Why Halloween? Why “this year?”
Over the years, our family made a point of “not” celebrating Halloween. Along with many other Christian families, we decided that we would not honor a festival that came out of non-Christian, Pagan origins. We opted for alternatives like Harvest festivals and Trunk or Treat. The kids especially enjoyed “Trunk or Treat” because they came home with several pounds of candy apiece!
Many know that Halloween is a festival brought to the U.S. from Europe, where it was observed as a festival of the dead. People donned costumes to disguise themselves in order to go unrecognized by spirits who roamed the earth. This came out of a belief that at summer’s end, the lines were blurred between the natural world and the underworld, loosing the spirits of the underworld to roam about the earth. In addition to disguising themselves with costumes, people also put out offerings of food and drink outside their doorways to appease the spirits and distract them from the residents inside the home.
We would be tempted to “ho hum” this Halloween history, but our years in China shook us out of any apathy that we may have entertained. In late summer, the Chinese observed a “Hungry Ghost” festival in which they protected themselves against the hungry spirits of the underworld who were loosed from the abyss for one short period each year. The Chinese did several things to placate these spirits. They set out food and wine as an offering. They burned candles and incense for their deceased ancestors, and they shut themselves up inside their homes to protect themselves from these “ghosts.” We were amazed to discover such parallels between the ancient practices of the West and the modern-day practices of the Orient.
This leads me to this year’s Halloween story. A few weeks ago there was a knock at the door. Stew answered the door, saw two ladies there, and listened to their "sales pitch." He then summoned me to the door, telling me "These ladies want to ask us something about Halloween. Take a listen, maybe there's some way we can reach out to the community." I don't even recall him saying this; I was too resentful of him passing off the ladies to ME to deal with. These young gals worked at a nearby preschool, and they wanted to take the children out on a costume parade through the neighborhood. Could they come by our house for “trick or treat?” The ladies stated that they would supply the candy ahead of time; all we needed to do was answer the door and hand out the candy. My instinct was to dismiss this out of hand. After all, we’re Christians. We’re missionaries. We are here to penetrate the darkness with the Light of Truth.
Curiously, as I visited with these ladies and asked more questions about the Halloween activity, I felt a different impression come over me on how I should respond to their invitation. I found myself answering, “Why, yes, I think we would like to participate.” Did I really say that? Not only was I surprised at my answer, but the two ladies were floored as well. “You will? Do you really mean it?” Evidently they hadn’t had much luck getting neighboring families to buy in. I said that yes, I meant it, and I wanted to help them make their children’s activity a success. They walked away from the foreigners’ house thrilled at the prospect of bringing their students by our house, located right on the street where their parade was taking place.
So, why did I say yes? Why did I break the (mostly Evangelical) Halloween taboo when we’re here as missionaries? What do you think? Was this the right thing to do?
On one hand, we could have stood our evangelical ground…declined the invitation by stating that it violated our Christian principles. This declaration would have been acceptable in the U.S., where the general public understands and accepts people’s different points of view.
But what message would this send to the Japanese, who have no Christian background? Would they go away from their encounter with us, thinking “Oh, those Christians uphold such high principles…I wonder how I can become one?” Or would they think, “Gosh, Christians are peculiar. They don’t want to participate in the community. They don’t want to get to know us because their beliefs get in the way.”
In the end, I think it was the Holy Spirit who prompted me to change my mind. I agreed to participate because…because this isn’t about me. It isn’t about me proving my spirituality through a Halloween boycott. It’s about making relationships in a cautious, closed society that is difficult to penetrate. We have struggled to meet Japanese locals in general, and our neighbors in particular. They seem to keep themselves perpetually busy, and they remain isolated behind fortress walls – for example, shut in their homes, or tuned out while dozing on the train, or shut out from the rest of the world with the help of ear buds and an I-phone.
The trick-or-treating children came by our house this afternoon. Little girls and their teachers came dressed in Disney princess costumes. The boys came dressed as Spiderman, Captain America, and Japanese anime characters. I gladly handed out candy to each of the children and complimented them on their costumes. We all posed for photos outside of the house. As they prepared to leave, a lady came up to hand me her business card. She was the CEO and principal of the children’s preschool and she thanked me for caring about the children enough to participate in a day of fun for them.
I pray that this represents a small, but solid beginning in establishing relationships between us and the community where God has planted us. I’m already thinking ahead to a Christmas party at our house, showing the children our Christmas tree and our Nativity set, giving their bilingual teachers an opportunity to hear and share the true story of Christmas.