Halloween in Sunday School

The last calling I had at church was as a Sunday School teacher. At the time I was called, my testimony had already unravelled, but I was desperately trying to keep it (and my marriage) together. The more I studied church doctrine and history and the clearer my understanding of the church became, the more my testimony collapsed. Teaching out of the manual left me feeling incredibly conflicted. I now knew the lesson plans contained many things that were demonstrably false. I was beginning to have doubts about whether or not it was ethical for me to continue in my calling when I had no testimony of the things I was supposed to be teaching. But I tried to find ways to make it work. I ignored large chunks of the lesson plan and tried to grasp at something good and universally true about each lesson. By cherry-picking materials to teach and carefully vetting my language I could try to teach what I hoped were good, ethical ideas without endorsing the Book of Mormon as a historical record. I supplemented the lessons with my own material and by inviting commentary from members of the class. The more time the class spent in discussion, the less I had to say and the less I felt like a hypocrite.

I noticed one week that the lesson that fell just before Halloween contained some material that I was particularly uncomfortable with. It promoted a demonstrably false view of ancient American history and contained racist ideas that did not mesh with accepted scientific research. So I did something rather tricky. I decided to devote a chunk of the lesson to the history of Halloween, which would allow me to shorten the intended lesson, leaving no time for me to teach the questionable content. I knew at first it would be hard to hook the audience, with their righteous fear of evil pagans and all, but I also know that I could play on the latent anti-Catholic prejudice that Mormons seem to have, and also touch on the teaching that all faith systems have some light and truth to them.

The modern holiday is quite different from what Halloween was thousands of years ago. Most ancient agricultural societies celebrated their new year in the autumn, when the harvest was in. In pre-Roman Europe, the Celtic calendar divided the year into “light” and “dark” halves. So much of “Celtic Religion” gets romanticised and mushed up to fit modern neopagan views that it can be hard to understand what prechristian Celtic beliefs actually were. But what we do know is that Celtic New year fell around Oct. 31, and was a time of celebration, feasting, reciting family lineages, and communing with the spirits of departed ancestors. In Old Irish the holiday was referred to as Samhain. It has survived as Halloween and All Saints’ Day.

Celtic European culture was largely subsumed under Roman rule, but Irish culture retained its older Celtic beliefs for some time. Even after Christianity was adopted, traditional beliefs remained alive and well, arguably until the present day. The ancient Irish didn’t think of the afterlife as most people do today. The “Otherworld” of Irish folklore does not resemble Christian ideas about the dead departing this world permanently. Old Irish beliefs about the dead hold that the departed are all around us, in this world, but invisible to us. Some Mormons also believe that the “spirit world” in which the dead await the final judgment is also here on earth. Samhain celebrations gathered friends and family together, where family lineages were recited, rituals to honour the departed were performed, and hollowed-out turnips guided the spirits of the departed back to their families. It was believed that the veil to the Otherworld grew very thin on this night, and that spirits could visit the living. In this belief system, the dead were viewed very much as ordinary people; some were evil, some were good. The spirits of ancestors were welcomed home, and malicious spirits were warded off.

As the church grew in influence, priests wanted nothing to do with this blasphemous worship of spirits. Our God Is A Jealous God, after all. Those who still observed Celtic new year, mainly in Ireland and Scotland, were taught to frighten away the souls of their ancestors. They had been set straight. They were not honoured loved ones come home to visit; they were devils come to take their souls to hell, and anyone who said otherwise was a nasty horrible witch. Parents began dressing their children in costumes to disguise them from the evil spirits. Demons must be pretty daft to fall for masks and robes, but there it is. I commented that it was a shame that a holiday so focused on genealogy and family togetherness in this world and the world to come was corrupted. Someone commented that we couldn’t expect less from the Great and Abominable Church. At least in the end when superstition about demons chasing people down the street once a year was (mostly) done away with, we were able to have some fun with it again.

But really, it was a holiday all about family togetherness. That’s very much at the heart of everything Mormonism preaches. I commented that I thought it was interesting that the original holiday had been about preserving family unity, which is something we could respect, considering how much time we spent on temple work. While I absolutely enjoyed the fun and games of dressing up, trick-or-treating, and decorating our homes for the modern, corrupted, secularised version of Halloween, I reflected that it was a shame the holiday had lost its overt emphasis on family. I speculated on a few ways that Halloween could still be silly and fun, but also a day for family togetherness. Parents trick-or-treat with children, of course, but I encouraged the class members to think of ways to place an even larger emphasis on family. Suggestions trickled in. One person suggested that, before a family goes out trick-or-treating, the family look at photos of past years and tell stories to help children know more about the fun details of their predecessors’ lives. Others suggested scrapbooking to preserve family memories. All brilliant ideas. One class member spoke up that all faith systems had some light and truth to them, and the older Celtic views were among some of the “plain and precious truths” lost over the years.

There were only ten minutes left at this point in the lesson, so I glossed over the racist, historically false lesson I was supposed to teach and closed the lesson. I apologised impishly for hijacking the real lesson, but felt that once in a while it was fun to teach a holiday-themed lesson. Someone answered that it was fun to learn that there was a way to think about how to infuse a secular holiday with ideas from the gospel. We prayed. The class trotted out, happy and humming with conversation.

I felt satisfied with the lesson that I had taught, but I didn’t feel good about myself. I knew that by covering the parts of the gospel that were rotten, I was only setting up my classmates for the same sort of fall I had taken. But at that point I wasn’t prepared to accept that the Church wasn’t what it said it was. I still wanted it to all be true, very badly. I managed to teach five or six more lessons like that before I asked the bishop to release me. I was honest about the reasons, and he honoured my request, although he tried to talk me out of it, saying I was popular as a teacher and seemed to enjoy it. I cried. I loved teaching. But I couldn’t lie by omission any more.

Sometimes I still miss it, although I think that if I were still teaching today, I wouldn’t feel so bad about being subversive.