(Un)Happy Halloween?

by Vicki Garlock on October 30, 2013

Berlin Cemetery

Berlin Cemetery, Berlin, VT
Wikimedia Commons: Maximilian Schönherr

Halloween is clearly suffering from an identity crisis. Everyone, it seems, has the correct answer about the holiday’s origins and how it should be observed in today’s world.

A quick glance at various blog posts provides an incredible array of explanations and instruction. Halloween is a purely secular holiday, giving kids a chance to dress in costumes and roam neighborhoods in relative safety. Halloween is a harvest festival grounded in the ancient pagan tradition of Samhain (SAH-win). Halloween is an opportunity to honor all the dead who have attained heaven. Halloween is yet another massive money-making venture touted by corporate America (in this case, candy and costume companies) and foisted on an unsuspecting public. Halloween is an opportunity to focus on the real threat of evil in the world, including the temptation of Satan, the lure of the underworld, and the appeal of magic. Halloween is a time to honor – and perhaps provide a bit of reprieve to – all the souls undergoing temporary (and probably painful) purification in purgatory. Halloween is a commemoration of Martin Luther, who penned his 95 theses, thereby fueling the growing Protestant Reformation movement. Halloween is an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ, the loving answer to all that is evil in the world. Halloween is an excuse for adults to dress provocatively and behave badly. I could go on, but you get the point.

For every explanation, there is a prescribed method of celebration. Kids trick-or-treat around the neighborhood. Kids trunk-or-treat in the parking lot of a church or community center. Kids are allowed to wear ghoulish costumes depicting various stages of death. Kids are allowed to wear only cheerful costumes depicting animals and princesses. Distribute candy. Distribute tracts reiterating the good news of Jesus Christ. Avoid the more macabre aspects of Halloween and make it a harvest festival. Don’t make it a harvest festival because that makes it pagan.

Ironically, the less folks agree about it, the more folks celebrate it. Halloween is now a cultural force bigger than any single interpretation. How else could we spend around $7 billion a year on Halloween accoutrements? About the only thing everyone agrees on is that completely ignoring Halloween would require locking your child in a closet from Labor Day until the beginning of November. The more interpretations we come up with, the more entrenched the holiday becomes. I’m not sure if that should make us happy or unhappy.

But I’m in the business of interfaith education for kids, which means I spend a good part of my day trying to find connections between seemingly disparate faith traditions. And Halloween is ripe with disparity. Or is it? The most obvious connection between most Halloween traditions lies in the dead. It’s the time when spirits and souls can more easily visit our world. It’s the time when the bond between the living and dead is stronger, when the portal to the otherworld is open, and when the veil between this world and the next is thinnest. Whether we aim to communicate with ancestors, sinners, saints, or the undead, now is the time to do it.

As a culture, we don’t deal well with death. We don’t like to talk about it, and we don’t like to see it. But this might be our chance to change that just a bit. Why not use this week and this holiday time as an opportunity to talk about death with your kids? Get out a few old photographs and talk about your ancestors. Tell a few stories about friends/family members who have died. Ask your kids what they think happens after death. Share the name of the dead person you would most like to meet. Visit a cemetery. Kids are much better than adults at talking about death. You just might be surprised at what you find out. And, regardless of who you talk to and what they believe, you’ll have something relevant to share about your Halloween experience.

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