Halloween is now passed, and various thoughts have been offered by different people. Without disagreeing or opposing any views, I wanted to offer some reflections myself on what is an ancient Christian period of commemorating the saints and all the departed.
For myself, there are several issues.
1. I have a problem with the sort of narrative that links Halloween to a pagan festival. Perhaps, and only perhaps, fifteen hundred years ago there were pagan festivities at this time of year, not least associated with the harvest. But in Britain this season of All Saints and All Souls has been entirely a Christian festival for much more than a thousand years, and was still entirely a Christian festival into the 20th century. As has been stated by some others, those who have wished to make a pagan connection have been extreme Protestants who objected to the Orthodox-Catholic nature of the commemoration. Britain has a very rich Orthodox-Catholic Christian culture which permeated ordinary life for well over 1000 years. And so when I see a simple condemnation of Halloween based on bad historical awareness it certainly makes me a little frustrated, because it can seem that rejecting such a false narrative is the same as accepting what happens at the moment, and it is not.
This season, until recently, was one in which the community would come together in remembrance of the saints and of all their departed, and in which those who had much would share with those who had less. Soul Cakes were an expression of this. So were visits to the graves of family members, and prayers in Church. The annual calendar of Britain was filled with such community expressions of faith and solidarity, which were entirely Christian and represented a millennia of Christian social culture.
2. America is a source of problematic culture around the world, from my perspective. The modern consumerist celebration of this season has nothing to do with British culture at all, or the authentic commemoration of the saints and the departed. When I was a child, 45 years ago, I think we might have made a witch out of a toilet roll and some cardboard and wool. There was not trick or treating, and most of those I was at school with would have not celebrated Halloween in such a way. Not least because most of us were still associated with churches in one way or another and churches did not celebrate Halloween in the modern consumerist manner, though the prayers for the saints and the departed would have been offered in Catholic and some Anglican churches.
The practices which we are united in being disturbed by are entirely modern and American as far as Britain is concerned. They are not rooted in any British Christian traditional experience. It is only in my lifetime that people have dressed up as ghouls and ghosts and zombies and demons and devils beyond those who might have been influenced by American anti-culture. It is only in my lifetime that families have been encouraged and pressurised into spending large amounts of money and time and effort in participating in this modern and secular celebration of distraction.
3. It is entirely true that America has a great mix of cultures and that various groups of migrants have legitimately been able to make homes there and preserve aspects of their culture, and even a separate identity, as they choose. But it seems to me that though Egyptians, as Egyptians, might be able to retain a separate identity as a natural right in America, the calling of being an Orthodox Christian in THE PLACE WHERE WE ARE, means that we must be engaged in the society where we are, and be part of it, for the sake of mission and healing and prophetic witness.
It is not enough to form a ghetto, and I am not suggesting that most others have even hinted at such a thing. But some wish the Egyptian community to remain that, into the future, without becoming an expression of the local Orthodox Church in America of the See of Alexandria. This means, as far as I can see, that beyond a commitment to our own calendar and Egyptian traditions – and of course I am a Coptic Orthodox priest and not Egyptian and I am well aware of the 2000 year old Orthodox-Catholic heritage of my own culture, – we must also with discretion and carefulness ask how and where we share in the culture around us, and how and where we share our own authentic Orthodox Christian culture – by which I do not mean Egyptian social culture so much as the authentic Orthodox spiritual culture.
I guess I am saying that especially at those times when the society around us is caught up in a distorted and pseudo-commemoration of a Christian festival, such as Christmas and Halloween, and a few others, it is necessary for us to ask how we speak prophetically to those false celebrations rather than just ignore them. We belong in the society we find ourselves, and/or have chosen to immigrate into. We have a responsibility to speak and act beyond a simple criticism that shuts the door on what is going on outside. It needs to be a speaking and an acting that is positive as well as critical, so that we say more than – we don’t do this – but does bring Christ into a culture in which there is harm.
I’m not entirely suggesting anything, but this was one of the times that the poor were especially cared for. It was a time when the departed were prayed for. It was a time when families remembered loved ones. I can think of several ideas immediately that could be possible – not for our sake, we seem to keep doing things just for Copts – but for the wider community.
Here is one – a celebration of departed friends and family organised as a community event, not a Coptic Orthodox one, where people come and share photos and short reflections about loved one’s who have passed away.
Here is another – the local community is invited to hand in names of departed family and friends and a simple service is held, even just the Agpeya, in which each of them are named in a long litany and those who have put in the names are invited to attend and share in the prayers for the repose of their loved ones.
