It’s once again that time of year when I don’t know whether to say it’s pumpkin season or Jack-o-Lantern season.
It all has to do with this Christian dichotomy of how we regard Halloween. Is it a nationwide glorification of all things wicked, sinful, and abominable? Or is it merely a cultural ritual that celebrates the adrenaline rush of being scared, touts the fun of dressing up like something we’re not, and grants us permission to eat high-calorie sweets without guilt?
We can answer the question of what Halloween was by studying its origins. One of the world’s oldest holidays, it started with the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in) that marked the end of summer. Believing the spirits of the dead would return, Celts lit bonfires, wore disguises and offered animal sacrifices to their deities to ward off ghosts. From that information, courtesy of the History Channel, we can imagine the evil celebrations that likely evolved as part of these practices.
But does that presumed celebration continue when we allow our kids to dress up and go door-to-door asking neighborly strangers for sweet treats? Are we acting as agents of the devil by donning our costumes for the various parties we’ll go to this weekend and Monday, likely with church worship services in between?
I would argue that the majority of people who plan to participate in the candy trade, costume parties, and perhaps mass readings of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will not consider themselves celebrators of all things wicked.
Instead, it seems as if a sizable handful of Christians have created something else, devoid of any representation of questionable origins, for the sake of fellowship over bite-sized candy instead of bread. Quite honestly, the only evil I see in candy corn and other delectable features of the holiday, is the sugar content — and maybe the fact that isn’t sold in abundance year-round.
At the same time, I don’t deny the validity in the argument of those who vehemently denounce everything related to Halloween, including the motivation to make money. That’s likely what has made the holiday the hullabaloo it has become. Some interpretations of Halloween do, in fact, include Ouija boards, séances, and satanic rituals. I’m willing to bet, though, that people who practice that side of Halloween “fun” don’t need a holiday for that.
As an alternative to all that is demonic and unholy about Halloween, many churches opt to have a “Hallelujah Night,” where people still collect candy and play dress up — just in the form of biblical characters.
I attended several of those in my younger days. One year, it took me a while to figure out why one first lady came dressed like Barney. Turns out she was actually dressed as Lydia, the lady who sold — and apparently wore — purple. I was obviously less studied then, so she wasn’t the only one who threw me for a loop. The presumed Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz turned out to be the Lion of Judah. I never dressed up, but I often wondered whether my preferred costumes would’ve disqualified me from the festivities. After all, one kid wearing a sheet over his head and a cross around his neck had trouble at the door. The irony that the Holy Ghost almost couldn’t get into the church on Hallelujah Night wasn’t lost on me.
What if I had dressed as Saul’s buddy, the witch of Endor? That’s a biblical character. Or suppose I’d shown up with a platter fixed around my neck, serving up John the Baptist? (Yes, decapitation happened in The Omen and Friday the 13th movies, but it happened first in the Bible.)
The main thing that I didn’t understand then and struggle with now is telling the difference between Halloween as commonly practiced and its church-led alternatives. Candy? Check. Games and dressing up? Check. How do we know which is which, and is there a real difference beyond what we say it is?
I don’t have an answer and likely won’t anytime soon, but I guarantee you I’ll be having some candy corn in the meantime.
LET US BREAK BREAD TOGETHER: ‘The First Thanksgiving,’ painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris. Is this an accurate portrayal of the holiday’s origins? (Image: Wikipedia)
Turkey, honey baked ham, candied yams, collard greens, casseroles, rice and gravy, corn bread, rolls, dressing, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, carrot cake, pound cake, chocolate cake… When I think of Thanksgiving I think of food, family, fellowship, and laughter; but most of all, I think of food. Most of us do. But is that why we celebrate Thanksgiving?
What are we celebrating? What should we be thinking about? As Christians, we are encouraged by our churches to use Thanksgiving to be reflective about the many blessings that God has bestowed upon our families, friends, and loved ones, how God has given us health, favor, grace, mercy, and even performed miracles on our behalf. But shouldn’t we do that all the time? Is this why we celebrate Thanksgiving?
