To Halloween or not to Halloween

Even though Thanksgiving is a holiday established from a tradition dating back to colonial America, and July 4th is the day we celebrate the declaration of our independence from Great Britain, I think I could make a case for Halloween being the most-celebrated holiday in the US.  Certainly it is looked forward to with much excitement and costume-planning by adults and children; even pets get dressed up.  Stores make a mint selling large amounts of candy as well as costumes.  People decorate their lawns and homes with elaborate, usually creepy, decorations; haunted houses and trails abound; costume parties are a given.

I don’t remember Halloween being all that special to me as a Jewish child growing up in Brooklyn, nor how young I was when I was allowed to dress up and trick or treat in my neighborhood.  I remember as an adolescent doing “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.”  The holidays that were most important to me were the Jewish ones, celebrating the miraculous intervention of God in the lives of my ancestors, reminding me that God was still a very present Being in my life, and just being really fun family times.

When two of my children were young, we allowed them to dress up and trick or treat in our neighborhood in Dayton, OH.  The costumes were usually made by the kids themselves and not very elaborate.  In those days, kids could still get homemade cookies or treats from the neighbors without fear of malicious damage, and we limited our kids on where they could go and how much candy they could eat.

When I became a Christian and started to look at the origins of Halloween, my views on celebrating this holiday changed. A friend of mine, who’d been involved in the occult before she became a Christian, was aware of the background of Halloween as a day celebrated by satanists, witches, and other occult groups, a holiday celebrating death and the macabre.  When my husband and I decided not to celebrate Halloween, we were in a very distinct minority.  Initially, to avoid the constant ringing of the doorbell, we’d leave the house early in the evening on the designated “Beggar’s Night” and return when it was over.  After a while, people realized we were not participating and just stopped coming by, so we just hung out at home as on any other night of the school year.

We have plenty of friends and family members who do celebrate Halloween – some of our own now-grown kids do – but we have never tried to preach to them or belittle them for their choice to do so.  When a child I know shows me a costume, I  admire it, but I still don’t take part in Halloween parties, Harvest parties, or any other celebration of this day.  I usually don’t express my opinion on this unless asked, but a recent article posted on FaceBook by a friend seemed to demand a response.   The Christian author offered three choices for Christians on Halloween: to avoid the holiday, to celebrate the holiday, and to redeem the holiday.  Somehow, those Christians who choose to avoid celebrating Halloween are often chastised – I’ve heard sermons preached about it – as if, by not engaging the culture in this area, we are not truly being ambassadors for Christ, not really being “in the world yet not of it.”  Kind of reminds me of when we home schooled our children, or had our home births; people would make offensively defensive remarks to us, as if by our own personal choices, we were condemning theirs, though that was never the case.  We would share our reasons, engage in discussion, and move on.

It’s been so long since I’ve done the research that I don’t remember the details of all the reasons not to observe the holiday of Halloween.  The article I mentioned gave some of the background – the Druids, the pagan worship, the involvement of the Catholic Church – and I won’t go into much of it.  You can always check it out on your own.  I just have several points I’d like to make.  Whether you agree with me or not, that is fine.  Just expressing my opinion (which is getting increasingly hard to do in this country)…

First, no matter how you try to dress up the holiday – pun intended – with Disney character costumes, Biblical people costumes, Reformation leader costumes, or just very cute, original, and well-made costumes, you cannot really get away from the fact that the basic thing about Halloween is its scare factor.  Halloween is all about being scared….because it is all about ghosts, witches, demons, and, to quote Yoda, “the Dark side.”  Whatever lightness and fun you may feel at a harvest party or when taking your kids trick or treating in your neighborhood is not the same lightness and fun that is exhibited in decorations, movies, and the general Halloween atmosphere: it is SCARY.  Personally, I don’t see the value in deliberately choosing to be scared, whether or not you think the scary things are real, but demons and witches ARE real, and they are not people-friendly; they serve a master whose goal is to corrupt and destroy people.  Thankfully, we serve a Master who is greater than theirs, and I don’t feel that I honor Him by celebrating His enemy’s holiday.

Second, I disagree with the opinion that you have to participate in the holiday in order to engage people in a dialogue about Christ.  I know people who choose to do this, and that may work for them, but it hasn’t for me.  I need to stand up for what I believe to be true and to be willing to politely and kindly explain my views to anyone who asks me.  “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” ( I Peter 3:15 ) To draw a parallel between the pagan animal sacrifices to their gods, and the rituals instigated to deter demons on All Hallows’ Eve, and the Jewish animal sacrifices ordained by and offered to Elohim is clearly to miss the point….. I would not participate in other pagan rituals, nor will I in this one, no matter how it has been sanitized. There is no equivalence between worshipping gods and worshipping God.

