The way we were: Bans on Hallowe’en, or when God was a killjoy

‘Tis Hallowe’en, and the wind is wuthering around the window in a spooky sort of way. Nowhere near the witching hour yet… which is lucky, because my youngest kid has gone out trick-or-treating with friends, and had better be back home well before that. Sitting here by the window and waiting for said kid to reappear, I can’t help remembering that not too many years ago, this would be inconceivable.

I'm glad to have Hallowe'en back... disgustingly sweet candy and all.

I’m glad to have Hallowe’en back… disgustingly sweet candy and all. Yeah, it’s cheesy. So what.

We didn’t let our kids go out for Hallowe’en. Back when I was a hyper-conservative Muslim, Hallowe’en was verboten in the circles I moved in.

Back in the ’80’s when I converted, the subject of Hallowe’en (as well as a whole slew of other holidays and special occasions) was a very controversial topic in the Muslim community I was living in at the time. I remember sermons preached on the evils of Hallowe’en—how it is a pagan holiday that used to involve appeasing the spirits of the dead. And how dressing up as ghosts and devils and witches and whatnot makes a joke out of what is really a very serious matter. Because the power of Satan and demons are real, and anything to do with witchcraft or trying to contact such evil supernatural beings is strictly forbidden and so not to be turned into a child’s game. And anything “pagan” in origin was of course absolutely incompatible with monotheism, anyway.

 

Looking back, this sort of anti-Hallowe’en rhetoric that we were exposed to every fall at just about every Friday prayers or other Muslim event we went to was part of a much larger conservative Salafi hostility to celebrating nearly all holidays and special occasions. In those days, the Salafis and those heavily influenced by them controlled the mosques, the MSA and the leading Sunni Muslim organization where we were living at the time. For them, the only acceptable holidays were the two Eids—even the Prophet’s Birthday and the Isra’-Mi’raj were absolutely out. Because bid’a.

Taking part in anything to do with Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Easter… (such as your kids singing carols at school, or exchanging valentines, or coloring pictures of Easter eggs) was not allowed either. Not just because these are (mostly) Christian holidays, but because they were pagan in origin, and therefore shouldn’t be celebrated by true monotheists.

Even holidays like Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day and Thanksgiving were seen as highly questionable, and celebrating them was very controversial. Because after all (the preachers said), a good Muslim honors his parents and gives thanks to God every day, so what is the need for a holiday? And if you don’t honor your parents as you should, what difference does a card or a gift once a year make?

And they didn’t allow the celebration of birthdays or holding bridal or baby showers. Even when it came to events like aqiqas and weddings (which they did allow), they were still very concerned about controlling how exactly these would be celebrated, so that none of their demanding standards of Islamicness would be relaxed under the guise of having fun.

All typical hardline Salafi stuff (which they of course presented to us as simply “true Islam”)… to a point. But as I learn more about conservative Evangelical and other conservative Protestant churches and what they were up to in the ’80’s and ’90’s, I start to notice some eerie parallels that are just too close to be coincidental.

How did it happen that just when conservative Evangelicals were getting their panties in a twist about the allegedly satanic nature of celebrating Hallowe’en and church leaders were preaching against allowing one’s children to dress up or go out trick-or-treating, that we had imams and speakers at Muslim conferences—who were often converts, born and raised in North America—presenting us with virtually the same arguments against Hallowe’en that these Christians were using??

Looking back, I think that all the anti-Hallowe’en (and general anti-nearly-all-holiday) rhetoric had less to do with Salafism, and more to do with attempts to exercise control. And conservative religious groups of whatever religious tradition are more than adept at doing that. What better way to control people than to put social barriers between them and the wider society? Refusing to participate in nearly all holidays that most people celebrate does contribute to social isolation—especially for kids attending public schools, but also to a lesser extent for (most) adults, who work or socialize beyond highly conservative Muslim circles.

Making people think that allowing kids to dress up or color pictures of ghosts and witches in art class or go out trick-or-treating is somehow sinful is yet another way to make parents fear the influence of public schools and kids’ recreational programs on their children. It helps to encourage parents to “prefer” their kids to socialize with other kids from like-minded conservative Muslim families. It can also divide families internally, when parents don’t agree on how to deal with occasions like Hallowe’en, or other relatives don’t agree with how the parents deal with it… or older kids become weary of being the odd man out and sneak around behind their parents’ backs in order to do the things that most other kids are allowed to do.

