Mae McSweeney investigates the growing effort to carve an Evangelical Christian face onto the jack-o-lantern of Halloween
Are you sick and tired of seeing your loved ones forced to participate in a pagan festival which celebrates black magic, glamourizes fear, sanctions boisterous pranks and provokes a Godless gluttony of pound-shop sherbert?
But the fundamentalist Christians at not-for-profit organization Jesus Ween certainly are. Since 2002, Pastor Paul Ade, the group’s leader and the original ‘Jesus Weener’, if you will, has been leading the way in using Halloween as an opportunity to spread the word of God. If you should rock up to Pastor Paul’s front door on October 31st, prepare to receive not a begrudging fistful of stale peanuts and fizzy cola bottles, but a miniature copy of the New Testament. The movement is apparently spreading throughout the USA, and has had some success in the UK as well. According to the website, Jesus Ween is an alternative for ‘regular families who feel uncomfortable with some variations of Halloween (Emphasis on Death, Witches and Zombies, instead they would prefer to celebrate life and salvation)’.
I have doubts that it would ever take off in Ireland – not alone due to a general Catholic estrangement from scripture, but also because Irish children just would not accept it. I was egged from the window of a passing Nissan Micra, for no discernible reason, on Barrack Street one evening in August – and I never even had the chance to offer them a free Bible.
So, now for some gentle questioning of the method, and the madness, behind Jesus Ween: do they know that ‘Halloween’ is derived from the phrase ‘Hallowed Evening’? What exactly is a ‘ween’ supposed to be? Are they aware that ‘ween’ sounds like a shortened version of the vulgar colloquial term, ‘wiener’? Did they consider that many children old enough to ask for sweets at their neighbours’ doorstep are too young to read and understand the Bible? Did they consider that children of other faiths participate in Treat-or-Treating, and that their parents might take offence to a perceived attempt to indoctrinate their kids? Were they too busy clutching their pearls to realise that the greatest threat posed to kids this time of year is tooth decay? And, finally, do they know that Jesus himself was a zombie?
Yet, despite the seemingly gormless naivety of the Jesus Ween movement, they do have history on their side – Christmas and Easter, in particular, are pagan celebrations wrapped up in Christian gift paper. It’s also been well documented that some of the earliest missionaries to Ireland from Rome used the legends of native myths and deities, and transferred them to Christian monks and nuns, thus naturalising a foreign belief system as an indigenous part of the existing culture. Bearing this in mind, it’s actually pretty impressive that Halloween has managed to escape attempts at a Christian make-over until now.
Only it hasn’t, really. Halloween has been subject to Christian influences, like every other indigenous European holiday. The Celtic fairy-festival of Samhain bears little resemblance to what we celebrate today. In fact, the tradition of wearing costumes and disguises is a Christian practice, intended to ward off the lost souls who were said to wander the earth between All Saint’s Day on November 1st, and All Soul’s Day on the 2nd. Trick-or-Treating has its roots in the 12th century tradition of baking ‘soul cakes’; so much was the festival associated with Christianity that during the Reformation, Protestants denounced the rituals of Halloween as ‘popish’.
My biggest criticism of this Jesus Ween thing isn’t its bungling efforts to spread the Word of God to perplexed nine year olds in Transformer costumes, nor the egregious appropriation of the suffix ‘ween’. It’s the crude dichotomy it draws between Christian and pagan, light and darkness, good and evil, as if one isn’t inextricably linked to the other. Halloween has evolved just as all primitive celebrations and rituals evolve, and to claim that Jesus Ween aims to ‘celebrate life, not death’ is to ignore that much of the emphasis on death and the afterlife were introduced by Christians, who recognized that, just as Easter commemorated life and rebirth of Spring, there was a need for an Autumnal festival of death and mourning. Pretty much any world religion I can think of has a festival which recognizes the reality of darkness and death –because one has to acknowledge death, and the passage of time.
So, where the well-meaning Jesus Weeners proclaim on their website that ‘every year, the world and its system have a day set aside to celebrate ungodly images and evil characters… God inspired us to encourage Christians to use this day as an opportunity to spread the gospel.’ The ‘system’ they refer to is not immune to Christian influence, and has in fact been shaped by it. Besides, the Bible is full of some fairly unsavoury characters too – does anyone want to talk about Abaddon, demon overlord of a locust army? Or what about Baal, the first of the seven princes of Hell, who takes the form of a bizarre man-toad-cat hybrid? (Note to self: that would make an amazing Halloween costume).
Just to make it clear: it’s not my intention to go all Richard Dawkins up in here: if I wanted to take down organised religion, I surely would have picked a stronger target than Jesus Ween. This a matter of context and history, of balanced perspective – of checkin’ yoself before you wreck yo’self. Now, if you’ll excuse me , I need to place an order for 1000 miniature copies of Anton Lavey’s The Satanic Bible – won’t somebody think of the children?!