Explaining Halloween to (my) Children

As a Christian I have always felt a bit embarrassed about other Christians slamming Halloween for its pagan roots.

Yes, there is good evidence to tie it to old pagan rituals involving human sacrifice or the return of the dead (to visit/haunt the living– whatever you wish to call it) rather than “once to die, and then the judgment.”

The arguments from these people primarily seem to run that Halloween should be rejected because of where it came from (many books and, I imagine, websites, go deeper into the details so I feel no need to here).

But this is a genetic fallacy, and even before I had figured out the name for it, I knew it was faulty thinking, because I’ve only once (and that was just last year) heard a Christian reject Easter for its equally traceable pagan roots.

I’ve floundered every year on how much to let my children participate.

When I had an 8-year-old foster boy, I agreed to take him to his school’s “carnival,” and was relieved when I learned it was canceled because of freezing rain.

We made a costume together for door-to-door trick or treating (to fit *over* the warm clothes– you have to do that in cool places like Alaska), but I firmly guided him away from the gross or mass-inspired (from cartoon characters to Harry Potter) costumes, because I feel those either focus on what is evil or stifle creativity.

In case anybody wonders, or needs the idea, we made a spider: matching sweatpants and shirt (that could be reused in the future) with a pair of stuffed pantyhose sewn on each side with string tying the ankles of the hose to the wrist above it.

8-year-old *loved* it: all the arms had “life” because they were connected to him.

I felt rather clever.

Anyway, what really got me last year (and assured an until-further-notice non-participation) was how an article I read in the paper melded with a section from one of my favorite books (The Perilous Gard).

The timing itself was… precise.  In the morning I read the retailers’ claims that the increasing presence and gruesomeness of Halloween paraphernalia is utterly market driven: “We’re just giving them what they want!”

The same day (while I was making dinner) I listened the the section of the book that was the preparation of a human sacrifice.

It  turned my stomach like it never has before, and I couldn’t imagine any more the “practice” and implications of this gross stuff to be innocent or worth perpetuating.

Here is where the genetic fallacy can have value: it should remind us what was (or should have been) left behind. We shouldn’t forget what it’s like to watch people live in fear– not knowing there was a sure defense from every terror that walked the night on the Feast of the Dead.

There are still people who live in that sort of fear today.

I wince every time I have to take my children into a store after Labor Day, because I don’t know what they are going to see. Horror can be fascinating, and I really don’t want them imprinting on that; standing and watching things that are designed to be truly creepy, while they gradually grow more aware of a stifling, unwelcome feeling called fear.

This happened once when I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Never again.

The next time we were in the store and the girls (3 and 4) wanted to watch “the guy sit up in the carriage,” –a specter-ish thing rising out of a coffin– I realized I needed something to tell the girls about Halloween.

Fortunately, Natasha’s already shown a healthy interest in skeletons, so I don’t have to convince her skulls and so on aren’t scary. But other than that I just felt overwhelmed by the mass of images that slam us on all sides.

The fun stuff (fairies and firemen, children dressing up) is really not what’s driving the market, so that’s not what’s most prominent in stores. (Never mind that what *is* available and eye-catching for children is shoddy, and cheaply made– nearly makes me want to take-up garment-sewing again).

My breakthrough came when I remembered we are not the first generation who have to train our children while surrounded with images of evil.

What could other parents have told their children, as they watched their neighbors living in fear?

Jesus has conquered fear and death.

Fear and Death no longer have any hold on us, because we have a new master. I’ve used this description a few times, now: “Halloween is about celebrating Death and Fear. Jesus has conquered them both. They do no rule us, and we will not celebrate them.”

For anybody whose about to screech at me I’d guess it’s for one or two reasons:

  1. You have great memories of growing up trick-or-treating and the fun of dressing up.
  2. You want to build/share those same memories with your kids
  3. And what’s wrong with dressing up, anyway?

Okay, that’s three. Take your pick.

The problem is twofold. First, I don’t know if my childhood was really sheltered from this, but I don’t remember the overwhelming marketing. The article said it’s bigger too. And gorier. Our kids are being visually assaulted in ways we (statistically) never were.

