Sunday, December 06, 2009

Halloween, Christmas and Other Atrocities


    The knock took me by surprise. I looked over at Bethany and checked the clock. 9pm? Who'd be coming by at this hour? She answered the door and I heard a familiar chorus.

    "Trick or treat!"

    "Hold on a minute, guys." She said. I caught a glimpse of their costumes from the living room. Two little kids, who couldn't have been more than five or six, dressed as executives. (They clearly hadn't been following the news.) She gave them some candy, and I heard their thank-you's as the door closed. Since we live on the 8th floor of an apartment building, they were our only visitors. I thought about telling them that Halloween was the Devil's night, that Jesus would be very unhappy with them, and asking them where the tradition of Halloween had come from, but as they were only kids, they probably wouldn't understand what I was saying. Of course, age rarely comes into play when it comes to understanding, just as ignorance wears a variety of masks…


    When I was a kid, we dressed up every year to go out for Halloween. We didn't have a lot of money, but my mom worked hard on our costumes -- I still remember my sisters going out as Raggedy Ann and Andy -- and we always had a lot of fun, especially afterwards when my sisters and I would sit on our beds and 'trade'. (Any trade that brought you a chocolate bar was a winner. 'Best player in the trade' mentality.) Our home was traditional Catholic, but it never occurred to anyone in my family that somehow by putting on costumes and going door to door we were dishonouring God. That changed when I went into ministry. The Pentecostal church where I was working thought Halloween was the devil's night and had videos to prove it. Not only that, as we were taught in excruciating detail, the roots of Halloween went back to a dangerous and ignorant time, when the masks and costumes were worn to scare evil spirits, and trick or treat involved a sacrifice to these spirits. Sometimes, they said, those sacrifices included human sacrifices. I was horrified. I did some research, and wouldn't you know it, it was true. Halloween had indeed been a pagan holiday. They had indeed used masks in an attempt to scare the evil spirits. The idea that Christians celebrated such an evil holiday was an atrocity. I immediately crossed Halloween off my holiday list.

In my second year of ministry, my senior pastor informed me that they were going to offer an alternative costume party for the kids. I thought it was a great idea. This way, he said, the kids would get their candy and not be left out, and the church could reaffirm the glory of God instead of partaking in some old pagan/satanic ritual. It would be years before I would reconsider this idea of Halloween as the devil's night. Halloween was evil. It was right there in the history books. Or was it?

When my sister first told the family a number of years ago that she wasn't celebrating Christmas anymore and that it was a pagan holiday, I thought she was nuts. It was the birth of Jesus! For crying out loud, I thought, you couldn't get any more 'Christian' than that! She was vey calm.

"Christmas is a pagan holiday. The Romans changed it when the church came into power. December 25th was traditionally the celebration of Winter Solstice. And historians have long confirmed that Jesus was born sometime in February. Also, Christmas trees were a form of pagan worship, particularly popular in Germany, but also known throughout Ireland and Scotland."

"That's not true," I said, unwilling to stay quiet. "The trees are evergreens, they represent Jesus' limbs and how they reach out all year round… or something like that."

My sister just looked at me and I shuffled uneasily under her gaze.

"Okay, fine. But how about St. Nick? He was a real saint who helped orphans and-"

"-now he's a fat man with a red coat and talking reindeer who lives at the North Pole. Christmas is nothing more than a big bloated business opportunity!"

I looked at my sister's serious expression and waved my hands.

"Bah humbug!"

It was all I had left. The sad thing of it all was that my sister was right. Her church, at least when it came to celebrations, was very consistent. They didn't celebrate anything except birthdays, which is to say, they didn't celebrate anything. (Loads of fun for the kids, but hey, they're consistent, and isn't that what's really important?)

I guess it was after that I started thinking about Halloween. The truth, conveniently ignored by those of us in the church, including me, was that all of our customs and rituals had ties to the past. Except that for most evangelicals, Christmas made the cut and Halloween didn't. I could only wonder at the discrepancy. Of the two holidays, Christmas seemed far less "Christian". It encouraged consumerism and gluttony and materialism. Jesus was as much a footnote to our cultural practice of Christianity as Satan was to our cultural practice of Halloween. And I certainly didn't see people offering sacrifices to evil spirits on Halloween. Oh, I had no doubt there were people who tried to re-enact the pagan rituals on October 31st. These so-called occultists. So what? I didn't see why it mattered so much. If a group of people decided to worship suitcases every July 4th, would Christians declare that to be a no-travel day as a form of protest? In essence, what the church was doing was giving Satan equal billing with an omnipotent God.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why they persisted in producing so much anti-Halloween material. It had become so ridiculous to me, especially when I saw the medieval images of Satan wearing horns and a tail and usually in red tights. How was this seen as biblical? I brought it up with some of my Christian friends as a joke, but they never laughed. Mostly I got disapproving frowns. It was spiritual, they told me, and there was nothing 'trivial' about it. Well, I agreed with them about that. It certainly wasn't trivial. And as I'd found out this past year, the anti-Halloween movement hadn't slowed at all. It was all kind of sad and rheumy, like finding your grandfather's favourite old rocker in the garage covered with dust and being sold as something new and fresh.

But I guess we're taking a stand, aren't we? I just wonder when we're going to wake up and see that in all of our rhetoric, we're committing a much greater atrocity.





For me, the saddest part of all this is that my sister hasn't celebrated Christmas with my family in fifteen years. Her church has taken a stand, and God Bless Them, they're consistent. There will be no pagan celebrations in their family. And for many of my evangelical and charismatic friends, there will be no Halloween celebrations in their family either.

I guess that's okay. I don't like consumerism very much, and most people don't want to honour evil, but what if we're wrong about these traditions. What if the meaning of a tradition is simply the meaning you ascribe to it?

When I think about Christmas growing up, I don't think about the fact it was a pagan holiday or that Jesus was born in February. Instead, I remember family gatherings, getting together at the Croatian Hall with my cousins and waiting for Santa to appear, or our tradition of opening presents one at a time on Christmas morning. When I think about Halloween, I don't think about the occultist ties or ignorance of scaring spirits, I think about the costumes my mom made for us, trading candy with my sisters, engaging with our neighbours, and later, with my neighbours' children.

It's easy, I think, to take a perpetual stance of condemning culture. It's easy to automatically label customs as wrong or sinful and even easier to find reasons not to participate. Maybe that happens because it gives us a sense of both self-importance and self-sacrifice and doesn't really cost us anything. Except that it does. It reinforces the idea that Christians are proud and elitist. It reinforces the idea that Christians think that they are better. It tells the world that Christianity is as exclusive as a yacht club, and forces some of us who love Jesus to explain to our friends why these other Christians are such cultural snobs. Perhaps the worst thing about it though, is that while we're celebrating our differences from the world on these holidays, there will be people at work and on our streets who have no one with whom they can share anything. It goes without saying, I think, that the real atrocities of life are never concerned with issues, just people. The same people the church insists that it loves.

I miss our family Christmas. I miss the fact we can't gather together as a family because a portion of the church insists on teaching anti-culturalism. My hope this year is that we will remember to celebrate the holidays (yes, all of them) as seasons of hope and giving. That we will look at the world as not a place to condemn, but as a family to join. And that we will hold close not the doctrines that divide us, but the relationships that make this whole thing matter.