In the case of a few of the more fervent convert anti-Hallowe’en (and anti-Santa, anti-Easter bunny, anti-Valentine cards…) preachers who could be counted on to harp on this subject without fail every year and in great detail, I can’t help but wonder if a desire to present themselves as leaders in the face of deadly cultural peril (symbolized by costumed kids collecting candy… lol) played a role. It did enable a couple to make a name for themselves….

I think we were basically had. We were manipulated for their gain.

As parents, my best friend and I largely bought into the whole anti-Hallowe’en hysteria. We were unfortunately convinced that allowing our kids to take part would threaten their Islamic identity and open them up to some sort of satanic influence. At the same time, we remembered enjoying Hallowe’en a lot when we were kids—primarily dressing up, but also collecting all that free candy. So, we bought our kids costumes, which they could play dress-up in (at any time other than Hallowe’en). And, we bought them candy the day after Hallowe’en, taking advantage of the sales. And we told ourselves that this was enough, and that we weren’t depriving them of anything. Not of anything that mattered, anyway.

But I still remember forcibly preventing my eldest kid from going outdoors on Hallowe’en night to see what the racket was next door (the neighbor was doing her best to scare the living daylights out of the kids who were trick-or-treating). Preventing them all from going out and being with their friends. Telling the kids that this was bad and sinful and dangerous. Even turning the lights off in the house so that no trick-or-treaters would come and knock… making my kids all the more resentful that they weren’t allowed to go out.

And all this was for what?

I stopped preventing my kids from going out, finally, but the damage was done as far as my older kids were concerned. They look at the younger ones (who barely remember a time when they weren’t allowed to trick-or-treat) with some envy. I have apologized, and tried to explain that we really did believe that we were somehow “saving” them by sheltering them from Hallowe’en. And I’ve stopped lying to myself, trying to make myself believe that I don’t really like Hallowe’en. Because despite all those sermons, I don’t believe any more that it is in and of itself harmful or sinful. It’s just a holiday, and it is what people choose to make of it.

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  1. #1 by nmr on November 1, 2013 - 12:47 pm

    I find it highly ironic, and it is probably the power/control game like you say, that conservative Muslims blast people for adopting “pagan” ways, yet they are thoroughly comfortable borrowing and implementing conservative Evangelical Christian thought and practice.

    • #2 by xcwn on November 1, 2013 - 10:55 pm

      nmr—Yes, very true. We didn’t realize just how much borrowing of that sort was going on back in the day… but now with the internet, it’s a lot easier to spot.

  2. #3 by luckyfatima on November 1, 2013 - 11:39 pm

    Oh yep. That’s a good mind fuck from the neo-orthodox authorities. Such incongruity. E.g. having Daddy marry two wives is a blessing and will have no negative repercussions on the children. Having your kids participate in a local folk holiday like Halloween is the work of the devil and will ruin your children. Our local mosque has a Fall Festival every Halloween night as an alternative to Halloween celebration. Most of my friends (Muslim friends, I mean here) still let their kids go trick or treating. Some don’t. That’s their business.

    • #4 by xcwn on November 2, 2013 - 2:20 am

      luckyfatima—Yes, awesome point. Somehow, letting your kids dress up and go trick-or-treating will harm your kids irreparably, but subjecting them to polygamy, or having them grow up seeing girls and women being relegated to dingy mosque basements or overcrowded balconies while the men pray in a nice spacious room with Persian rugs and a chandelier… won’t damage the kids at all. Good grief. How were we so blind, that we didn’t notice how crazy that was??

  3. #5 by ki sarita on November 3, 2013 - 10:58 am

    funny i grew up in a jewish bubble but i don’tt recall me or my friends ever being jealous of halloween and christmas or whatever. it was just something they did, “they” meaning the world out there, that wasn’t really a part of our lives. I had a lot of issues and eventually left fundamentalist judaism but this wasn’t one of them….. in fact “holiday jealousy” was felt much more by jews who were raised in more liberal, assimilated jewish homes.

    • #6 by xcwn on November 4, 2013 - 11:21 pm

      ki sarita—Interesting. I suspect that the reason our kids had “holiday jealousy” (great expression, btw) was that (1) we didn’t have many holidays to start with, and (2) those we had weren’t all that kid-friendly. Not much in the way of colorful decorations, pageantry, or general excitement, but lots in the way of sermonizing….

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