Second, shouldn’t we be thinking about *why* we do what we do?

Is it because our kids and/or we need the candy?


Is it because dressing up and sharing the process of costume-finding/building is so fun?

My money’s on this one.  But Halloween shouldn’t be the only time you let your kid dress-up– if it’s that important to you.

Lately thinking women have been scrutinizing the thinking on things once considered “normal.” Things like circumcision and vaccines.   I don’t think even cherished family traditions should be excluded from that scrutiny.

And something else to take into account– your son may be a knight or your daughter a firefighter, but if you take them to a school or public “Fall carnival,” you will have absolutely no control over what they will see.

What you might have to explain.

Will it be the 5-year-old my dad saw at his school who came dressed as a corpse– complete with dangling eyeball?

These are not the images I want my children absorbing. They don’t yet have any mechanism for processing something that intense, and the images do nothing to enrich pre-school (I would argue any) lives.

I won’t even link to all the costumes hyper-sexualizing pre-teens.

For me it’s become an issue of protecting my children. Who knows what they will be “exposed to” further down the road, but while I have the sole guardianship of their hearts, I want to take that seriously.

12 thoughts on “Explaining Halloween to (my) Children

  1. This was really interesting.

    My husband and I both grew up not celebrating Halloween. Neither of us have ever been trick-or-treating, nor do we associate positive things with Halloween. In fact, up until college or post-college I thought all Christians rejected Halloween.

    It’s been somewhat surprising to me to find all these fine, Christian people defending Halloween. It’s made me reevalutate why we don’t celebrate it. My husband and I have decided we will not to take our (future) kids trick-or-treating, and I want to make sure we have thought through our decision. I have already gotten some flack on my stance to abstain from anything Halloween. I need to know my reasons and make them be solid ones. So I appreciated your explanation a lot! Thanks.

  2. I’ve almost always refused to participate in Halloween activities, from when I was fairly young – I think my first “stance” on it came when I was 14 or so. It made me angry that the church we were going to was having a “Halloween alternative” Harvest Festival. I’m still amazed that my parents made me go against my (tearful) protesting…maybe they weren’t able to distinguish between run-of-the-mill disobedience/rebellion and the actual spiritual conviction I was feeling about that issue.

    I appreciate your link to the genetic fallacy article…I agree that it’s logically inconsistent to reject Halloween based solely on its pagan roots and not Christmas and Easter based on THEIR pagan roots. The real difference is in how they are celebrated today. Halloween is still and death and un-death and gross-outs and fear, while Christmas and Easter have been filled with Christian symbolism that’s worth celebrating.

    I’m going to stop typing here now and make this a post on my own blog. : )

  3. Yes, Becky, in what I imagine is an attempt to “shelter” while trying to create a distaste for the holiday, I have heard whole lectures, seen footnoted articles, about the history of Halloween with no relevant paragraph about the difference between that and (like you say) Christmas and Easter.

    I’ll admit to a few people who tried, but it always came out sounding more like an urban legend than anything relevant.

    And I can’t pretend my article does anything better, but this topic could easily be a YDKUYK issue, one like many topics where we can be instantly polarized.

    Partially because of the extreme nature of these arguments I feel we ought at the same time to be very gentle with those who don’t see things the same way.

  4. Our family celebrates “Halloween”. If I could, I’d officially rename it “Dress-up To Get Candy Day.” We get the kids some cute animal outfits, take them out to see their neighbors, and come back with buckets of candy. Which I consume over the following days. No, we don’t need the candy. But we don’t want to deny them the fun.

    I, too, worry about them seeing images that will haunt their dreams, but would it be anything that they wouldn’t already see in Wal-Mart or CVS? I would steer them away from particularly spooky houses, but we’ve yet to even encounter in this neighborhood. We are not celebrating the undead; Satan is not a part of this day for us. We don’t decorate the house in cobwebs and skeletons. Cute tigers and baby Yodas. That’s it. We don’t even get the older crowd in our area on Halloween night – it’s usually all 4-5 year olds dressed in adorable outfits.

    For us, taking our kids trick-or-treating is less visually assaulting than taking them to the local drugstore during the month of October.

