We spent last week on holiday so we were out of London for Halloween for the first time in years. We were in a quiet village but we received a warning about what to expect from one of the locals: “You should expect to be busy, all the kids from neighbouring villages come down here every Halloween”. As we do every year, we bought a few bags of fun-size chocolate bars and lollies. We wanted to be able to placate the hordes of rural gangsters coming our way.
I must confess that I don’t like Halloween at all. Some of this is because it’s a celebration of death and gore and it encourages kids to eat even more sugary rubbish than they normally do. But also it is because in the UK Halloween is such a half-hearted festival, a flaccid version of something we see happening in the US. The genuine cultural buy-in is minimal and it seems it is only kept going by those who sell witch’s hats and zombie masks. It has to be the limpest celebration on the calendar.
However, in pretending to celebrate fictional ghosts and ghouls, Halloween actually does expose some real fears in our culture: we are petrified of young people.
Shudder and shock!
Halloween exacerbates our fear of young people because it provides a platform for young people, unsolicited, to knock on our doors – shudder. Furthermore, they expect something to be given to them – shock. And, worst of all, refusal to meet their demands brings the possibility of aggression – arrrgghhhhh!
Of course, the fears of people in areas plagued by anti-social behaviour are understandable, especially the elderly. Having eggs thrown at your house is no fun. But having lived in urban areas over the last twenty years I have hardly experienced any real problems around Halloween, despite a huge number of scare stories I have heard and read. As is so often the case, I don’t think that the fears correspond to the facts.
The problem of fear
But fears of young people is a genuine problem because they create distance and suspicion between generations. Older people simply want to avoid young people like the plague. And instead of being known and accountable, young people perceive the fear and nervousness of older generations. Instead of feeling contained and known by a community, they feel unsafe, unaccountable and misunderstood.
Knowing someone by name is the best way of eroding fear. If you see a group of kids walking down the street and you know just one of them by name then it can transform your view of the group. It is not so much ‘hugging a hoodie’ as knowing who is under the hood. Increasingly, as community activities have declined, older generations have less and less meaningful relationships with younger people.
Vital community work
Youth groups and organisations like the Scouts have done a vital job in our communities. It is a tragedy that so many have either folded or become too professionalised. Too often in churches today the relationships with the youth are ‘contracted out’ to the growing army of paid youth workers who do the job for us. We have accepted a message that we need qualifications to do youth work or that we need to be expert in youth culture. This is simply wrong.
We need more middle-aged volunteers who are prepared to run youth clubs and get involved. It doesn’t matter if they are in draughty church halls and have wobbly tennis tables. The critical thing for communities is that there is a space for youngsters mediated by people who are not their parents and who are not paid. This is what builds relationships and build community.
Being prepared to be yourself
I used to help run an open youth group at a church near where I live on a Friday evening. An elderly lady, in her late 70s, volunteered to join the team and she used to run the Tuck Shop. I will never forget an encounter when a cocky teenager asked her how old she was:
‘How old are you?’
‘How old do you think?’
‘Dunno, ’bout hundred?’
Her willingness to get involved made a real difference. It showed that you don’t need to be cool to volunteer with young people – but you do need to be prepared to be yourself. Now I am over forty I have to remind myself of this in the youth group I help run each week.
But it’s not just in clubs that opportunities present themselves. My boys and I, plus some mates and other dads play football every Saturday morning on our local common. Often other kids want to join in and we always let them. Some have become regulars. They have gone from being complete strangers, edging about nervously on the margins of the pitch, to becoming mates. And we have never had one bit of trouble.
Fear knocks at the door
As I said, this week in a little village , we were all ready for a busy night this Halloween. But in the end the pile of sweets by the front door went untouched. Despite the warnings, we never saw a single Witch, Wizard or Were-wolf. We ended up eating the sweets ourselves.
It reminded me of Martin Luther King’s words in his sermon Antidotes for Fear:
‘Fear knocked at the door.
There was no one there.’