Halloween, a holy time we explore our humanity

This is an adaption of a piece I wrote on Jesus, Glue and Glitter. Read the original piece with ideas for faith communities on ways to celebrate Halloween here.

My mother on the left with my youngest brother, me pictured in the middle, and my cousin and eldest brother on the right

My spouse and I both grew up in churches that didn’t celebrate Halloween, however I was lucky enough to have a mom who adored all things costumed and candy-coated.

While we were discouraged at church from reading books like Harry Potter my mom supported my love of all things fairytale and folklore. She would buy me books on dragons and witches, the fae and ancient mythologies. She fuelled my present day love of Halloween. A love I’ve passed on to my spouse and kid.

But Halloween, and All Soul’s Day, has a deeper meaning for me now. My mother passed away when I was 19, early in November. All Souls Day is one of the days of the year I remember her. Her light, her smile, her creativity and warmth.

In 2020 I was delighted to see November 1st landed on a Sunday. In a year when we were not able to gather for funeral and memorial services, it felt important to take a day to remember the loved ones who had died. Grief is hard enough when everything is going “right”, but in the middle of a global pandemic, without the usual rituals we use to grieve, it has been especially hard on folks.

Halloween, and All Soul’s Day, offer us an annual opportunity to engage our families in the power of story, the truths fairytales and folklore offer us, in all things dark and mysteries, and in the mystery of death. Halloween is one of my favourite times of year, not just because of the costumes and candy but because it is a holy time when we explore our deepest desires and fears. It is a time we can remember those we’ve lost.

My heritage is Irish and so I am always interested in Celtic festivals and history. Samhain is part of the origins of modern-day Halloween, a time when “the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes, and those who had died during the year were believed to journey to the otherworld. People set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts thought to be present.” (“Halloween”, from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica)

During Halloween we are invite to play and to wonder, to encounter the dark and delve into its mystery. We get to dress up as our fantasies and play at the things we fear most in the dark. This is a holy time of ghosts and goblins, fairies and witches. It is a time when our whole community plays together, giving ourselves permissions to be silly because we’re ‘doing it for the kids’.

My mom loved Halloween, she made us fabulous costumes and let us watch Halloween movies. She focused on the fun and fantasy instead of the gore, encouraging us to use our creativity and imaginations. On All Soul’s Day I honour her memory, but I live it out when I make a Halloween costume or decorate my house. It is by sharing my love of Halloween that I most reflect her. For me, Halloween is doubly whole, not just as I explore my humanity but as I explore who my mother was to me.

With that I’ll wish you a Happy Halloween–have fun, stay safe, and enjoy.

Try practicing “grumpy gratitude” this Thanksgiving

This article first appeared in the Marathon Mercury, October 2021.

Recently, with Thanksgiving getting closer on the calendar, I have had a line from a song stuck in my head. “Give thanks with a grateful heart; give thanks to the Holy One”. This is a worship song heard often in church when I was a child. I didn’t question the words when I was younger but this year I have been wondering about this “grateful heart” I keep singing about.

You see, in our North American wellness culture—something promoted by companies selling us ointments, activewear and books, and the easy-to-digest proverbs on sites like Instagram—I worry we are conflating gratitude and happiness. This “grateful” heart becomes a synonym for a “happy” heart. But, you know what? I don’t always feel happy. Even with restrictions lifting in July I think we’ve all found the transition to the new school year challenging. Certainly facilities are opening up but with vaccine hesitancy still strong, and confusing messages from health authorities, we are not all feeling that bubbly gratitude social media influencers are peddling.

So, does my lack of “happy feelings” mean that I’m not grateful? Perhaps, friends, this is the Thanksgiving for what I call “grumpy gratitude”.

Gratitude, at its core, is a kind of awareness. in my house, when we say grace at dinner my spouse and I are trying to instil in our kid that this food comes from somewhere, that we give to its source. We remember that our food comes from God. We name the farmers, pickers and sorters, truck drivers, store clerks and cooks who helped get it to our table. We want to be aware, to acknowledge the gift of a full fridge. Does that mean I’m always “happy” Zack has made tofu scramble? No. I like my tofu fried, but still I give thanks.

And that, friends, is the refrain of this year’s Thanksgiving season. But still we give thanks. COVID-19 continues to make our lives incredibly challenging, still we give thanks for the freedoms we do have. 

We sometimes tell ourselves that gratitude will make everything better, that we can make a list of three things a day and suddenly our anxieties will disappear. Certainly, institutions like The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, tell us about the wonderful long-term effects gratitude has on our brain. But gratitude doesn’t fix anything. What it does do is ground us. You can give thanks and lament, and I’d argue that an honest acknowledgement of your situation, of how your feeling, is so much more powerful than a false sense of happiness.

So, at your Thanksgiving table this year, perhaps you want to practice some “grumpy gratitude”. Maybe you need to say to yourself, or to those around you, “I’m really sad that Max couldn’t be here with us, but I’m so grateful we could be together for this meal.” Or, “I’m really tired of COVID-19, still I’m so thankful I’ve been able to start going to the pool again.”

Give thanks with honesty, modelling an authentic gratitude that might not look good on social media, but will do your soul good. Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Youth need support, not criticism

This article first appeared in an August edition of the Marathon Mercury.

Recently there have been some instances of vandalism in our town likely committed by local youth. If you’re on social media I am sure you’ve seen the photos and complaints shared in Marathon groups rightly expressing dismay at broken playground equipment, litter, and tipped-over port-a-potties. I understand how residents are feeling. We love our town, and especially our parks, this behaviour is disheartening to see! However, there has been a non-too-subtle tone to this conversation that has me deeply worried.

I can be all-too easy to slide into the habit of villainizing young people whose behaviour is destructive. We seem them as hoodlums, bad seeds who need to be whipped into shape. The violent language some of our community members have used to express their dismay has honestly shocked me. A 14-year-old is not an adult, they are a child growing into their adulthood in awkward spurts and leaps. Their bodies are filled with the frustrating imbalance of burgeoning hormones, and their brains are very literally still in development. Suggesting that violence is the only method to respond to this stressful experience of youth is unacceptable to me. In my mind, neither will hyper-policing. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It says to our youth, “You can’t be trusted”, and then, as a response, they rise to the occasion.

Jesus held a special place for children and youth in his heart, I’m sure each of us could name a number of stories where we see that displayed. Further more, Jesus understood the experience of someone who felt isolated and unanchored. Right now our youth are just that. The pandemic has removed many of the few opportunities our town can offer young people to put their energy into, activities that build up themselves and their community. They are looking for connection, for a response from their peers, and to be a part of something bigger. When they are not able to channel all that wild and wonderful energy into something good, when their lives are shaky and unbalanced, we end up with the results we have today.

I don’t believe there are “bad kids”. I believe all of God’s children are beautifully and wonderfully made. But I also know that we don’t all get the same opportunities and support we need. I would like to see our community leaders taking on this issue by asking “Why are these young people acting out in this way? How can we help them?” Certainly, the solution can’t be older generations arguing about it on a social media platform none of these young people even use! (And, yes, as a millennial that makes me feel very old.)

So, next time you see a group of young people, or hear a story that fills your heart with dismay, I hope you’ll ask yourself: How can we do better for our youth. Since, indeed, just as the parks we love are our very own, these young people are too. How can we help them curb the destructive behaviours we see on the outside, knowing they are not left unmarked on the inside? How, dear neighbours, can we respond to them in love?