    Someone once shared their Halloween theory with me, and I’ll see if I can regurgitate it (and I’m on my husband’s computer who refuses to install Firefox, so I’m typing this whole thing w/o spell check, so bear with me…): They explained that nothing makes the devil happier than seeing people mock Christian holidays with bunny rabbits and magical reindeer while completely missing the redeeming message. And their stance was that they would get back at him by mocking his own holiday with cute fluffy animals and elementary angels.

    I’m not saying I whole-heartedly accept their stance as my own, but I did get a good chuckle. And I wondered if there was any truth to it. So I thought I’d share it with you.

    For us, until we start seeing the ick of the gory marketing push, personally, in our area, I don’t see us stopping the tradition. But you’ve definately given me something to watch for. Thanks for the post!

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, Beth.  You express very succinctly the response I’ve both heard and given over the years.

    My instant response to a couple of your points (not arguing, just thinking out-loud):

    –would it be anything that they wouldn’t already see in Wal-Mart or CVS?

    *This is the very reason we revamp our shopping style for these two months.  We don’t visit the major offenders at all, and avoid the “seasonal” sections of the other stores.

    –their Halloween theory

    * this is interesting, and I haven’t heard this before, but I think I disagree for two reasons.  First, while some people roll their eyes at Santa and bunnies, I think the majority even of them see the involvement as benign at worst and as hopeful at best: because their acknowledgment and participation could reasonably be seen an eventual openness, or gateway to the truth.

    Neither of those attitudes is something I want mirrored with Halloween (though the most likely manifestation I see for believers is basic desensitization, which I still see as unhealthy).

    Second, while “the devil” may achieve his goals by mocking believers (debatable), I am certain that believers do not fulfill their assignment my mocking the devil.


    I believe that thinking believers can come to different conclusions, but that doesn’t mean I think we can do better than “agree to disagree.”

    These discussions are good for clarifying what we believe and why, but we need to be careful where they go.

  6. I’m not a Halloween fan. However I’m married to someone who loves it. I could do without it, but not until he decides to join me.

    These were good thoughts.

    I’d prefer Halloween like it is in Thailand where it is really more of a memorial day for ancestors past. My brother introduced me to that and I like it. I’m trying to incorporate more of that into our celebration.

    I also steer clear of the gory crap in stores. The end of this month can’t come fast enough because while I can steer clear of the crap in the stores, I can’t avoid the highway signs advertising the haunted houses. It makes me sick.

  7. Oh so you’re my Alaska visitor. LOL! Hmm Halloween. It’s very interesting, because if you look at the history, it started out as a way for early Christians to honor martyrs. You were supposed to hold a memorial a year after someone was martyred, but with the amount of people being killed they made it a day. Then of course they mixed in the pagan element.

    We didn’t celebrate it growing up. I had been taught that it was Satanic. Now that I’m older, I feel that people use Halloween as a day to dress up and have a party. I’m not sure what I’ll do with my children. As for the gory costumes, well I find them hugely entertaining. Ok I thought the movie the Shining was boring. As far as keeping kids safe, most people in my area take their kids to the mall or to business.

  8. Blue–
    That interpretation really depends on your sources.

    There are those who will argue all of the “pagan elements” of any holidy have been around longer than Christianity, so the idea of Paganism taking over a holiday begun by Christianity… sounds pretty foreign.

  9. No, no, no you didn’t understand what I meant. The early Roman Catholic church incorporated many pagan feasts and celebration into Christian holidays in order to make the religion more palatable to the people they conquered. For example Christmas. From what I’ve read Christ was probably born during the month of September. Why celebrate it December 25? Because this date is close to the pagan celebration of Winter solstice which takes place on December 21. My understanding is that people celebrated Winter Solice with gifts and things as well. It was an end of year celebration much like Christmas. Christmas trees, holly, and mistletoe were symbols incorporated from the Druids or Celts if I remember correctly.

    Halloween is from All Hallows Eve. This was day before the celebration All Saints Day which is celebrated on November 1. Yes, the Catholic church incorporated various celebrations of the dead. I mean the whole point of All Saints Day was to celebrate those saints who had died. So the celebrations overlapped.

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