In one week, children will be lining up at doorsteps yelling “trick or treat” dressed as ghouls, witches, pumpkins and ghosts. Houses will be open to shower anyone from toddlers to preteens with crunchy caramels, succulent chocolates and those fake cigarettes I always thought tasted exactly like chalk. Meanwhile, some more conservative and evangelical churches will be hosting “fall parties” — a fun, family-friendly alternative to what they believe to be “devilish worship.” Some Americans from the Bible belt will even be setting up “hell houses” — haunted sheds to show children the horrifying consequences of sin.
But how exactly is a Christian parent to go about this holiday? Should we be banning our children entirely from these “evil acts” or is trick-or-treating nothing more than just a fun way to gather candy once a year? Is it possibly even an opportunity for outreach and evangelism? Although the choice ultimately belongs to you and your family or church community, let me briefly highlight some of the advantages and disadvantages for participating in this festivity.
Option 1: Ban Halloween altogether
I will admit to a certain level of discomfort this year when I was assigned to help plan and organize the annual Halloween party at L’Arche. L’Arche is a Christian intentional community. We have weekly chapels, daily prayers and something akin to spiritual direction, which we call accompaniment. I have been in L’Arche now for more than three years and consider it to be my current full-time vocational ministry. Yet, for some reason, every L’Arche community I have been involved in still considers Halloween a pivotal moment for sharing life together. At first, this did not bother me so much. I have seen the true looks of joy on core members’* faces when they dress up and take part in various activities like bobbing for apples or pulling along a doughnut on a string. Yet, this past year, I’ve been doing quite a bit of soul-searching.
It all began with my harmless theological venture into reading Harry Potter. You see, I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian family, so I wasn’t allowed to read books about witchcraft and wizardry. Since then I have heard various opinions on the matter from Christian families completely banning these books to encouraging their kids to read them for the sake of literary pursuits. Since I am not one to form an opinion without research, I decided to dissect these books for myself. Not only did I read all seven books (the eighth wasn’t out yet), but I also read theological treatises on both sides of the debate, spoke with a number of parents and Christian educators, and eventually came to the conclusion that I would allow my own children to read these books “with reservations.”
Meanwhile, although I did thoroughly enjoy the Potter series and believe J.K. Rowling to be a literary genius, I began understanding more about the impact that dark magic can have on young, impressionable minds. What for me might have seemed like harmless fun due to my Christian maturity, might cause a younger person to stumble and become confused between what is real and what is imaginary. Furthermore, it is a known fact that children often do experience spiritual warfare at a higher level than many adults do, yet lack the ability or the tools they need to help combat the devil. I am not saying that Harry Potter or Halloween in and of themselves are evil incarnate, because I do not believe that is the case. However, I will state that these moments can easily become opportunities and gateways for Satan to lead others astray if we are not on guard and not keeping a watchful eye out for those entrusted into our care.
This post will not be going so much into the history of Halloween itself nor will it be a theological tirade stating all the Biblical verses opposed to sorcery, witchcraft and the occult. I am assuming my readers know that all of the times magic is mentioned in Scripture, it is always done with negative connotations and not positive ones.
So, what do we do about this? Well, I did go ahead and help plan the event, although I was feeling uneasy the entire time. I am not sure I had much of a choice in that matter as it was expected of me, though I suppose I could have gotten off on religious grounds. In a way, I am still looking forward to how the event will unfold, though I am rather unsettled about it. Being a Christian means being “not conforming to the pattern of the world” (Rom. 12:2). That can be incredibly challenging. Your children might want to go out trick-or-treating, but is that really what is best for them and their spiritual state?
Personally, I believe that having a church gathering perhaps not on Halloween itself, but around that time, with fun, safe games and activities, and perhaps even costumes (not of the overtly sexual or gruesome kind) might actually be a better option. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in a day of chocolates and candy, but there are better ways to do it than dressing as a diva, skanky stripper or vampire. You can still engage in many of your favorite games, but it will be in a controlled environment where you know exactly what is going into your children’s minds and can more easily monitor the spiritual effects of what they will be exposed to.
Option 2: Use Halloween as an outreach
If you are not such a fan of keeping the more strict and conservative viewpoint on Halloween, another option would be to use Halloween as an evangelistic tool. This would speak more for those coming to your doorstep than those going out, but there are a number of evangelical tracts that explain the gospel message in a fun, friendly way to children at your doorstep. They often use colorful pictures and discuss the need for salvation. One in particular even talks about how God cleans out our insides in much the same way as we gut out a pumpkin when we are making a jack-o-lantern. On the back, you can even include information for your church or your own phone number if the person wants more information. Although we have no guarantee who will read these tracts nor do we know exactly what will come out of it, at least you can be reassured that at a minimum a seed was planted.
If you are a Christian parent taking your child out this Halloween, instead of completely discouraging you from your plans, let me just make a request: Talk to your child before going out — not just about trick-or-treating manners, but if they are old enough to understand, about the origins of Halloween. Don’t do it in a scary way, but prepare them for what will await. You may even find it appropriate to pray with your child ahead of time. Remember, while your kids are still young, you are the one who is setting the tone and pace for their spiritual journey. It’s important for them not to fear the darkness, but it is also vital to expose them to the light.
Option 3: Halloween as social justice
There are many other considerations beyond the whole black magic debate that surround Halloween. One of them is the issue of fair trade and the exploitation of child workers in the chocolate industry. Although no one is perfect and most of us still eat cheap chocolates, it is something to think about. Whether you are having an in-house fall festival at your church or you are giving out candy to trick-or-treaters, think about whether there may be better alternatives. I’m not saying go and buy a whole bunch of full-sized Fair Trade-certified chocolate bars if you really can’t afford that, but there may be other options. Perhaps you can consider small mini-bars which are often no more than 25 cents a piece, or you could give out small comic books, dimes or nickels, or non-chocolate alternatives that don’t have as much baggage or history. If you’re planning an event, it might also be nice to think about whether anyone coming might have a food allergy and be able to provide something for them.
Regardless of where you stand on Halloween, I hope this post will give you a few things to consider. If you are staying in, don’t be a grouch to those going out — pray for safety on the roads. If you are going out, be kind and courteous and give a great big thank-you to all those who are showering you with goodies. And if you are undecided, take a few moments to ponder and pray, asking God what his will is for you during this season. In all things, remember to be an ambassador for him whether trick-or-treating, carving a pumpkin or planning a fall fair.
*Core Members: A term L’Arche uses to describe individuals who live in our communities who have a developmental disabilities
Deborah-Ruth Ferber studied religious education at Tyndale University College in Toronto, and peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. This post first appeared at Zwiebach and Peace, her personal blog.