This is not in OUR calendar, but we are living in societies where THIS is the time that they might remember the real purpose of this season in the West over more than 1400 years. We don’t do it, if we did it, because of our needs but for the sake of others.
4. The real issue, it seems to me, is not Halloween or Christmas, which are only symptoms of something else. It is the consumerism and culture of self-satisfaction, the secular prosperity gospel, which has undermined traditional Christian values and principles and unfortunately is now the basis of life for many Orthodox Christians.
How can we criticise the secular celebration of Christmas as an orgy of consumerism when we live in just such a way ourselves for the other 364 days of the year? When everything we are doing is getting more and more extravagant, even in the building of vast mega-churches, then how can we speak prophetically to a society where many are desperately poor. When Orthodox people are more concerned with getting the best job, with the highest income, and having the most luxurious holidays, the fastest cars etc etc then we have no word to speak to the society around us and the Gospel is proved to be powerless.
Even when we only spend what we raise on our own community, this is problematic from a Christian perspective. The authentic Christian culture in Britain, which I know best, was one in which those who had received more were always called to be supportive of those with less. One example is that on St Thomas’ Day, the 21st December, poorer people would go to the homes of the wealthier, who would provide them, as a matter of Christian duty and as part of an ancient Christian cultural responsibility, with food and drink and a little money so that they could celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on the 25th December.
It seems to me that we should recover some of this sense of responsibility for the community where we are, because we are part of it and we are not isolated ghettos of Christians. If they are celebrating then we should celebrate with them in ways that are appropriate, and should minister to them when they are celebrating. That does not mean we need to change our Church calendar but it does mean that we need to rejoice when others rejoice and weep when others weep and not make ourselves a self-contained and self-sufficient island of the saved with nothing but criticism of those outside.
5. We quite rightly want to preserve our children and youth from harm, but it seems to me that with a variety of conflicting attitudes and principles we are often causing more harm. We are saying that we have come to the West because we want our children to get a good education, to get a job with a high salary, to own a large house – and then we are saying that the society in which we live is wicked, harmful and dangerous. We are saying that Halloween is evil, and that many other social practices are forbidden, but much of force behind what are essentially bare prohibitions are Egyptian social and cultural attitudes, but the West is not Egypt.
So we find young people being told – you don’t do that because you are Coptic, meaning Egyptian. And they respond – well I was born here in the West and I’m not Egyptian. You didn’t want me to be Egyptian so you came here. Or perhaps they are told – you don’t do that because you are Orthodox – yet they see many aspects of the way in which lives are lived within congregations and families that seem conflicting or even hypocritical.
If we are constructing buildings at very great expense, and not building communities of people who live out the Orthodox life each day in service to their neighbours, then we are reinforcing the idea that what matters is our own circle of people just like us. If we insist that people outside are dangerous and harmful and as far as possible our children should be preserved from contact with them – and I have heard this said in so many words – then we are also sustaining a false understanding of the Christian life.
When we say, you do what you want and we will do what we want, then we are not expressing tolerance of other views but showing an in-difference to well-being of others, and it for the sake of others that we have been brought into the communion of the Church and find ourselves in THIS place.
Is there something wrong with the world around us? Then what do have to say? What Good News? What sacrificial service will we offer? What words of comfort and insight? If we had such words and performed such actions consistently and coherently, being engaged in the society we are placed in, then we would know how to respond to a secular and even anti-Christian festival such as is represented in America, and increasingly elsewhere by Halloween.
If we lived simply, and served wholeheartedly, served the local community I mean, then we would be able to offer an alternative not only on Halloween but on many occasions. And not only for our own, but for all those created by God and loved by God, whom he asks us also to love. Are there those around us being deceived? Then the fault to a great part lies with us, since we say that we have the truth and know the one who is Truth himself. If we are a spiritual hospital, then there is something very wrong in closing the doors to sick people. And there are many sick people in the world around us, waiting for us to go to them.
6. So what do we do on Halloween? I would suggest that in those places where the modern American customs have not yet gained hold they should be entirely resisted. They have no place in Egypt at all. There is no need for holding alternative events. It is not a date that should figure in the calendar in Egypt.
In those places where it is entirely dominant, and it is not really so in the UK despite the best efforts of shop keepers, it would be good for the spiritual reason for the time to be commemorated as a service to the wider community. I have mentioned a couple of ideas, there are a great many more. This should be a time of service of others (outside the Coptic Orthodox community) and of remembrance of the departed. And these twin aspects, though not part of Egyptian culture on this particular day, are worthy, it seems to me, of some spiritual activity for the sake of the wider community we are supposed to be serving.
