the shops seem filled to bursting with grisly items right off the prop shelves of an 18-rated horror movie. Some of them have disturbingly graphic or even occult overtones, and the worst are openly unapologetic blasphemies of Christian themes — “sexy nuns” or irreverent Jesus costumes.
When one takes an objective step back one perceives there is a distinctly disturbing common denominator of darkness to all this that goes beyond mere fun.
Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that so many adults have taken up a festival that was once largely the sole preserve of kids, which has resulted in the injection of more adult themes to which kids are in turn exposed when they participate as well. But it also seems a level of overt sinister darkness has crept into the celebration, that was absent in my youth.
It is somewhat ironic that a society which critiques religion — or at least, the Christian expression of it — and shoves it to the margins of public life, should so willingly embrace what is in essence, a pagan religious festival. Every year we are treated to public discourse from various atheist and secularist groups demanding we remove Christian symbols from
the public sphere, de-Christianise Christmas, open the pubs on Good Friday, or condemning any public religion as an unacceptable expression of superstition.
Yet I have yet to see a single public comment from any of these tendentious groups asking Halloween be exercised from our annual calendar, or the flood of vampires, ghouls, ghosts, demons and so on removed from our shop windows. And surely there is no greater expression of superstition than Halloween?
While in previous years we hadn’t given it too much thought, a spiritual renewal in our own lives found us facing some difficult decisions in relation to Halloween this year: To participate, or not?
On the one hand, it was a fun memory from my own childhood, but either the festival was tame back then or my perception has changed — or both. And most parents want their children to share in the common cultural experience of their peers and not feel left out.
On the other, sometimes we have to take a step back and ask, exactly what “common cultural experience” are we asking our children to share in, and is it to their good?
We found ourselves torn between rejecting Halloween completely or allowing some limited participation when our young child evidently showed some interest, despite being rather scared by the whole business. This year we decided on a compromise — tone it down. A home-carved pumpkin constituted the sole decoration and an astronaut costume at least had no overtones of horror about it. At the outset my child clung to me half-afraid with the natural trepidation young children have when faced with all that is weird and horrible. By the time he returned home after some two dozen houses, he was in high spirits, clutching his bag of loot, some of the initial anxiety gone. I was already beginning to regret I had caved in to participating at all.
As we traipsed around the impression began to settle on me ever more forcefully that what this festival achieves above all, is to desensitise our children to horror, darkness and all things occult. It is often said that evil is seductive. I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate a metaphor it was that on Halloween night, evil dresses itself up as fun and hands out sweets and treats to small children.
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