Saturday, October 31, 2009

One last Halloween post

Because there's been a lot of negative reaction to what I wrote about Sally Thomas' First Things piece, I wanted to share something I wrote (in the context of sharing thoughts with another person) that gave a more thorough analysis of the piece itself, and why I found it troubling.

Essentially, Sally Thomas isn't saying what I say, which is: trick-or-treating is fine; having an All Saints' Day party is fine; do what works best for your family. Instead, she's saying, if you really read the whole piece, that those who "skip" the trick-or-treat part are missing something key and crucial about the holy day itself. She's saying that by skipping the "first day of Hallowmas" one's children aren't being given the opportunity to live out the whole drama of eternal life.

So here's a walk through the whole piece, where I mention the things I found troubling about it:

1. In the transition from the first to the second paragraph, Sally assumes that those who dislike the secular Halloween celebration are disturbed by the narrative she outlines in her first paragraph, which is that Halloween is like a medieval mystery play, and that stepping outside one’s front door dressed as someone other than oneself is a reminder of the thin membrane between the material world and the spiritual world. Here, she lumps together both those who think Halloween is secular with those who think that Halloween is evil, and dismisses both as being unable to see the richer narrative she has crafted in her outlook on the holiday. The problem is that that richer narrative, while poetic, is personal. Truth is: dressing in a costume and going out to get candy is a purely secular activity. It’s not part of a richer narrative unless you choose to interpret it that way--there’s nothing historically religious, nothing about putting on a costume and venturing forth for free Snickers that says, “I believe in the world of the spirit, and I believe it is closer to our material reality than we like to think.” If there were such an implied meaning, non-religious parents (to say nothing of Richard Dawkins) would be screaming up a storm every Oct. 31.

2. In the third and fourth paragraphs Sally addresses the moving of the feast, and makes the assumption, once again, that those Christians who fear Halloween are squeamish about Halloween’s emphasis on darkness. But, again, darkness has nothing to do with the feast of All Saints’ Day, and not really much to do with the feast of All Souls’ either, since the souls in Purgatory have the great comfort of knowing they will soon be in the Presence of the Beatific Vision for all eternity. Halloween is not the ancient festival of Carnivale, which is described in Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” as a masquerade in which, on the night before Ash Wednesday, carriages hung with lights and carrying disguised nobility suddenly extinguished all of their lanterns and ceased all gaiety (at least, publicly, since many of the occupants went not decorously home, but to dissolute parties, breaking the Ash Wednesday fast as soon as it began). There is nothing even remotely “dark” about All Saints’ Day, and we are not in a period of fast before the feast under the present law, so what “darkness” are the Christians who allegedly fear Halloween supposed to be afraid of, exactly?

3. In the fifth paragraph we learn that children don’t have to dress as saints to “redeem” Halloween. Agreed--but nobody said letting children dress as saints was an attempt to “redeem” anything. If Halloween were a wicked pagan festival we might have to redeem it--but it’s an innocuous secular one as it presently exists, and it doesn’t really tempt anyone to sins other than gluttony (which any serious Christian can avoid).

4. The sixth paragraph is...a nice way of creating a semi-spiritual narrative about a relatively recent, thoroughly American tradition. I’m sorry, but if “being someone else” for a night were an important part of the All Saints’ Day festivities, one would expect it to have been a regular feature for a couple of centuries at the least. Children have been trick-or-treating in America for less than a century, and have only been wearing costumes since the 1930s or 1940s. Now, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to create some spiritual meaning in a secular holiday tradition; it’s similar to what those of us who are having All Saints’ Day parties are trying to do. But the implication that this is somehow an intrinsic part of the meaning of the trick-or-treat custom, and that those who don’t trick-or-treat are missing out on this spiritual imagery, is simply not the case. This motif is continued in the seventh paragraph, where the claim is made that being first a secular figure confronting darkness and then a saint in light is the point of doing both trick-or-treating and an All Saints’ Party--but I have two small objections: one, are we ever really supposed to be secular (worldly) creatures? and two, are we confronting the dark--or merely filling a candy bag with goodies?

5. The concluding paragraph adds in All Souls’ Day, which of course for some reason is costume-less; it is summed up with Sally’s contention that by celebrating the three different days in this particular way the children have lived out their own eternal lives (though, presumably, the order is wrong, as we don’t become saints first and then enter Purgatory). Obviously, those other Christians who are disturbed by the narrative about the membrane-thin separation between the material and spiritual world, who are squeamish about the darkness of Halloween, who falsely try to “redeem” Halloween, and who lack the courage to take up their costumes and venture forth beside parents with bright flashlights and courageously confront the darkness by traveling down well-lighted sidewalks and by getting a lot of free candy have *not* managed to live out their eternal lives in a mysterious three-fold mystery pageant.

I’m not trying to be mean, here; I’m sure Sally is a lovely person who doesn’t intend to insult those people who have decided for whatever reason that trick-or-treating doesn’t work for them. But she IS saying that the trick-or-treat part is *spiritually* significant, such that those kids who don’t don a Batman or fairy princess outfit and go out for the free goodies are somehow missing one-third of this great spiritual mystery, as if someone decided that their family was fine with Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but found Holy Thursday too dark and scary for the children (the Passion reading, you know, and the darkness and silence at the end of the Mass).

