When I was a child my parents were members of a Caledonian Society, a social club for Scots people. They had children’s parties several times a year and one of them was for Halloween. At that time I didn’t have any idea how it originated, I just knew that it was fun to bob for apples in an old tin bath, carve a pumpkin lantern, and dress up in a scary costume while the grown-ups pretended to be frightened of me. There was no trick or treat – that was a later American import.
Anyway, now that I do understand what it’s all about, how does a Humanist respond to Halloween?
Its origins go a long way back, from the Celtic festival of Samhain (sow-en), the beginning of winter, when the barriers between the living and the dead were lowered, when chaos ruled for several days. The Christians took it over and called it Halloween, the eve of All Saints or All Souls Day.
I understand why children enjoy the spooky, scary stuff. Being scared, but not too scared, is exciting for a child. My mother had a wicked sense of humour. If I was engrossed in a scary story on the radio, for example, she’d rinse her hands under a cold tap so they were icy and creep up behind to grab my by the neck, making blood-curdling noises so I’d jump. The Humanist philosopher A C Grayling calls this sort of thing ‘recreational fear’ – the sort we experience during a horror film, or a ride on a ghost train. The original Halloween festival was about real fear; fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of the dark and cold during a harsh winter. The stories that religious people used to be told about what would happen to them when they died were enough to frighten any impressionable person. Ignorance and fear sap confidence and make people timid. We ought to know better now. As Franklin D Roosevelt said, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’
Halloween today has very little to do with any of the superstitious nonsense that our ignorant ancestors might have believed, so let the children enjoy the ghost stories and the spooky costumes and the creeping about in the dark, just as long as they don’t over-do the tricking. It’s a pity that most children don’t seem to make their own costumes for trick or treating, but buy them ready-made. Maybe I shouldn’t criticise, because I’ve no intention of making any toffee apples or biscuits, but will buy sweeties to offer any scary creatures that turn up on my doorstep tomorrow night.