Monday 8 October 2007

Halloween under threat

I'm not a great fan of Halloween. It wasn't part of my 1960s middle-of-the-road English Methodist upbringing, and I'd never even heard of it until a Scottish schoolfriend invited me to a party and I was inducted into the delights of pumpkin-carving and apple-bobbing. In those days it was strictly a Scottish celebration: a hangover from their Calvinist obsession with the devil and all his works.

The whole trick or treat business is a much more recent US importation, and one suspects that its inexorable advance has something to do with the need for the greetings card and related industries to expand their commercial reach (the invention of Grandparents' Day and Carers' Day being other examples). And like any other grumpy middle-aged man, I resent having to get up from watching the Channel 4 News to answer the door to a gaggle of children in shop-bought witch costumes demanding chocolate.

Still, I reckon if you're going to have Halloween, you may as well do it properly. But it seems the festival is under threat from the good old C of E:

A Church of England bishop campaigning to rebrand Halloween as a "triumph of good over evil" claimed victory yesterday after two supermarkets agreed to stock less sinister alternatives to the usual monster masks and devil costumes.

Sainsbury's has written to the Rt Rev David Gillett, Bishop of Bolton, saying it will now also sell glowsticks, hair braids and face paints. Its chief executive, Justin King, said he could understand the bishop's worries about the antisocial effects of Halloween products.

Andy Bond, president and chief executive of Asda, said it too would stock costumes and accessories with a "lighter" feel than previous years.

Surely the whole point of Halloween, as with its Catholic counterparts such as the Mexican Day of the Dead, and pre-christian versions such as the Celtic Samhain, is to provide a collective, cathartic opportunity to face up to life's darker side - and indeed to remember its ultimate end. Turning it into a 'positive' celebration, as the bishop wants to, somehow misses the point. Sometimes it seems as though some parts of the Church of England have forgotten the value of ritual and want to reduce religion to a kind of feelgood happy-clappy therapy.

Hallowe'en is also under attack from other religious groups. Labour Humanist reports that 'A primary school is considering plans to abandon its Hallowe'en celebration' (Why? You guessed it) ' in case it offends religious parents' , and are planning to rebrand it as an 'Autumn Festival'. I suspect that the offended parents come from the fundamentalist evangelical end of the Christian spectrum, where literal belief in Satan is alive and well, and magic and witchcraft are not things to joke about.

If this had been a church school, I could just about understand their actions. But it sounds as though it's a mainstream state school, presumably with the usual diversity of religious believers and unbelievers represented. So why should the opinions of one religious group trump all others? I know for a fact that evangelicals of this stripe also abhor Harry Potter and all his works, for similar reasons, and won't let their children read the books. So what if this same group of 'religious parents' asks the school to stop reading Ms Rowling's books in class, or for them to be removed from the school library, so as not to cause them further 'offence'? And what if other religious groups decide to join in, with Sikh or Muslim parents claiming that they are 'offended' by the annual nativity play, perhaps - will they also be appeased?

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