Why is Halloween so popular?

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Why is Halloween so popular? A reflection on war, loneliness, and transforming grace

November 1, 2023 -

A group of children in Halloween costumes reach into a bag of candy while trick-or-treating. By Rawpixel.com/stock.adobe.com

A group of children in Halloween costumes reach into a bag of candy while trick-or-treating. By Rawpixel.com/stock.adobe.com

A group of children in Halloween costumes reach into a bag of candy while trick-or-treating. By Rawpixel.com/stock.adobe.com

Halloween costumes began filling grocery store aisles in July and were sold out by the first week of October. The National Retail Federation estimated that Americans would spend a record $12.2 billion on yesterday’s festivities. Close to three-quarters of US adults planned to celebrate Halloween, with adults between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four leading the spending. If our experience last night was any indication, nearly half of those who knocked on doors in costumes were adults.

What is going on here?

A Wall Street Journal article explains one reason we enjoy being frightened on Halloween: “We are motivated to engage in activities that allow us to practice and prepare for dangerous activities in a safe way.” As Stephen King noted, “We make up imaginary horrors to help us deal with real ones.”

A welcome diversion for many

There are certainly “real” horrors in the news these days.

Antisemitic attacks in the US are up roughly 400 percent since October 7. Pogroms against the Jews in France are spreading across Europe and beyond, part of what the Wall Street Journal editorial board is calling “the global war on the Jews.”

Hamas is marshaling support in parts of the Muslim world, which is part of its strategy, as I noted yesterday, to force Israelis to abandon their country. The escalating war could cause shipping companies to decide Israel’s ports are too risky, in which case the country could soon find itself running out of food.

A cease-fire with Hamas would not only embolden the terrorists and those who support them, it would permanently displace tens of thousands of Israelis forced to flee their homes in southern Israel after the October 7 invasion. However, a long war could drain the economy as Israel continues to employ hundreds of thousands of reservists who are no longer doing their regular jobs.

In the midst of such news, yesterday’s holiday was undoubtedly a welcome diversion for many. However, I think another factor also explains the popularity of Halloween in these hard times.

“Every person deserves to be seen”

I’m old enough to remember when everyone on our street knew everyone on our street. Parents babysat for neighbors’ children; you could borrow anything you needed from someone next door. If a crisis came, the neighbors were quickly on your doorstep looking for ways to help.

That was then, this is now. How many of your neighbors can you even name?

In this context, knocking on our neighbors’ doors on Halloween is a small antidote to the isolation we feel, an antidote we need now more than ever.

According to Gallup, more than half of the world’s population is experiencing loneliness these days. The US Surgeon General recently issued an advisory on what he called “our epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks notes that the number of people who say they have no close personal friends has quadrupled.

In his new book, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, he offers practical ways we can connect with each other in a time of fragmentation and hostility. His approach centers in what he calls a “humanist manifesto,” a decision to fight the “dehumanizers” of animosity and distrust by seeing others deeply and seeking to understand them and make them feel seen, heard, and understood.

Brooks is right: for our democracy to function, “we must be able to understand one another to some degree, to see one another’s viewpoints, to project respect across difference and disagreement.” All this, he claims, “requires humanistic wisdom.”

“Bleeding to be sure, but also bled for”

Brooks’ advice is biblical so far as it goes. We are taught to “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Scripture enjoins us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” (Ephesians 4:32a).

But here’s the model that has been left out thus far: “as God in Christ forgave you” (v. 32b).

“Kindness” is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) and thus can ultimately be shared only in the power of the Spirit. Before we can offer genuine compassion and community to others, we must come to terms with the fact of our estrangement from ourselves, each other, and God.

In Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner observed, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy.”

Once we admit this fact to God, others, and ourselves, we are ready to confess all that is wrong in our lives and receive the forgiving grace that transforms us into “a new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). A person for whom this happens can then experience the rest of the story, according to Buechner: the gospel “is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy.”

“We become what we think about”

Today is All Saints’ Day, that day on the Christian calendar when we are invited to remember the great heroes of the faith who have gone before us. This is so we can emulate their example and thus be heroes to those who will come after us.

Let’s embrace the invitation of this day to be the change we need to see. Let’s counter the tragic news and loneliness epidemic of our time by focusing on the greatest saint and hero of all: “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Let’s seek him in his worship and word with greater depth, intimacy, and passion. Let’s make it our life purpose to know Christ and make him known.

Since “we become what we think about,” as Earl Nightingale noted, we will become more like Christ each day. Our choice is binary and simple: “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5).

On what or Whom will you set your mind today?

NOTE: Our 2023 Advent devotional by Janet Denison is now available. I encourage you to request your copy of The Gift of Immanuel today for three reasons: 1) Our Advent devotionals are perennial favorites and supplies go quickly. 2) The daily readings begin Dec. 1 and we want to ensure you have your copy in hand. 3) Janet’s biblical teaching is so accessible and encouraging that I know you will be blessed through it.

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