Is Thanksgiving as we know it a myth? Years ago, elementary schools taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving to remember the Pilgrims and the Indians in a time when the Pilgrim travelers were doomed to die as the winter months approached and they did not know how to survive in a new land. We learned how the Indians were hospitable to the strangers and fed them, befriended them, and taught them the way of their land. We learned that the Pilgrims and the Indians ate a large meal in the late 1690s, which has been recorded in history as the first Thanksgiving. Since then, Americans have made it a tradition to take a day around that time of year to remember the sacrifice, the food, and the friendship that got them through. That’s touching, but we know now that the story is largely inaccurate.
Maybe if we consider some of the myths that are associated with Thanksgiving, we can get a better understanding of what this national day can be in our lives.
Myth 1: “The first Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.
Harvest celebrations were ancient traditions for both the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. In fact, the Bible mentions entire festivals around harvest time. Most African cultures also celebrate the harvest. While the “first Thanksgiving” idea is not historically true, it is true that we should use this holiday as a special time for celebrating what God has placed in our lives as we open the season with prayer and praise.
Myth 2: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.
Actually, the people who came on the Mayflower were seeking religious freedom only for themselves. They didn’t know or really care to know how the native people worshipped; they showed little concern for the Indians’ freedom of religion. Unfortunately, it’s easy to be selfish about our own rights while overlooking other people’s needs. Today, however, each of us can use this Thanksgiving holiday to thank God that we all have the freedom to worship Him. (This might even be a time to reflect on how religious freedom is still opposed in some countries today.) The bottom line is that today in the United States we do have the freedom to worship God and to give Him thanks for all He is. Use this Thanksgiving to do that!
Myth 3: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to share their food and celebrate the first Thanksgiving.
Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, was concerned that the English colonists might be preparing for war. He led 90 men to investigate the sound of gunfire from the Plymouth colony. When it turned out that the gunshots were from hunters gathering food for the harvest celebration, Massasoit and his men returned with five deer and many turkeys–probably more than the colonists were able to provide!
Perhaps that is why the poor turkey is still the favorite bird of Thanksgiving today. In fact, another myth says that the Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn. The menu actually included venison, wild fowl, corn porridge, and mashed pumpkin.
But whether you celebrate with turkey or tofu (pooh!), make sure that this Thanksgiving you celebrate with others. They may be family or friends. You may even organize a group to help serve turkey dinners at a shelter. The food doesn’t matter. (OK, maybe tofu does.) The main thing is to celebrate God and enjoy time with family, friends, and others who are special in your life.
Myth 4: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
Sadly, history proved otherwise, as within a generation the English colonists fought against the Indians to take their land. Today, Native American people often see Thanksgiving as a reminder of the legacy of betrayal and mistreatment their ancestors suffered. That pain is real as is the pain that many people feel today who are rejected or lonely or have found abuse or violence in their lives. Jesus calls on us as Christians to display brotherly love. This Thanksgiving, take time to look around at those who are suffering and to lend a hand where you can. Maybe there is a kid at school who needs a friend, or an older person who needs some help. The pain of that “first Thanksgiving” relationship cannot be changed. But you can use this Thanksgiving to help ease the pain of someone else.
As Christians, we are called to uphold truth, but more importantly, we are called to love humankind. This Thanksgiving, take time to show love to your fellow brothers and sisters by volunteering at a soup kitchen or food pantry. Follow the example of the Native Americans and be generous. This Thanksgiving, above all (tofu aside), make sure you love your neighbors.
It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?
“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”
I looked at Uriel.
“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.
As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”
“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
I have an idea for a good Father’s Day present: a Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Inside is the definition for father:
A man who has begotten a child.
A male PARENT.
A father-in-law, stepfather, or adoptive father.
I would give the dictionary to deadbeat dads, but I’d also give it to those being duped into honoring single mom’s on Father’s Day.
The gift idea came while I was in Wal-Mart to buy a card for my dad. My wife, as she shook her head sadly, pointed to the category “Happy Father’s Day, Mom” in the Mahogany section. Mahogany is Hallmark’s brand for African Americans. I looked through the general Father’s Day card section, but couldn’t find the “mom” category.
Some people insist on making a buck by selling the idea that Father’s Day is also for single moms. Hallmark has been offering the mom cards for a few years, and a Web search also revealed a few entrepreneurs selling T-shirts, mugs and the like. Being a dedicated black father of three grown children who looks forward to this one day that celebrates what I willingly do every day, I find this offensive and even dangerous, particularly for the black community.
