To suffer the slings and arrows of your fellow Christians and atheists alike, or to forgo Halloween – enduring possible alienation and your children’s keen resentment of your taking a hard line against the holiday – that is the question…
(-to misquote Hamlet)
Well, it’s that time of year again. The ghouls are out, and the gloves are off. As usual, the debate rages on about whether or not practicing Christians should participate in the ‘pagan’* festival of Halloween.
Just the other day, a friend shared an article written on the subject by a former Satanist (now a Christian); the bulk of the piece concerns the origins of Halloween and its significance to occultists. None of it was new to me, but it was an interesting read – as were the comments following the article. One of the comments, by a woman who was a practicing witch before converting to Christianity, contained even more interesting points against the adoption of ‘pagan festivals’ by Christians – but then she went on to say that Christmas and Easter shared same origins and therefore should not be celebrated by practicing Christians. She (the commenter) concluded by posing the question, “So the biggest question is why are so many still deceived on the facts that customs of easter and chirstmas [sic] are VERY pagan?” This seems rather extreme; after all, the timing of those Christian feasts may have been based on the pagan festivals they were aiming to replace (as the populace was being encouraged to adopt Christianity and do away with pagan rites), but they also made a lot of sense. The Christian celebration of Easter, for instance – with its symbols of renewal and resurrection – is very aptly placed (as it is in the northern hemisphere) in the season of spring.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Christians who adopt Halloween with gusto, thrilling at the chance to adorn their lawn with gravestones and dressing their children up as little zombies, witches, and horror-film-characters for parties in honour of the occasion.
As committed Christian parents, dedicated to raising our children in an environment of faith and encouraging them towards personal confession of that faith, it can be difficult to know how to approach the celebrations on October 31st.
It does seem to me a very good idea that those who have been involved in the occult, or feel drawn by it, should maintain strict boundaries against Halloween and other pagan practices. Their convictions notwithstanding, however, I believe that there is room for moderation for other Christians – according to their own prayerful discernment. As with so many other aspects of the Christian walk – family size, lifestyle choices, and the like – we all make prayerful decisions about participating in non-Christian festivals using whatever discernment we possess, and those decisions are still not always alike.
Friends of ours (who also happen to be the pastor of our church and his wife) immigrated to Canada from Ireland as adults; to them (and I hope that I’m representing their take on this faithfully), Halloween seems a particularly strange and ritualistic celebration of a pagan festival. Others who haven’t grown up with the tradition of Halloween also often express discomfort with the idea of sending children out to the houses of strangers to beg (with the hint of a threat) for free sweets.
I respect this viewpoint, as I respect those who hold it, a great deal. But I have a different perspective, and I am not convinced that it is an unholy one.
Having spent many years of my childhood and adolescence in Canada, I was introduced to Halloween at a young age. My experience of the holiday was an innocent one – it was certainly a cultural festival, for us, rather than a religious one. At school, we’d do little crafts and read rhymes about silly witches making funny brews; at home, we’d carve pumpkins and dress in cute costumes (and then, usually, throw on a thick waterproof jacket over said costumes – such is the weather most Halloweens in Vancouver!) before going trick-or-treating around our neighbourhood.
There were boundaries around our Halloween activities, just as there were around our regular lives. The idea of indulging in occultish practices, for instance, would never have been acceptable. My parents were clear and expansive in their warnings to keep clear of dabblings in the paranormal, such as using Ouija boards and other supernatural ‘games’ – and before my sister and I were discerning enough, ourselves, to give such things a wide berth, we were respectful enough of their wishes to do so (and thus we were protected from the darker forces that may have a stake in the holiday). We were also discouraged from the sort of wanton gluttony that we sometimes saw with kids being driven from one neighbourhood to another, filling pillowcases with free candy, and gorging themselves on it until they were sick… We walked, with my Dad or both parents accompanying us, around our own small neighbourhood – and we were expected to exhibit customary politeness, even though our spirits and sugar-levels were high. None of this grab-and-dash race from house to house with only a breathless demand for candy and no acknowledgement of its receipt.
