Thursday, 4 October 2007

Halloween should be nicer, says Bishop


Just as the call of the first cuckoo traditionally heralds the spring, so you know the year is on the turn when you hear the first Christian denouncing Halloween.

So it's with a surge of pumpkin-crunching excitement that I learn that the bishop of Bolton, Rt Rev David Gillett, has been targetting supermarkets who sell "gloomy and scary" toys like rubber spiders and ghost masks. Indeed, it is a year since he launched his "Halloween Choice" campaign to persuade retailers to switch to more "positive" products. "Not all parents want to see their children dressed as monsters and murderers", he claimed as he set up his stall outside Hulme's branch of Asda with a range of alternative goodies. Instead of celebrating ghouls and witches, the positive-minded bishop (who also chairs the Christian-Muslim Forum) would like parents to organise "Bright-Night" parties and "reclaim the Christian aspects of Halloween".

You might think that the Church has co-opted enough ancient festivals down the centuries to start worrying about the one that got away. And the bish's "Bright-Night" doesn't exactly sound like a barrel of laughs. "We in the Church want everyone to be able to have an enjoyable time at Halloween" he says, by which he seems to mean standing around singing Kumbaya or talking about Martin Luther, who with a sort of mordant humour chose October 31 1517 to nail his ninety-five complaints about various religious scams to the door of Wittenberg cathedral.

With more Halloween merchandise on display in supermarkets every year (they even sell ready-carved pumpkins) you might think the bishop is fighting a losing battle. But this week he is claiming victory, of sorts. Sainsbury's have responded to his call by promising to sell glow-sticks, hair braids and face-paint alongside the zombie masks and plastic chainsaws. Tesco's were less forthcoming. Nevertheless, Dr Gillett declares himself "delighted...I now hope that parents will use their spending power, vote with their baskets and do what they can to show big businesses that we all want Halloween to be a more positive festival for people of all ages."

Perhaps he can get some of his Muslim friends to join in.

The bishop is equally pleased by a new opinion poll, carried out for the Church of England, which suggests that almost half believed that supermarkets should carry a range of alternative, "positive", Halloween gifts. Hang on a minute, though, doesn't that mean that more than half disagree? Whatever.

People like Bishop Gillett really don't get Halloween. My main problem with him isn't that he's prepared to make a fool of himself by saying things like this:

I am worried that Halloween has the potential to trivialise the realities of evil in the world and occult practices should not be condoned, even if they are being presented in a caricatured, light-hearted form.

That's just silly. Like the Americans who make bonfires of Harry Potter. (To be fair to the bishop, he claims to be a Harry Potter fan.)

No. The trouble with Gillett is his cloying sentimentality about how we (and especially children) should be upbeat and positive all the time. The idea that for children to be scared is somehow dangerous and wrong. Whereas, of course, most children want to be terrified from time to time. Halloween is a great festival because it takes kids through the dark and faces them with realities of life and death in a fun, and ultimately harmless, way.

All the great childrens' storytellers understood this. The Brothers Grimm understood it. Roald Dahl understood it. So does JK Rowling.

Halloween is healthy. If Bishop Gillett wants to understand why, I suggest he watches Tim Burton's peerless classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, which says everything that needs to be said about the difference between Halloween and Christmas, and why both matter.

It's only once a year, after all.