There seems to be an age-old question for parents on whether to tell their kids if Santa Claus is real or not. On the one hand, setting out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve is a fun tradition, and many parents also invoke the name of Santa Claus as a means to incite good behavior in their kids as Christmas draws near. On the other hand, there are the inevitable boundaries of make-believe, and the eventual shock and disappointment that often follows when kids learn of Santa Claus’s more mythic, rather than realistic character.
I am surprised, though, that for as much as parents wrestle with the subject of Santa Claus, or even the Easter Bunny for that matter, the question of figures related to Halloween, like witches, demons and evil spirits, rarely comes up in conversations with children.
By questions, I mean things like, “Who are these figures?,” “What do you think about them?,” and “Why do we dress up like them?”
Witches, demons and other evil spirits, including vampires, goblins and zombies among other things, function as popular lawn décor; they constitute a main bulk of the costume designs for older trick-or-treaters; and, in general, we associate Halloween with these figures.
Many people might say that these figures are “just part of the tradition” or “it’s all for fun and entertainment.” And, while there’s some truth in both these claims, I also like knowing why we do the things we do, and I think it’s important for us to talk about these reasons with our kids, especially when it comes to family (and national) celebrations.
Bear with me as I take us down history lane for a moment: the real “tale” behind Halloween is that this tradition began as a pagan ritual in medieval Scotland that worships the dead. The Celts called this day “Samhain.” Tales have it that, on this day, the god of the dead (Samhain) would loosen the veil between our world and the “otherworld” to allow the souls of those who had died in the past year to finally enter the land of the dead.
These tales led to the idea that since dead souls from this world could leave, dead souls from the otherworld could also re-enter our world. This was, on the one hand, comforting as many people hoped to commune with deceased loved ones. In Latino and South American cultures, you have various versions of Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) for this very purpose. But, it was also believed that the souls of witches, demons and other evil spirits could enter our world too, haunting and tormenting all those they came in contact with. And to placate these latter figures, peasants put out candles in carved pumpkins, filled their home with tasty treats and more.
The Roman Catholics later tried to turn this pagan ritual into a Christian holiday called All Hallow’s Day (with October 31st being called All Hallow’s Eve). However, to put it bluntly, the “fun” of this pagan ritual was too hard to overcome, and the tradition continued, with the name slowly turning into a slang form of the Catholic’s ordained version: “Halloween.”
The fact still remains, though, that no matter how you spin it, Halloween is still a tradition linked to a day of the dead. Some people still worship the dead (though that’s a bit extreme). Many ethnic minorities commemorate the dead and seek to commune with them. While others today appropriate the dead as forms of entertainment (think haunted houses, the horror movie “It” etc.).
Regardless of which camp you fall under, I still think that this folkloric background to Halloween is a conversation worth having with your child(ren).
How often do we, as mothers, talk to our kids about what happens to people after they die, or the relationship between the living and the dead? These are big questions that I think we should be having with our kids anyways, and the season of Halloween is a good excuse to bring them up.
So, perhaps the witches, demons and evil spirits of Halloween are not exactly like the folkloric figures of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. These spooky beings have a far more complex and supernatural composition. The point of contention is not on how to disappoint your child by telling him or her whether these figures of the dead are “real.” The question, rather, is whether we will use Halloween figures for sheer amusement or whether they can become the springboard to discussing more important realities, realities that your child needs to be able to navigate as he or she gets older.