More than what we didn’t do in celebrating Halloween, though, it was what we did do that has made it a holiday in which we were comfortable participating. October 31st was the only time, for instance, that we met some of our neighbours. Ours was a block filled with older folk, and it was clear that for many of them this holiday represented an occasion to see the youngsters of the neighbourhood growing up as they came knocking at the door each year. We, too, delighted in the little pointy-hatted witches, saggy-stocking’d Robin Hoods, glittery princesses and soggy-sheeted ghosts who trick-or-treated at our house – especially once my sister and I were too old to participate in dressing up and going door-to-door ourselves. One little girl, in particular, was a precious sight each year, from the time that she first appeared as a tiny mouse – kicking hard at the door to be sure we heard (my Mum popped a head out the door, saw nothing at eye-level, and was just about to close the door when she looked down and saw this little poppet, hands-on-hips, ready to read us the riot act if we’d missed her…) – to the last time she straggled in with a bunch of other teens for one last year of trick-or-treating.
We carved pumpkins, often with friends, and set them out to illuminate our front path, and most years we’d string some spider-web up around the place. We made sure that our little visitors would know that there was a big bowl of candy and chips waiting to be distributed at the top of the stairs.
Now that I’m navigating Halloween for my own family, I (we) have to make decisions about participating in this holiday. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my thoughts on the subject:
- Joining in with some Halloween practices isn’t any worse, or weirder, than participating in a holiday like the British Guy Fawkes (in which an effigy of a person is burned) or some of the Catholic festivals here in Italy. As with most holidays and festivals, what it means to you is paramount. Halloween simply has no spiritual context for most of us, as Christians (with the exception of an awareness that it means far more to others, and an understanding that this is a side of the holiday of which we should be prayerful and discerning). For us, it is just a day on which we dress up and go out to meet our neighbours.
- I am loathe to eschew a tradition so inextricably bound to the consumption of candy, as sweets are my dear C’s very Love Language. I should feel him drawn irreparably to the Dark Side if I were to forbid his participation in trick-or-treating fun. OK, that’s flippant – but really, it’s tough to take a stand about something like this unless you feel truly convicted to do so; in my experience, Halloween is just one of those fun holidays that help enliven the school year and give kids an opportunity to be creative with costumes, writing, and crafts. The candy’s a nice bonus for the sweet-toothed amongst us.
- I feel that I’m able to faithfully represent my beliefs in the context of participating in Halloween with boundaries, rather than excluding ourselves from it outright. I feel that there’s more room for discourse with non-believers in celebrating it differently rather than refusing to celebrate it at all.
With our own family, we’ve kept up many of the traditions from my childhood experience of the holiday. We’ve carved pumpkins and gone trick-or-treating, and we’ve made a big point to our kids about this being an opportunity to visit with our neighbours. The boys know that we expect them to respect the message projected by a house with its lights out (no trick-or-treating), and they know that we won’t take them to a house that’s decorated in too scary or gruesome a manner. They know that they’re expected to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and they have been taught to share their candy between them (and us) and enjoy a bit at a time. We’ve talked to them about how Halloween originated, and also about our choice to participate in a way that we’re comfortable with as Christians. No scary costumes, no blood-and-gore, no supernatural themes. Those are our boundaries.
As our kids grow, they may well push against the boundaries we’ve set around Halloween – just as they might if we were to forbid their participation in the holiday altogether. But as we parent them in the context of our faith – this all-encompassing, fully-engaging, whole-hearted relationship we have with Jesus – we will direct them to God’s word on the subject and on its authority over all aspects of our lives.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. “
I quote this verse often to our boys when we talk about our choices (books, TV, movies, life). I feel that we can live these words faithfully even in how we participate in this ‘pagan’ festival; for us, this is one way to live “in the world”, whilst still not being “of the world.” Others need to draw that line according to their own discernment.
Over to you, dear friends – what do you think? What’s your take on this holiday, and how do you reconcile it with your own beliefs (religious or otherwise)?
*NB: I refer to Halloween as a ‘pagan’ festival (in inverted commas) because although I acknowledge that the roots of this holiday are pagan, it holds no such significance in our current tradition (as we and our peers participate in it).