We do not have to develop an opposition based on bad history. It is enough to say that it is entirely inappropriate for Christians to be dressing as creatures of evil. And it seems to me to be confusing at least to participate with those dressing in such a way. But there is so much else of our modern culture which teaches the same things and worse. What is really required is a proper counter-cultural response, just as our ancestors in the first century had to commit to. If we are just going to be critical of one or two events, while being quite happy to comply with the other anti-Christian requirements of much of society in the West, and if we are committed in practice to following the Prosperity Gospel, then our criticism will be rejected by our children and youth, as well as those outside the Church, as being hypocritical.
In my life within Evangelicalism we never had an alternative event for Halloween. Should we have alternative events for everything in society we reject and properly oppose? I think that is a waste of effort. There are some ancient Christian elements to the authentic celebration which could be expressed by Orthodox Christians. They were still part of British life until recently. But if we were actually concerned about the society around us, and were seeking to serve that community in a variety of ways, rather than only being concerned about our own people, then we would, it seems to me, already have a healthier engagement and a much more positive and prophetic role.
If all we can say is “we don’t do that”, and “you can’t do that”, then we have not worked out what the Gospel says which is always positive and life giving. This should be a season of the celebration of life in death – we should be the experts at having something to say about that, and this life in death we celebrate should be worked out in practical and selfless service to others who are not Egyptian and on a day by day basis. It is undoubtedly the case that Satan and the demonic powers have manipulated men and women and children and produced a pseudo-celebration of death in life. Those who celebrate in such a way are not evil, and not usually worshipping Satan at all. But in a life that seems without purpose and filled with darkness and confusion, this empty celebration is a vain attempt to find some light and life and connection with others. We should not simply condemn such aspirations but feel overwhelming pity and sorrow that there are those millions around us who do not experience life in union with God as peace and joy, light and love.
There are those in the Church even, who have not really experienced life in union with God, and these secular and worldly celebrations also seem attractive to them. It would be easy to condemn, but these folk also need our pity and concern. If even within the Church, there are those who do not know what Christianity stands for then we have truly failed in our vocation. If we say NO to death, it is because we say YES to life. But we must live this life. Every day, and not express it only by criticism of others.
7. So what do we do on Halloween? I don’t think I have a ready or universal answer if we mean what activity do we put on for our children. I would rather ask, what are we called to be doing as Orthodox Christians in THIS place for the salvation of the people among whom we live, and for the conversion and salvation of our own children? My answer must be that we must live out the Orthodox Christian life much more wholeheartedly than we are, because we are losing the majority of our youth in each generation. We must not become more religious but more spiritual, more filled with the Holy Spirit, more committed to unceasing prayer. We must become less dependent on a Sunday School curriculum to make everything right, and more committed to true discipleship as a life-long relationship of spiritual guidance, example and counsel. We must put our Gospel into practice in the grace of the Holy Spirit by opening the doors of our churches to the people around us and offering to serve them in whatever ways they need. We must be Orthodox Christians of particular ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and increasingly members of our churches will not be Egyptian, who are committed to being Orthodox Christians in the community and society they find themselves, taking a full and positive and transforming role in that society, speaking prophetically and living sacrificially.
Until we want to do that I think that concerns about Halloween are a distraction, introduced by our enemy to make us think we are making a stand, while the real damage continues to be done. What is worse? An Orthodox child growing up to think he can go trick or treating? Or an Orthodox child growing up to think that success as a person means being rich and having much possessions? The one can be dealt with by a prohibition, but the second is more deadly. What are WE teaching our children? It is not always Orthodoxy. And if we are not teaching Orthodoxy, as a life in Christ, not a slightly different set of rules to another religion, then our children will not be able to resist the influence of the world at home, and school, and university and in the rest of their lives.
Thank God, here in Britain, in the town and street where I lived, there was not a single trick or treater. I saw not a single pumpkin in the window. I do not need to call these things Satanic. I believe that Satan is working throughout all aspects of our society and is very successful even among Christians. But they are a modern American commercial secular and pointless culture that really has no place in Britain with our own ancient and Christian traditions for this time. I resist it by ignoring it. But the properly Christian response requires a wholehearted commitment to the life of the Kingdom every day and every hour and that demands more than we are often willing to give.