And that’s what drives me crazy. Because the trick-or-treat thing is a modern American consumer-driven secular celebration of the vigil of an actual holiday--not the first religious part of a three-fold spiritual drama. We can’t change the reality of the secular Halloween by creating a spiritual narrative for it, however praiseworthy the impulse to do so might be.


The above is what I wrote earlier; I just want to add one more thing, for the umpteen-millionth time:

I do not think trick-or-treating is evil.

I don't think it's wicked, scary, unpleasant, demonic, un-Christian, wrong, or bad.

But I also don't think it's mandatory, obligatory, the immersion in the first act of an ancient three-act Christian mystery play, a spiritual opportunity for one's children to conquer their fear of the dark, of strangers, and of the kid on the same sidewalk dressed in a Scream costume, or in any other way a moral imperative for Christian parents.

And I don't think having an All Saints' Day party instead is virtuous, noble, saintly, wise, right, or inherently good. I think it's a nice way to celebrate All Hallows' Eve, and especially so with three young ladies who already told me that they're much too old to trick-or-treat (I think girls outgrow this kind of thing rather early, and tall girls especially so).

And what I really wish is that everybody would stop assuming some huge narrative behind each family's decision how to celebrate, or not celebrate, All Hallows' Eve. Because if there's one thing we're doing that's very contrary to the spirit of our saintly friends in Heaven, it's judging each other so harshly for the crime of not doing everything exactly alike.


Lindsay said...

"Essentially, Sally Thomas isn't saying what I say"

Well, the point of her piece was to speak about why she chooses trick or treating (though, I think the emphasis was more on dressing up rather than trick or treating specifically), but there isn't anything in the piece that directly implies she believes anything other than "do what works best for your family, maybe you'd be interested in knowing why THIS works best for ours." So, why insist on reading between the lines in a negative way rather than just assuming she isn't judging anyone?

"she IS saying that the trick-or-treat part is *spiritually* significant, such that those kids who don’t don a Batman or fairy princess outfit and go out for the free goodies are somehow missing one-third of this great spiritual mystery"

That is just your opinion, it isn't fact. She never actually said that, and I and many others have read this article without getting this out of it.

For the record, I have been trick or treating once and had a costume for Halloween only a handful of times in my life, this is the first year my kids are doing the saint's party thing, and I'm not emotionally attached to any of it. I read her article, enjoyed it, and I still have no intention of taking my kids trick or treating tonight, and I feel zero guilt about it. I really don't think Sally would think I'm depriving my kids.

"And what I really wish is that everybody would stop assuming some huge narrative behind each family's decision how to celebrate, or not celebrate, All Hallows' Eve."

Where did she assume anything about anyone else? It seemed she was addressing actual questions and comments others have presented to her personally from those who question their practice. Again, I feel you are making your own assumptions by reading more into the article than necessary. You seem to assume that she didn't mean to insult, so why assume she intends the negative of the postive points she made?

Imo, it would be tedious to read the piece if, every time she described the meaning she and her family find in something and the appeal it has for them she had to turn around and say, "but I don't mean that those who don't choose this are depriving their children..."

I don't think she raises the spiritual meaning as something inherent in the activities but rather as a means of inspiring us to be mindful of what they could mean and have meant in various contexts. Giftgiving at Christmas is a relatively modern practice, and it can be crass commercialism or it can be spiritually significant if we choose to make it that way. What is wrong with encouraging people to choose the spiritual mindset?

If you read in the comments on First Things, Sally goes on to say that dressing up for the saints celebration is a bigger deal for them than Halloween, so why assume she is making a blanket statement about all people who choose to dress as saints. *Some* people do seem to feel the need to redeem Halloween, and maybe she wasn't talking to those who know Halloween isn't evil but to those who believe it is.

Red Cardigan said...

Lindsay, I don't think I'm reading between the lines. In fact, all of the below are lines directly from the piece:

"This narrative disturbs a lot of people..."

"To some of those who worry about it, Halloween is either a thoroughly secular or a thoroughly pagan observance, to be avoided by serious Christians."

"Halloween’s emphasis on darkness makes many Christians squeamish,"

"But the cumulative iconography of being, first, a secular character confronting darkness, and then a saint in light, is imaginatively powerful and valuable."

"In three days they have enacted the story of their own eternal’s a drama I would not have them miss."

It's the two-fold assumption, one, that Christians who don't trick-or-treat are disturbed, squeamish, afraid of darkness, etc., and that Christians who don't trick-or-treat are missing out on something imaginatively powerful and valuable, on the playing out of their own eternal lives, and on a three-part drama called Hallowmas, that I find troubling.

All my kids are missing out on tonight is a 70 year old commercial celebration involving candy. There will be candy at the party, too, so it's not like they're even missing that. I would never pretend that people who don't do an All Saints' party are missing out on something spiritually valuable for their children, myself--it's just a party, for heaven's sake.

Why do we have to invest so much self-affirmation and other-guilt in our choice of how to celebrate a silly holiday?

Charlotte (of Cheeky Pink Girl) below said we all just need to drop this. She's right--and I don't intend to say any more about it.