Conservatives have a complicated history with Halloween. Christians of various stripes have often boycotted the holiday on account of its explicitly devilish and ghoulish nature. Indeed, the Internet is full of articles written by evangelicals discussing how to celebrate Halloween in a Christian manner.
Religion aside, others have perceived the holiday with a skeptical eye on account of concerns with increased criminal activity. Crime spikes on Halloween — as much as 50 percent in cities like Boston. As a result of this fear, in Chesapeake, Virginia, children above the age of 12 can be slapped with a misdemeanor for trick-or-treating, resulting in “penalties of up to $100, up to six months in jail or both.”
Yet despite all the threats of spiritual and criminal mayhem, Halloween represents perhaps the most effective day of the year to foster community. This was readily apparent to my wife and I last Halloween, the first we had celebrated in the United States after three years living abroad in Thailand.
Given our kids’ relatively early bedtime, we were out and about in the neighborhood well before dark. My older daughter and son were at the time four and three, respectively, so we were out less than an hour. Yet in that brief time we hit maybe 20 houses, and I met a lot of neighbors I had never before spoken to.
Even though the conversations were typically brief, those moments of face-to-face contact with others are invaluable for building a community paradigm where one knows others and is known. One very friendly gentleman told me he often invited neighbors over to watch football on the weekend, and that I could join any time. He even said I was welcome to the beer in his garage, even if he wasn’t around.
I’ll pass on that slightly strange offer, but all the same, a very generous invitation. Many of the neighbors I greeted on that hour-long sojourn are still people I speak to one year later.
What’s particularly easy about this kind of initial meeting with neighbors is that it’s so innocent and normal — I have cute kids in cute costumes, and you have candy to give them. There’s no awkward attempt to introduce yourself while your neighbor is running between errands. The holiday’s very nature facilitates in-the-flesh human interaction.
Manning the house to distribute candy is just as effective in generating stronger neighborhood connections. In the course of the evening, all the kids in the community are going to stop at your house, many with their parents in tow. We make it a point to speak to all the parents who come to the door, to ask how the night was going, where they lived, etc.
Moreover, actually offering good candy ensures a positive reputation among children in the neighborhood. Every adult remembers returning home after a night of trick-or-treating and checking one’s stash for “duds” to give to your parents or throw in the trash. Good & Plenties or boxes of raisins were notorious offenders, as were those anonymous black- or orange-wrapped candies.
Where do people even buy that crap? Alternatively, I distinctly remember that some houses were good about giving several pieces of candy, particularly the “fun size” chocolate bars that I considered the gold standard of confection.
What of Christian concerns with the more Satanic elements of Halloween? Certainly there is legitimate apprehension here. Some people go exceptionally crazy littering their homes with ghoulish-themed bric a brac that terrifies smaller children. Some costumes, even for little children, are strikingly gruesome. Alternatively, some costumes, even those advertised for children, are far too sexually explicit.
Americans rightly seek to avoid the kinds of celebratory activities or costumes that unintentionally (or intentionally!) conjure up the darker forces of the spiritual realm. One should never play with “Old Scratch.”
Yet, as many authors have noted, Halloween has ancient historic Christian roots. It is tied to the historic Christian feast days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which were honored at least as far back as the early seventh century, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the ancient Roman pantheon as a temple for Mary and early Christian martyrs.
The two feasts come directly after Halloween. Pope Gregory III established the feast of All Saints during the eighth century after consecrating a chapel named in honor of “All Saints” in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Irish, with a particular focus on Hell, were adamant celebrants of the holy day, incorporating all manner of bizarre traditions.
There are plenty of resources for how to emphasize the Christian origins of Halloween. Many Catholics have their kids dress up as saints — there are plenty whose gruesome death (e.g., St. Lawrence, St. Catherine of Alexandria) can creatively appeal to children who want to incorporate a little blood into their costume. One can just as easily read the stories of martyrs instead of the usual “Scary Stories” or “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” brand of children’s literature.
For Christians uncomfortable with the saints and martyrs, there are plenty of examples within the pages of Holy Scripture. Moreover, many wholesome group activities retain the autumnal nature of the holiday without recourse to the demonic — apple bobbing, harvest festivals, etc.
Although many holidays contribute to what I’ve labeled elsewhere our shared American civil liturgy, no other builds community like Halloween. Thanksgiving and Christmas are primarily events for family, and often involve trips to distant places where one is not known. Independence Day brings American citizens together in their towns and cities, but usually at events far beyond the scope of the immediate neighborhood.
Halloween is uniquely suited among holidays to strengthen our bonds with those nearest to us. Rather than attending some distant party, consider buying a big bag of the best candy, sticking around your home, and making the effort to get to know your neighbors. You never know when you may need them, or they you.