Many of our readers are familiar with Liz BR from her fabulous “The Myth of Modesty” series Persephone ran a few months ago. She offered to contribute to my Halloween series as someone who wasn’t allowed to celebrate the holiday when she was growing up and I knew I wanted to include her perspective. – Slay
When I was a kid, I was not allowed to celebrate Halloween.
I was 18 years old before I carved a pumpkin for the first time, and even then it felt a little bit like rebellion. When my mom, who runs a small hospital gift shop, stocks Halloween decor, I ask myself, “Is this really the same person who made us change the channel whenever a children’s show did a Halloween-themed episode?” When it’s time to pick out my two-year-old daughter’s costume (this year, she’s going as a butterfly named Benji), I am reminded that such an activity was strictly forbidden when I was her age.
There are three ways to address the forbiddance of Halloween in my childhood. I can look at it from a scholarly perspective, I can approach it with false melancholic regret, or I can fully embrace it. The problem: none of those options are satisfactory.
The scholarly approach requires me to look at the moral and religious reasons that many evangelical churches discourage or even prohibit the celebration of Halloween among their congregants. The movement to ban Halloween, which launched a thousand “Harvest Festivals,” was probably at its height when I was a child in the 1980s. Much of it traces back to evangelist Mike Warnke, who wrote extensively of his past as a “high priest of Satanism.” In the 1970s and ’80s, Warnke terrified parents with his stories connecting Satan worship and “the Devil’s holiday.” It wasn’t until the ’90s that his memoir Satan Seller was completely debunked by Cornerstone magazine, a periodical published by a bunch of Christian hippies called the “Jesus People.” But by then, Warnke’s crusade against Halloween had taken root. He had appeared on Oprah and Larry King, and to most evangelicals, he represented the very specific dangers of celebrating Halloween.
By the time Warnke lost his credibility, churches were no longer putting haunted houses or sending their kids out to trick-or-treat in neighborhoods. There are still echoes of the anti-Halloween movement online and in some churches that continue to mark the holiday as satanic. The best example I’ve seen of literature that explains the religious beliefs of my church from when I was a kid is this introduction to the history of Halloween from Chick Tracts. It says the holiday traces back to Celtic priests in the earliest post-Christ centuries. These Druids celebrated their new year on November 1 and, according to the Chick article and everything I was told in Sunday School, celebrated the night before by making human sacrifices and going door to door to dressed as demons to demand feasts and gifts. Celebrating Halloween means celebrating this darkness. My own church saw it not just as a holiday with a frightening past, but as a dangerous glorification of fear, darkness, and spiritual oppression. From that perspective, how could anyone allow their children to participate?
But what about the fact that Halloween as it is celebrated today has so little in common with those roots, even if they are accurate? I can paint a pretty pathetic picture of the emotional fallout of banning Halloween if I want to. Imagine the scene: I am eight years old. I sit in the school library with my little sister and two other friends whose families attend our church. For the Halloween parade, all of the children dress up in their costumes and dance around the school in a sort of conga-line, led by our typically-dour principal. The library is open concept in the center of the school, so the four of us sit and watch as our friends laugh and skip down the hallway. I love all matters of dressing up, so I feel an intense pang of jealousy as I watch them. My friend Greg and I have been making our way to this library together every October since the first grade. We know the routine. How the librarian in charge of supervising us must pity us as we draw faces on notebook paper and turn them into “masks” that we press against our faces in what feels a lot like rule-breaking.
Here’s the thing: I don’t actually feel sad when I bring up those memories. Like any writer who remembers the emotional chaos that is childhood, I can get sad about a lot of little moments in my past. The memory of sitting in the school library while my classmates have fun without me, though? I don’t feel even the slightest twinge of negative emotion. It’s probably because some of the best memories of my childhood are associated with the Hallelujah Party, our yearly “Halloween alternative.”
The Hallelujah Party was the biggest night of the year to those of us in Children’s Church. We got to dress up as Bible characters and try to “Stump the Pastor.” We got huge bags of candy that the church had stockpiled in the weeks leading up to the event – I always scored far more than my trick-or-treating friends. Our Sunday School classrooms were transformed into magical spaces where we could decorate cookies with endless piles of sugar icing or color on the paper-covered walls with highlighters that shone under blacklights. One year, the entire church basement was transformed into a whale to re-tell the story of Jonah, and it was almost identical to a child’s haunted house: dark rooms as the belly of the whale, water sprayed on us to make us feel like we were getting drenched with whale saliva, our hands reached into cooked spaghetti and peeled grapes to represent what else might have been floating around with Jonah. There was a cardboard box maze that had to be crawled through in order to escape, unscathed, from the monster. It. Was. Awesome.
I didn’t suffer from a lack of great costumes, either. One year, Mom dyed my hair gray and bought me a fake beard. I was Boaz while my best friend was his wife, Ruth. Another year, I wore the same beard and pulled behind me a wagon of stuffed animals – I was Noah. The best costume I ever wore was a one-sleeved satin dress that Mom sewed for me. My friends and I went as Egyptian princesses who rescued baby Moses from the river. While the other girls at church went repeatedly as Queen Esther, I scoured the Bible for interesting characters, male or female, to portray. By far the most irreverent costume I donned was that of Jezebel. I put on a fancy dress and jewelry and my friends accompanied me as dogs – yes, my costume at a party that was supposed to glorify God instead of the devil was of a woman whose body was eventually eaten by dogs.
The Hallelujah Party was the definitive church experience of my youth. Paying attention all year in Sunday School to find the perfect Bible character undoubtedly solidified those stories in my mind. Running wild through the church halls with my friends, covering those papered walls with highlighters and markers, stuffing myself with overloaded sugar cookies, sorting and trading my candy stash with my siblings at the kitchen table – the memories are all associated with sheer joy.
Yet, I can’t fully accept those memories as perfect because they are predicated upon a religious belief that I think is, well, fairly ridiculous. (If you want to abandon a religion based on its pagan history, you might want to look at the roots of most of our Christmas traditions.) I can’t create the same experiences for my daughter, no matter how hard I try, because they were so subconsciously linked to the fact that we all knew that this party made us different from our friends. We knew and understood that this world – the world of the Hallelujah Party and Bible character costumes and way more candy than any of our classmates got – was just ours. I don’t want to create a world for my daughter where she feels a distinct separation between the church and the world. I want her to know that there is no real difference between the sacred and the secular things in life – that being a Christian, if she chooses to be one, is not dependent upon barricading oneself off from the rest of the world and refusing to walk in the Halloween parade.
These days, years after my family transitioned from fundamentalist Christianity to a pretty left-wing, progressive version of the Christian faith, we all celebrate Halloween. We are the people that we pitied when our church told us that donning a costume and trick-or-treating was celebrating the devil. It doesn’t feel that bad over on this side, but I’ll tell you what. It does leave me with an awfully weird feeling every Halloween.