Nationally, 1 out of 3 American children live in homes where fathers are absent, according to the Center for Disease Control. The black rate is 2 out of 3. The message to the black community is that single motherhood is acceptable, so celebrate with a Mahogany card.
By marketing “some love” to single moms on Father’s Day, the role of dads is devalued, especially in a community that badly needs fathers to step up and be real parents. It’s also capitalizing on a self-inflicted wound. Society should be lifting men who are honoring their role. That’s what the National Fatherhood Initiative is doing. The organization, which promotes fatherhood among all racial groups, is targeting the deadbeat crisis with a Call to Action that aims to mobilize black churches. Urban Ministries, the parent company of UrbanFaith.com, is involved. I recently spoke with Roland Warren, the president of NFI, who agreed that celebrating single moms on Father’s Day doesn’t help. Warren, who like me is a product of divorced parents and was successfully reared by a loving single mom, is a married father of two. (Hear the entire interview on The Wil LaVeist Show on June 22 at Noon EST at www.whov.org.)
I called Hallmark to ask why they’re capitalizing on this crisis, but hadn’t heard back from them. (Update: Three days after this article was published, a representative from Hallmark did contact the author. See Editor’s Note below.)
There are many legit and even painful reasons beyond control for why moms end up rearing children alone: Abusive relationships that wives flee; rapes, where the woman (or girl) heroically presses through the pregnancy; fiancés and husbands who die suddenly. However, there are adult reasons that happen within our control. Since the 1960s, increased divorces and out-of-wedlock births have dramatically spiked the number of households headed by single moms. And, unlike my father who stayed involved with his children, many dads cut and run. It’s also true that many moms force fathers to stay away, reducing them to monthly paychecks.
I also understand that school children, whose dads aren’t around, are often led to make Father’s Day gifts for their single moms to make them feel better. Children don’t need pity. They’re resilient and can handle reality. Having them show appreciation for their next closest positive male role model—an uncle, coach, pastor, or neighbor—is a better option that could help replenish the value of men in the black community among future generations.
I respect dedicated single moms, but understand the definition. A woman can never be a father and a man can never be a mother. Both parenting roles are equally unique and invaluable. Even among same-sex parents, you’ve got two moms or two dads. The idea of Father’s Day was actually inspired by a single dad who reared his six children after his wife died. Mother’s Day is in May. You also have the lesser-known Single Parents’ Day on March 21.
A mother being celebrated on Father’s Day makes as much nonsense as telling a single dad Happy Mother’s Day.
I doubt you’d find a Mahogany card for that.
It wouldn’t sell.
Editor’s Note: Following publication of this article, columnist Wil LaVeist did receive a response from a Hallmark representative. That email is reprinted below in its entirety.
First, let me apologize for our delayed response to the question you left for us last week. We were unable to confirm facts with the Mahogany and Father’s Day card teams prior to the deadline you noted in your message, so we missed the opportunity to provide context. But I thought it might be helpful to share our point of view.
Hallmark’s goal is to offer cards for the wide range of our consumers’ relationships so that everyone who wants to connect with others in positive ways can find a card to meet their need. For years, consumers have expressed a desire for cards addressing this relationship, and we’ve offered them for the past several seasons. The Mahogany Father’s Day collection included 66 cards to help people honor dad and other special men in their lives, and that selection included two cards recognizing mom. Please note that our general Hallmark Father’s Day line also included a “To Mother on Father’s Day” card and several “Like a Father” cards to acknowledge those who play a father-like role in someone’s life.
We’ve shared your post and the discussion in the blogosphere with the Mahogany team. It’s always helpful to have insight from varying perspectives as we plan selections to meet people’s card-sending needs.
Thank you,Kristi E. Public Relations | Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Kwanzaa anyone? Is it just me, or does it seem Kwanzaa’s popularity has taken a hit? Over the last decade or so the celebration of this distinctively African American holiday seemed to really picked up momentum, thanks largely to our society’s increased emphasis on diversity and cultural sensitivity. But lately there seems to be less buzz about this 44-year-old Afrocentric festival.
What gives? Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jenice Armstrong ponders this question in her excellent essay at Philly.com. Though it’s hard to put an official figure to exactly how many African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, conservative estimates place it at between 1 and 2 million people. But, on a personal level, how many of us actually know people who seriously observe Kwanzaa? How many of us really take it seriously?