Faith, Parenting

To Boo or Not to Boo…

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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. “

-Philippians 4:8

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)?

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*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).

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Faith, Parenting

Faith and Fairytales

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We’re expecting a visit from the Easter Bunny this morning.  Of course, we won’t see him – but we’ll know he’s been because all over the house (or the garden, if it’s sunny) he’ll have hidden little foil-covered eggs for the children to find.  This has long been a rite in my family, and now I delight in watching my boys eagerly hunt for the chocolates and share out their bounty between them (their generosity has hitherto extended to the adults present, but we’ll see if that practice continues now that they’re another year older!).

The first Easter I remember as a little girl was when I was three or four years old, living in England.  That morning, my sister and I were dressed up in our special spring dresses and taken to church before we’d had a chance to hunt for eggs.  Upon our return home, we discovered that magpies and other pesky birds had been at our treasures before we could find them, and their greedy digging at the shiny foil had destroyed many of the eggs.

My sister and I were understandably vexed at ‘those naughty birds’; how horrible to find our special Easter eggs ruined – and the birds hadn’t even wanted the chocolate for themselves, but in pecking at the foil they had spoiled the rest of the eggs as well!  Anyway, we got over the disappointment and made the most of the hunt and our findings.  And we went on to enjoy scavenging for chocolate eggs for many more years – long after we had ceased believing that a giant rabbit brought them for us every year.  Sometimes the treasures would be a bit different, depending on where we were living at the time, and sometimes (during the years when we still believed) there would even be a note with a muddy paw print on it from our friendly deliverer of chocolate.

I remember the day I found out the truth about the Easter Bunny, though.  After years of vehemently defending his existence to my non-believing friends, I shattered my own belief in the Easter Bunny in quite an ingenuous way. One rainy afternoon when I was about ten I decided to create an elaborate Care Bear scavenger hunt for my big sister.  I was preparing clues for her to find, and figured that the pièce de résistance would be to add a little paw print…

Imagine my surprise – and amusement-tinged-dismay – to lift my muddy fingers from the page and see there a near-exact replica of our Easter Bunny’s signature print!  I ran to my mother and blathered some tearful/giggly words about I’ve figured it out and I know he’s not real!…

… to which she replied, “Oh, dear, my darling!  Did Daddy tell you about Santa Claus??!”

After years of therapy, I was finally able…  Just kidding.  No, actually once I picked my jaw up off the floor and saw my own look of shock reflected on my Mum’s face (whether it was just that look or some blurted anguish like Not that too! that did her in, I don’t know – but either way, she was agog), the two of us fell about laughing.  In retrospect, I must have been working very hard at suspending disbelief at that age, and it was probably something of a relief to give up the pretence.  And we never suffered for it – my sweet folks just kept on filling the stockings and hiding Easter eggs until my sister and I left home, and nothing particularly changed except that instead of calling out “Thank you, Santa!” or expressing similar gratitude to the Easter Bunny, we directed our thanks to our parents, instead.

So now we carry on these special traditions with our own children, and we wait and we watch for those moments of realization when the veil comes off and the magic disappears.

Having been raised with these traditions, it seems natural and wonderful to continue their practice with my own family.  But as a Christian parent, issues like these can be tricky to navigate. It bears consideration, for instance, whether we actually should engage our children in the belief of fairytales like these.  How, some ask, do you differentiate between your fictitious belief in these fantastical whimsies and your authentic belief in God, Jesus, and the spiritual realm?  Why, others press, would you invite your children to believe in fairytales at the expense of their trust in the veracity of your other claims?

Here’s my take on it.  I believe imagination to be a vital part of a healthy psyche; I also believe it to be crucial to faith. Before anyone extrapolates from that to reach the conclusion that I am saying that faith is the same as make-believe, allow me to clarify that I feel that imagination enhances faith – it does not substitute for it.

For how can we believe in a God we cannot see nor experience (with some exceptions) with any of our other physical senses, without being able to imagine him?  We can know he’s there with faith, but feeling the truth of it takes imagination.  Many concepts in Christianity fall outside the realm of ordinary experience; the Trinity, being ‘born again’, God being ‘in our hearts’, etc – these are not easily reconciled through logic alone (that is not to say they are illogical).  But imagination gives life to these ideas and allows us to experience the Truth in a far more satisfying and holistic fashion than if we were simply to swallow them dry and wash them down as an act of will.

To those who wonder, how will my kids understand the difference between this fairytale fiction and the reality of an honest faith in God?, I will say this: They will know.  Your children, as they grow, will be able to reconcile themselves with the difference between something you have offered them for the season of childhood and a fundamental value you’ve imparted to them for their lifetimes (and, indeed, beyond).

My older boys, now, are losing their belief in this magic of childhood while at the same time their personal faith in God is maturing.  A. and C. have both registered disbelief about the Easter Bunny (C. even quoted scripture at me to get me to cough up the truth!), and to their queries at this stage it has been natural to give a measured but honest response.  B. continues to believe wholeheartedly, but his faith too is heartfelt and so I know it will not be a felling blow to him when the realization comes to him that this is a transient magic for childhood alone.

I feel that, in keeping such ‘magic’ alive in my sons’ early years, I have invested in their ability to believe in the unseen, to feel the power of the invisible, and to cherish an appreciation for the pure delight of imagination itself.

To do otherwise would be, to me, rather like spoiling the chocolate to remove the foil – just as those silly birds did so many years ago.

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