Earlier this week, I got a phone call from my sister. We live three hours apart, and with eight young children between us, phone conversations are tricky and limited. Even with a 3 day old infant, though, my sister sounds chipper as she reflected on this summer-to-fall transition we find ourselves in.
“Oh Quinn” (my decades-old nickname of dubious origin), “I love fall. It just reminds me so much of you!”
I gently chuckle, and our conversation trails elsewhere. Later, I reflect on her comment, and try to remember what makes my sister associate Autumn with me. I do appreciate Fall, but the years have washed away the specific “whys” of what used to be my seasonal obsession. These days, Fall just represents the chaos of back-to-school preparations, the onset of school-shared viruses, and the foreshadowing of holiday stress. Yes, a sugar-laden pumpkin-spice latte might take the edge off, but it’s a skeptical antidote at best.
All that to say, my sister’s words prompted me to ask myself, “When did I ever like Autumn?”
Later that same day, a Halloween-themed advertisement from JoAnn Fabrics arrived in the mail, and my mind was suddenly flooded with years of childhood memories stacked as high and voluminous as a pile of raked oak leaves. Now I remember why I used to love fall: it was because of Halloween. You see, I used to love Halloween. As a kid, my excitement for it began as early as late August, when the webs of garden spiders started appearing on every tree branch and spoke of our wrought-iron front porch. Their amber-and-black speckled bodies clung to their quivering webs, and I took pleasure in flicking them from the center of their woven thrones. Despite my borderline arachnophobia, their presence served as a physical reminder of the upcoming Halloween season, and I’d excitedly start planning for Halloween. When I was ten, I even tried to start a “scarecrow-making” business with a friend. We got as far as constructing some newspaper-stuffed prototypes, and then… we got embarrassed and stopped.
It would be easy to look back and harbor a sense of loss. Fall used to make me so happy! Surely as a parent, I’d rather my kids embrace the seasons with a sense of creativity and anticipation, instead of the stress and grumbling I seem to have traded it in for. Even as an Orthodox parent, there might be a temptation to shrug my shoulders and let the kids celebrate Halloween out of nostalgia. The Halloween hoopla can be tough to resist. However, since I no longer celebrate the holiday, it’s helpful for me to reflect on what led me to where I stand today.
I think a lot of kids go through a phase where they are particularly fascinated with the supernatural. Or, maybe that was just me. Along with my love for Halloween, I devoured the books of R.L. Stine (Goosebumps and the Fear Street series), ghost stories, and episodes of Unsolved Mysteries on cable television. Furthermore, my family lived in an old house that was built in 1895 that I was convinced was haunted. These were our pre-Orthodox days, so our house had never been blessed. Perhaps it was “haunted,” or maybe it was just my overactive imagination; either way, I did have a few unsettling, unexplained experiences. I was aware of the realness of the unseen, though I never was able to get a clear answer as to where God fit into it all. If I believed in ghosts, then did God “invent” them, and where did they fit into God’s plan? Why would a good and loving God create them?
As Protestants, my parents were cautious in their treatment of Halloween. While they did not prohibit us from celebrating it, we were not allowed to dress up as or decorate the house with witches or demons. Jack-o-lanterns had to have happy–not scary–faces. This seemed reasonable to me; I never was interested in the gore/ horror/ overtly occult-ish aspects of the holiday. Rather, I liked the coziness of Fall, and the creativity and social aspects that Halloween sparked. I loved the glow of candles against the early darkness of an autumn evening. There was something communal about trick-or-treating; approaching the homes of our neighbors and getting a closer look at who they were, and what their home might be like. It’s ironic how the one “night of fright” is the only night where it’s okay to approach the homes of neighbors we otherwise are too busy or too afraid to visit. There is something to be said for spending time with friends, walking in big groups, leaves crunching beneath our feet, and seeking out the inviting grin of a glowing pumpkin, from a welcoming doorstep. Oh yes, and the candy; of course! How could I forget?
Today, though, I am amazed at what Halloween has become. It seems more popular than ever. In my fair city, entire warehouse-sized Halloween specialty stores pop up all over the suburbs, selling paraphenelia as early as August. It certainly doesn’t seem like just an “innocent kid’s holiday” anymore. For adults, it serves as an excuse to get dressed up and throw elaborate parties. Maybe adults are trying to recapture the fun of their youth? If I were to give the benefit of the doubt, I think people are drawn to Halloween because they lack a sense of the “hallowed” in their life, even if it is the wrong kind altogether. It’s an excuse to light candles in a dark world. I think people are hungry for hospitality in a culture that is otherwise completely void of philoxenia. It’s a tradition we Americans seem to like a lot, in a society that is increasingly non-traditional.
Orthodoxy did not exactly put my love for Halloween to a screeching halt, but it did quickly raise my awareness of the reality of the spiritual world. The first Orthodox book I ever read was Youth of the Apocalypse (St. Hermans Press), and even as a reluctant fourteen-year-old, the book started my journey into Orthodoxy with a terrifying jolt of reality, the reality of unseen spiritual warfare, and the very real existence of demons and evil. Fortunately, I became more sensitive to this reality as time passed, and I was really getting too old for trick-or-treating anyway. The more I learned about the Orthodox Faith, the less interested I became in Halloween. It was a gradual, year-by-year transition.
There are a lot of differing opinions regarding Halloween within Christian and even Orthodox Christian circles. I’ve seen some heated online discussions, where both sides were less than considerate and kind. My intention in writing this is not to spark debate or opposition, but to simply share my own experience. The Orthodox Church has supplied me with the true understanding of death (which Christ conquered in His Resurrection), of hell (whose gates have been broken by our Resurrected Lord), of demons and the many disfigured faces of sin. On a side note, before I was chrismated, I attended just one funeral. It was a funeral where the deceased had been cremated and was not visible during the memorial service. Since becoming Orthodox over a decade ago, I have been to over half a dozen Orthodox funerals where the body of the newly deceased is not only present, but revered with up-close, tear-stained good-byes and kisses. Death went from being trivialized, removed, and creepy, to being real, sobering, and filled with prayerful hope of Eternity.
Within the Orthodox Church, there is no lack of tradition. We have a church calendar filled with beautiful feast days and many sacred periods of fasting. We are surrounded by that which is truly significant, meaningful, and holy, and treat it with reverence. The warm glow of vigil lamps and beeswax candles illuminates our worship. We process in large groups for various occasions, bearing candles and chanting, walking around our church buildings, through neighborhoods, parking lots, and on Theophany, it brings us together to the water’s edge. We open our homes in philoxenia, for house blessings, for the friend and for the stranger. We have the sweet sacrament of Holy Communion, approaching the Royal Doors and receiving our Lord’s holy Body and precious Blood. When you stop and examine the bountiful richness of our Faith in orthopraxis, you will find nothing lacking. God has given all of this to us, so that we might draw closer and closer to Him.
I hope that your Fall is filled with beauty, creativity, and time with family and friends. I will try my best to enjoy the season and recapture some of that child-like excitement for that which is good and beautiful. We can rejoice in the amber hues of all that surrounds us, the changing leaves, the golden flicker of candles, the inviting faces of our beautiful icons. Maybe you will spend October 31st in vigilant prayer, or at church with friends, or even welcoming those who knock at your door with sincere love and hospitality, seeing it as an opportunity to share about God’s love. May we eschew the gore and fright of the season and trade it in for something far better. May we grow closer to our Risen Christ, so that we may brightly bear His Light in a very dark world.
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