I write to encourage the traditional way of celebrating Halloween—for the sake of the children. I think we as Christians should not be narrow, rigoristic, abstact logicians about this “feast,” but rather look at the existential reality. Here’s how I remember it from my youth.
First, Halloween was the only other celebration besides Christmas that involved the whole neighborhood. Further, it involved some living notion of love of neighbor and love of strangers—key indicators of true Christian charity. The idea that complete strangers in the vicinity of my home would freely give me candy for the asking (candy being a high priority for an 8-10 year old) struck me as the very height of genuine love! It proved that there was goodness in the world! It proved that their was goodness in the human heart, that people were ready to sacrifice (for me!), ready to spend their hard-earned money for the pleasure of my little self. It proved thus that I was worthy and important; it proved that children in general were important. Now isn’t that a message that 21st Century America needs to hear? The Roman thinker Juvenal says, “Great reverence is owed to a child.” Similarly, in Confucius, “The Master said, ‘Respect the young.’” As far as I was concerned as a little guy in the 50’s, when I walked up to a door and said “Trick or treat!” and then got a load of goodies, it showed great respect for the young! Not just my intimate family, but the whole broad society “out there” appreciated and valued me. There really was such a thing as love of neighbor. This was what Halloween proved in tangible fashion—rivaled only by Christmas.
But, what about the “problem” that little kids were dressing up as ghouls, goblins, monsters, devils, skeletons, i.e., evil things, and seemingly “extorting” candy via blackmail with this “Trick or treat” phrase? Isn’t this perverted, confusing, anti-Christian, destructive, a bad example, etc., etc.? If we celebrate this “icky” pseudo-holiday at all, shouldn’t we make our kids ONLY anticipate the next day and dress up as saints, angels, the Virgin Mary, etc.?
Now, I’m afraid my initial "gut" reaction to this argument, remembering my childhood, is “Give me a break! Why don’t you ‘know-it-all,’ rigoristic, judgmental adults grow up! Get back in contact with reality! Don’t just argue from rationalistic abstractions! Remember what it was like to be a kid for crying out loud!”
Why do I say this? Well, first, I think it’s fine if a kid wants to dress up as a saint or the Virgin Mary on Halloween, or a sports star, or a movie star, or a politician, etc., but I think it’s also fine to dress up as a ghoul or a monster or a devil. Why? Because as kids we all knew it was make-believe. We knew even if we dressed up as a devil that we were mocking the devil. And, as C.S. Lewis said, “Above all else, the devil cannot stand to be mocked.” We knew as kids that we weren’t really imitating the devil or trying to be like him (nor did we want to be), we were mocking and insulting him when we dressed up in monster or devil costumes and asked for candy. And we knew that “Trick or treat” was not a threat, but a humble petition, trusting in the goodness of the person we addressed. We were presuming on the goodness of the other in asking for a gift—the exact opposite of what the devil does. In fact we were doing what the devil forbids himself from doing, humbly accepting gifts!
Moreover, it was simply great fun! And this can be seen on a wider scale than just on Halloween. Play with any two-year old, like my latest grandchild Sophie (20 months). She loves these games where I try to sneak up on her and then she throws out her arms at me and says “Poof” (or some such thing) and then I fall back in fright or roll over and make weird sounds of submission and kick my hands and feet in the air! And she howls with joy and laughter at this seeming power over me! (I know I’m a Phd full professor of philosophy, but I’m also a granddad! If you think it’s undignified, get over it!) Well, older kids are similar and Halloween is similar. We knew as kids we had absolutely no power to force candy out of our neighbors, but the very idea that in imagination we could turn the world on its head that way was delightful and exhilarating! Why not let it be so? Why squelch it? Why deprive kids of that joy? Let them imagine they rule the world for an evening.
Another thought. When children “make-believe” that they are the bad guys, they may just be creatively and imaginatively “putting on” that mind-set as a way of trying to understand it from within, walking around in fantasy in that world-view as a way of coming to grips with it. This can help the child to actually reject evil in reality, i.e., if they have imaginatively “lived” it—and thus it is no longer just some great mysterious unknown that might seem attractive just for that reason. I’m reminded of a story Dr. Josef Seifert (Rektor of the International Academy of Philosophy) once told me from his youth. His mother Edith, a very holy woman, was quite concerned one day when she found her two young sons, Josef and Benedikt, playing as cannibalistic savages in the heart of the African jungle. She sat the young boys down and encouraged them rather to play-act as if they were Christian missionaries to the cannibalistic savages. A noble thought! They agreed and began their game again. She was quite satisfied at the success of her intervention, turning their game toward the good. However, she came out 10 minutes later and found that the “savages” were now boiling the “missionaries” for lunch! My point is that children need to use their imagination to come to grips with evil. I think it helps them not to be evil in reality when they can make-believe being “rascally” through imaginative play. I think Halloween fits here as well.
Let the kids enjoy their evening! They know what they’re doing, and it’s not evil. Halloween is a great communal feast of love geared toward the joy and imagination of children. Deal with it!