The end of autumn signals a number of things; cooler temperatures, the return (and inevitable pervasiveness) of pumpkin spice, and, most importantly, the start of the holiday season. Kicking off what many consider the most wonderful time of the year is Halloween, a celebration of everything macabre and ghoulish — which is exactly why it was absolutely out of bounds for me and others in the churchgoing Black community growing up.
In American culture, Halloween is a big deal. A lot of its importance stems from the fact that it is, like many holidays, a cash trap; even in the middle of a pandemic, the confectionery industry is projected to rake in more than $3 billion (£2.2 billion) just from this spooky season, and costume retailers can expect another $3 billion £2.2 billion) right alongside them. But beyond the capitalist nature of the holiday, Halloween also evokes a general spirit of whimsy. When else are you allowed — and even encouraged — to tap into your campiest, silliest, and most imaginative side without judgment?
My Nigerian folks could not have cared less about the playful nature of the season. In fact, the spirits that they were more concerned about were the Holy Spirit and the malevolent spirits that were potentially (“Definitely!" my mom would argue) creeping around on October 31st. And given the mystical lore of the holiday, our Bible-believing parents felt like they had good reason to pause. Halloween evolved from the ancient celebration of Samhain, a Celtic holiday that marked the new year on the first day of November. On that day, which also signalled the beginning of the cold season — and thus, death — the Celts believed that the line separating the living world from the spirit world ceased to exist, giving the souls of the dead ample opportunity to visit Earth again. To keep things copacetic on the living plane, the Celts often gave burnt offerings, dressed up in costumes to please the deities, and practiced divination to protect themselves from the dangers of the other side. With those roots, Halloween is much harder to spin to religious parents than the other holidays that have been whitewashed (in the Blood of Jesus) to be acceptable. The respective origins of Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are easily rerouted back to God, but an annual ghoul invasion and other witchy activities? Not so much.
I was born in Nigeria and raised in the church, specifically in the sanctified and tongues-speaking Pentecostal denomination, so celebrating Halloween was especially unrealistic for me. My parents were the anti- “any appearance of evil” type Christians, and naturally, Halloween fell into that category. Thus, my siblings and I became the kids who never dressed up for the school costume party. We were the kids who had to go sit in the library when the class was popcorn-reading Harry Potter. The kids whose mother handed out scripture mints at the front door. Thankfully, we weren’t alone — we were part of a community of young people for whom Halloween and all of its festivities were a no-go — so that meant that the day itself was never a complete wash. The rest of the world had trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns, and costume parties. We had Hallelujah Night.
If you grew up in someone's church, you’re probably familiar with the concept even if its name was different. Some houses of faith call their signature event Fall Festival or Harvest Fest, but the premise of the gathering is always the same: providing a safe, God-approved alternative to Halloween that ensures that the night isn't a total bust for the youth and making sure that the kids have so much fun that they don’t feel any regrets about not experiencing the same things as their friends and peers. I too stuffed my face with more candy than was healthy, bobbed for apples, and went on hayrides. Sometimes, our church would even raise the stakes for the event, promising big raffle prizes like game consoles or cold hard cash for a few
lucky blessed attendees.
In a lot of ways, Hallelujah Night was just as fun. On top of that, we were free from the looming threat of demons dragging our young souls to hell; the background noise of Kirk Franklin and Nu Nation, an altar call, and a passionate closing prayer ensured that we would be safe from the proverbial evil eye. Sure, it wasn’t the real thing, but it was our thing. And it sustained us. To all the church kids who were never allowed to choose treat over trick (for obvious reason), I see you.
Years later, I still can't connect with the excitement about Halloween. I've tried to tap in as an adult (sorry, Mom and Dad!), picking out last minute costumes and hitting the town for a night of hijinks and shenanigans. But even in my meticulously planned but poorly executed Scary Spice getup — I was the only Spice Girl in my group of friends, and it just doesn't translate without the rest of the gang — I felt like a fraud. No matter how fun the night was, I couldn't help but hear my mother's voice doing spiritual warfare in my ears, warning me to be careful at every turn. And I just couldn't risk it.
As a grown woman with her own convictions and personal faith in God, Halloween is still somewhat tainted for me. It's far less terrifying than it was made out to be back then, mostly because I don't think people are on an express train to hell for celebrating this over-the-top capitalist holiday. And yet, Halloween still feels like none of my business; at my big age, I’m too scared to visit a haunted house or even watch a Halloween horror movie marathon. Nonetheless, that detachment won't keep me from enjoying y'all's big day from the sidelines as a supportive observer. This year is sure to be an important one for fans of spooky season, especially considering the fact that last Halloween was all but canceled at the peak of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, so I'm going to participate in the best way I can: judging the creativity of your costumes on Instagram from my spot on the couch and buying up all the discounted candy at the grocery store the day after.