Two years ago, my then 10-year-old son celebrated his first Halloween. He'd arrived in the United States from Africa just a few months before, and as far as we could discern no such Oct. 31 holiday exists in his native Malawi.
As a fourth-grader here in southern California, however, Vasco was all about Halloween. He'd been drawing skeletons and jack-o'-lanterns in art class, and his classmates were abuzz talking about what costumes they'll be wearing when they go trick-or-treating.
But as a new parent -- and as a follower of Jesus -- I found myself facing an unexpected dilemma: Is celebrating Halloween appropriate for a Christian family?
One of my most vivid childhood memories of Halloween 1977, the year my family moved to a new town in Connecticut right after the school year had begun. I don't recall what my costume was, but I do remember going door-to-door with my father, meeting new neighbors and collecting a heavy bag of candy, as the suburban warren of Cape Cods and manicured lawns morphed into an other-worldly fairyland.
I was 7 years old and the new kid on the block, so when the cover of darkness fell at sunset, I hadn't a clue where I was. As my father deftly navigated our way home in the crisp autumn night, it felt like he had performed a magic trick. When the morning came, I couldn't believe that our adventure the night before had been on these same streets. To my young imagination (and heart) it felt as if we had been walking through Narnia or Rivendell rather than a sleepy New England suburb.
A few years after that, my family stopped celebrating Halloween. We had become born-again Christians and our Southern Baptist church frowned on the practice. Halloween, I was taught, was an occult holiday (or maybe even Satanic!) and good Christians should have nothing to do with it.
So while other kids in the neighborhood continued their annual nighttime pilgrimage, we would stay in or go to a church youth group function. My mother, God bless her, even tried handing out religious tracts to the trick-or-treaters. (Not a popular choice, if memory serves.)
I'm a relatively new mother and I'm still a Christian (and so is my son), so when the Halloween candy aisle appeared at the local grocery store, I wondered for a moment what to do. But then, recalling that magical night 32 years ago, I decided that if he chose to, Vasco could celebrate Halloween with all the trimmings -- costumes, jack-o'-lanterns, plastic spiders and spray-on webs, spooky music, face paint, and trick-or-treating.
In the seaside village where we live, Halloween is a big deal. Everyone dresses up -- moms and dads and grandparents and kids alike. The trick-or-treating ritual is just as I remember it as that 7-year-old girl, when nearly every house opened its front door and had buckets of candy to share; the night I met many of my neighbors for the first time and when the darkness that I was normally so afraid of became a miraculous, transformative veil.
Vasco is still a little afraid of the dark. Over the last few years we've been weaning him off of having every light in the room on when he goes to sleep. He's down to a single (if fairly powerful) night-light now, and, more importantly, his fear of the dark (and all that he can't see) is waning.
One of the best descriptions of Halloween's transcendent and experiential meaning comes from the book Seeking Enlightenment … Hat by Hat: A Skeptic’s Path to Religion by Nevada Barr. In it the author says:
“Halloween traditionally was the night we were given the freedom to explore the dark — not to find and be the evil but to see that the night was as beautiful as the day, that we were powerful, others were kind, that there was candy behind those closed doors and strangers who gave us treats. Being trusted to walk by ourselves in the world at night is an important ritual. That it comes but one day a year when we are small lets us discover this place, said to be inhabited by sinister forces, slowly and safely and by ourselves.”
Halloween’s roots are in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest and the coming of winter — a transition from the lightest days of the year to the darkest.
My ancestors, the Celts, believed the physical world and the spiritual world existed side-by-side, separated by a thin veil, and that during Samhain, the veil is so thin it is nearly transparent.
Thin moments are, to me, those times when we can see most clearly God reaching God’s hands into the world, whether it’s in the sacred space of a church sanctuary or the beckoning welcome of a neighbor’s open front door on an autumn night.
On our first Halloween as a family in our new town in California, my husband, son and I donned our costumes — my husband as Jerry Garcia, me as Janice Joplin and Vasco as Jimi Hendrix (collectively our family went dressed as “Woodstock”) — and headed to the heart of our village, where we joined hundreds of other families in a ritual not of fear or darkness, but of hospitality and welcoming.
Vasco collected buckets of treats, for a time going door to door the dark night with a new friend from school on their own (if under the hovering eyes of their mothers who watched from a safe distance on the sidewalk.) The boys sampled a taste of new-found independence, while my husband and I met scores of new neighbors who have since become true friends.
Our first family Halloween is a memory I will cherish. Something magical happened that night. Some precious childhood experiences were made and reclaimed, and the darkness was pierced by the spectacular light of God’s grace.
For new beginnings, second chances, and the blessing of being able to recognize a thin moment while I was standing in it. Thanks be to God.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Her latest book, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber, was released last month.