By Jonathan LeMaster-Smith
I love Halloween. Historically, it is amazing holiday with roots in the diverse Celtic, Northern European, and Roman Catholic histories. I could go into the historical and religious nature of the holiday, the shift from religious to secular overtones, and even the people who seem to think it is about worshipping the devil. But my goal here is to engage one aspect of Halloween and how it could be different--trick-or-treating.
My thoughts come from my experience in rural North Carolina with a very particular way of doing Halloween. As a child we would go trick-or-treating all around our portion of the county. Each year we followed roughly the same route, beginning with the close neighbors and our grandparents. Our parents would drive us around to each house; we would get out, knock on the door, and say trick-or-treat. In many of those houses we would be invited in for a five to ten minute time of “visiting.” People would share updates about their family, we would get our treats (ranging from raisins to full size candy bars on an 8 year olds treat-quality scale). We visited dozens of homes, staying a few minutes each. Sometimes, trick-or-treating was one of the few times my parents saw some of the people we visited. Halloween was a time of visiting family and neighbors, getting a small treat, and acting silly in my costume.
Theologically, this seems to fit will with some of the traditional and evolving meanings of Halloween. If you want details from a very accessible source please click HERE. However, I will be succinct: Halloween is tied to the three day celebration including All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day in the Christian tradition. We rarely engage All Soul’s day, but All Saints Day is a holiday honoring the saints of past and present in our community and the world. All Hallows Eve, now called Halloween, was a time of making the world holy. It was a time of chasing away that which was bad in the world in order to create space for the holiness to come. It was a time of feasting and festival. In the late 1800s in the United States, community and family gatherings occurred. Between 1920 and 1950, trick-or-treating became a way for members of the community to provide small, affordable treats for children, thus allowing the entire community to engage in the celebration. What I see in these traditions is making the world holy; perhaps, preparing for the coming of the Kingdom of God as Advent approaches. I also see acts of fellowship and community celebration, which transform into of Sabbath and Feast. Finally, I see acts of justice as the requirement was not costly presents or lavish parties, but simple treats for children.
However, I see very few churches embracing these theologically and historically appropriate practices. Instead, I see churches having Trunk-or-Treats. I do not know the history of trunk-or-treats, but it appears to be a practice instituted to both maintain safety of children on Halloween and as an outreach tool for the churches. As a child, Halloween safety was never an issue for us, as my family coordinated the adventure, however, I could see safety being a concern with unattended children and the possibility of abduction or simple injury. However, the outreach portion seems faulty to me. Most trunk-or-treats I experience involve a long line of people who come to the event, get candy, maybe their face painted, play a few games, and leave. Yes, we provided joy, but a community festival, with less linear trajectory, and more interaction could provide a longer time to form relationships and enjoy the time. Furthermore, it seems to breed consumerism (and perhaps even connect the church to the consumerism) in the simple linear progression lining up, getting candy, and leaving. We seem to have sacrificed sacredness and Christian practice for convenience and candy.
Instead of trunk-or-treats, why not do something that is probably more difficult, but also more in line with Christianity. Perhaps, you encourage church members and families to make their homes stops along the way for visiting and engaging. Perhaps, you encourage families to look at Halloween as a Christian practice and not simply a consumer-driven holiday. We try so hard to get this across at Christmas and Easter, we leave out the “lesser” holidays. Have them make it a time of visiting and engaging the holiness. Have them make it a time of spreading joy (not sugar-induced glee), through sharing with community and church members their costumes and their lives. Perhaps you might even have a treat drive for the homes that may not be able to afford the candy and items due to limited incomes or financial hardships. The same could be said for costumes. Holding a costume drive or costume making workshop would be an excellent means of allowing children to celebrate Halloween.
Jonathan is a CEF National Board Member, PhD Candidate with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Adjunct Instructor for Atlantic School of Theology. He lives in Glen Alpine, North Carolina. He blogs at highway18south.wordpress.com