Years ago, when our kids were young and we were living in Dayton, OH, we knew another family who chose not to celebrate Halloween.  One year, though, they decided that they would have a Halloween party for the neighborhood kids, hoping to reach some of them for Christ.  No one came.  Finally, they called us and asked us if they could just come over and hang out with us. While we were together….noshing, chatting, playing games….they mentioned a neighbor who was really struggling, becoming conscious of her sinfulness but unable to move from bondage to freedom.  We ended up spending time in fervent prayer for her, and that night, she received the Lord as her Savior.  That was probably my most memorable Halloween, because, instead of trying to be part of something we could not condone, we engaged in spiritual battle against the forces of darkness and won a victory.  That was redemption – not of the holiday – but despite the holiday.

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Writing 101: Happy Pesach!

I’m not a picky eater anymore, but I still love the twice-yearly Passover Seder more than any other meal.  The Seder is an experience, not just a meal, celebrated for two consecutive nights in March or April by Jews all over the world.  It is both a remembrance of what God did for us as a people years ago when He freed us from slavery in Egypt and a celebration of what He continues to do for us up to the present.  My memories of childhood Seders are so rich and so entwined with who I am that it will be hard to consolidate them into one post.

My mother came from Austria and my father from Russia, both as children with their families.  Some of their siblings did well and others not so well; those who were successful lived in nice homes in Long Island.  We were on the lower economic end of their families during most of my childhood, and I grew up in a succession of apartments in Brooklyn.  Going to my aunt’s house for the Seder was also a treat because I got to spend time with my cousins whom I saw only at holidays and special occasions.

When I walked in the door, the smell of frying latkes enveloped me.  Crisp, greasy, hot – we would nosh on them, plain or with applesauce, while waiting for the Seder to start.  When everything was ready, we all sat at tables arranged in a T, with a short horizontal part at one end and a very long vertical piece going down.  The men sat up at the front, next the older boys, then the older girls, then the children and the women.  The table was always decorated with fresh yellow daffodils, and their sweet smell brought Spring into the room.  Small cut-glass bowls of salt water were placed along the table, along with plates of celery and carrot sticks.  Everyone had a goblet of water and a cup for the dark, sweet Manischewitz wine we had to drink at four different points during the recounting of the Passover story.  At the head of the table was the Seder plate, with various elements significant in telling the story, and at an empty seat was the large wine cup of Elijah.

Seder means “order,” and there is a definite structure to the progression of the Seder, a lot to go through before you get to the actual meal.  My father and uncles were experts at verbal Hebrew speed-reading, so things usually progressed fairly quickly.  The actual Seder meal came about two-thirds of the way through the Seder, so there was a good reason why the men chanted at such lightning speed. At different points there would be general participation, like when we all dipped 10 drops of wine from our fingers to represent the 10 plagues God visited on the Egyptians,  or tasted the horseradish root, the parsley, the charoses (a delicious mixture of apples, walnuts, and wine), and the matzo. The salt water on the table was for dipping: parsley, boiled potatoes, and boiled eggs.  I traded my yolks with my cousin for her egg whites.  There was lots of music – traditional songs, blessings, and the Four Questions chanted by the youngest child and answered by all the men.

Finally, it was time for the feast, and a feast it certainly was.  First there was gefilte fish with horseradish – I passed on that.  Then bowls of clear chicken soup with one or two matzo balls; my father fondly called them “sinkers.”  Meats – roasted chicken, beef brisket – and vegetables – carrot tzimmes and potato kugel – appeared next.  We ate until we were stuffed, and then went off to play until the adults finished their eating and conversation and it was time to resume the Seder service.  When we had finished the stories, the songs, and the last cups of wine, we had desserts, all made without traditional leavening.  There were sponge cakes light and fluffy because made with so many eggs, nuts, coconut macaroons, chocolates, pies.  After the desserts, when our eyes were heavy-lidded and our bodies lethargic, the last excitement of the evening roused us to pay close attention.

Part of the Seder involves hiding half of a matzo, called the Afikomen, in a napkin.  The Afikomen must be eaten at the very end of the Seder, the last morsel in our mouths.  The procedure was that one of the men would have the napkin on his knee, one or more of the kids would steal it and hide it, and then a committee of children would bring it forth and bargain with the men for a price to give it back.  Depending upon the condition of the Afikomen – it must be as close to a whole piece as possible – and the bargaining skills of the committee, we could end that evening with quite a bit of cash in our pockets.  After we prayed and ate the Afikomen, we always sang Hatikvah and God Bless America.

Our family has always been close-knit and the cousins kept up the Seder tradition each year for a long time after my aunts were unable to do it any longer.  We have had a few Seders at our home, done larger group Seders in our churches, and have been guests at others’ Seders.  All of them have been immensely enjoyable, yet none of them has quite captured for me the overall experience of the Seders of my childhood, when I was full of delight and anticipation, filled with good things to eat, and enveloped in an atmosphere of family, faith, and tradition.