In the face of the sugar-saturated pagan onslaught that is now Halloween, the humble parish church is staging a fightback in which superheroes, subversive pumpkins, circus skills and bouncy castles have become its weapons of choice.
Rather than ignoring the annual celebration of the macabre and the monstrous, an increasing number of churches now view it as a unique opportunity to market themselves in the wider community. The Church of England’s online support hub for parishes is offering advice on how they can mark Halloween in fun ways that connect with the broader public.
An increasing number are staging “light parties” at which games, fancy dress and party food are used to deliver an upbeat alternative to Halloween’s horror-soaked narrative, and a reminder of the fundamental Christian message that there is always light to be found in the darkness. On the Evangelical Alliance website, Chris Walton, from the Church of the Ascension in Birmingham, enthuses that its light party last year helped it connect with non-churchgoers. “We held our light party on a Sunday afternoon, and about 100 people attended – 85 to 90 of them were people who don’t normally come to church.”
The Scripture Union, a Christian charity, believes light parties offer a powerful way of connecting with the 95% of children it estimates do not go to church. On its website it promotes a downloadable light party advice pack that is proving popular with churches and youth groups.
“We’d picked up on the fact some churches had started to do this and that it was becoming a bit of a trend,” said Paul Stockwell, head of fundraising and communications at the union. “So we put a pack together and launched it in 2013 and it’s grown ever since. When we started 3,000 to 4,000 people were interested in the pack and now we’re up to 8,000. We estimate a good 40% to 50% of them will go on to put on a light party.”
According to market researchers Mintel, Britons are expected to spend £320m on Halloween this year, up 3.2% from last year. Stockwell said the rise of the light party was partly a reaction to the increasing commercialisation of the annual event. “It’s becoming a bit of a counter-cultural movement,” he said. “We’re saying that at this time of year we value the person, not the amount of money they are going to spend on some plastic tat. Alongside that, you’ve got the safety issues. A lot of parents prefer to know that their children are somewhere where everyone has been safety checked and they’re not wandering the streets knocking on doors.”
Rather than wearing scary costumes, children attending light parties are encouraged to come as their favourite superheroes, whom the church suggests “make a great, positive alternative to scary witches and ghosts”.
Even the most potent Halloween symbol, the pumpkin, is being embraced, albeit with a symbolic twist. Churches are encouraged to promote the idea of carving a “friendly-looking pumpkin this Halloween, as a sign that you and your family are going to be a force for good”.
St Mary’s Church in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, is typical of those churches seeking to offer an alternative to trick-or-treating. ,On Sunday when the town’s high street will be awash with revellers for its popular Halloween celebrations, the church will open its doors to become a “beacon of warmth, light, beauty and serenity amongst the frivolities”.
Along with refreshments it intends to offer a “gentle message of how Jesus is the light of the world and that nothing dark can ever overcome it”. And on Saturday the church of St Peter and St Paul in Flitwick, Bedfordshire, held a Halloween party featuring pumpkins carved with hearts and Christian symbols, glow-in-the-dark bowling and apple-bobbing. On Halloween itself, St Andrew’s Church in Archway, north London, will be putting on party games, a bouncy castle and glow crafts while offering fairground treats and the chance for children to learn circus skills.
However, some Christians remain uneasy about doing anything to mark Halloween because the night of 31 October has for centuries been seen by pagans as a time when the boundary between the living and the dead dissolves.
But the night has also been important in the Christian calendar since 835. It was then that Pope Gregory IV nominated 1 November as All Hallows’ or All Saints’ day – a feast day to celebrate the lives of the saints. Now churches are being encouraged to use Halloween, a shortening of All Hallows’ evening, to promote All Saints’ day, and the following All Souls’ day, which is dedicated by the Catholic Church to all those who have died but await entrance to heaven, and by other denominations as a chance to remember those who have died.
Margaret Pritchard Houston, children’s mission enabler for the diocese of St Alban’s, argues that marking Halloween in a positive way can play a crucial role in helping children make this connection with deceased relatives and, in so doing, overcome their fears.
“How do children come to terms with things that scare them?”, she said. “They play, and when we play we can take control. We can take charge of the things that scare us and ultimately defeat them. Halloween, when paired with All Saints’ and All Souls’, tells them that death can be defeated, and that’s a very, very powerful message. If we demonise Halloween we run the risk of telling children that their fears are so scary even the adults can’t handle them.”
Taken from the Guardian.