“I had realized that my parents legitimately had more important things to do than to carve pumpkins or buy costumes. But as a young child, I equated participating in the cultural phenomenon that is Halloween with being an American. I, as a daughter of immigrants, just wanted to fit in and join the fun.”
In the fall-winter lineup of major holidays, Halloween is widely regarded to be of less cultural significance than, say, Christmas. But as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about values, principles, and actions, I’d like to share some of my own commitments insofar as they bear upon this holiday. Over the course of two blogs (click here for part II), I will recount how and why the importance I have attached to celebrating Halloween has shifted significantly.In early childhood, holidays were occasions where I felt my family’s immigrant status acutely.
My parents had left Taiwan when my mother was pregnant with me and when my older brother was a baby. While my parents had arrived in the U.S. highly skilled (n.b., my dad had finished medical school and my mom eventually did his accounting when he started his private surgical practice), they, like many other immigrants, didn’t know much about American culture. They certainly had no clue “what they were supposed to do” on our birthdays or any of the major holidays save Thanksgiving (n.b., I’ll blog about that curious exception in a future post).
All of this meant that in my earliest years, my parents didn’t know about (much less meet) mainstream cultural expectations that they’d dress us up for Halloween; it also meant that they were oblivious to our neighbors’ assumptions that they, too, should pass out candy to frolicking trick-or-treaters. While they eventually acclimated (perhaps our nagging had something to do with that?), there were nonetheless a few years when our house was “dark” on Halloween (no candy) and when my brother and I were among the only ones without a costume in the annual elementary school Halloween costume parade. The former was somewhat embarrassing, the latter, painful.
Of course, by the time I reached adolescence, I had realized that my parents legitimately had more important things to do than to carve pumpkins or buy costumes. But as a young child, I equated participating in the cultural phenomenon that is Halloween with being an American. I, as a daughter of immigrants, just wanted to fit in and join the fun.
The Teenage Years: Accommodating Religious Objections
In my early teenage years, the importance of Halloween took on a new twist as several people around me seriously challenged the value of commemorating it. In my frosh year of high school, two of my closest evangelical Christian friends became convinced that celebrating Halloween was not appropriate for Christians because of its pagan and occult associations (e.g., witchcraft). They vowed to stop dressing-up and pleaded with me to do likewise.
While I recall not being convinced by their logic, I took seriously what I understood to be Paul’s instructions in Romans 14: 14-23 concerning early church controversies on what Christians were permitted to eat (e.g. food sacrificed to idols).
14I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. 16So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. 17For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. 19Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. 20Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; 21it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. 22The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. 23But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
In my adolescent (and simplistic hermeneutical) mind, the Bible was telling me that donning a Halloween costume would not be wrong in and of itself, but I should still avoid doing so for the sake of my close Christian friends whose consciences told them otherwise. In short, to avoid leading them “to sin” (and, if I’m honest, to remain conciliatory), I forsook dressing-up for a number of years. (I didn’t abandon the holiday entirely, however, as I happily attended another friend’s fabulous Halloween slumber party every year.)
College and Early Adulthood: Party!
It was only in college when I resumed dressing-up for Halloween. My friends with sensitive consciences went to different schools and my new friends, even the conservative evangelical ones, didn’t share their reservations. But in college and graduate school, I didn’t don Halloween costumes out of any sense of deep significance−cultural, religious, or otherwise−that I attached to the holiday. It was simply a matter of dressing-up or not depending on whether there was a cool party that I wanted to attend.
What I ended up wearing in those years was tied to a number of disparate values. Frugality was one of them, as I had internalized from my Taiwanese cultural heritage the virtue of saving money and the thrill of scoring bargains. As applied to my case, this often meant that my costume was something repurposed from what I already had (e.g., my high school cheerleading outfit, my karate gi, a pirate costume fashioned from three wardrobe staples: a white blousy top, a scarf for my head, and khakis or jeans).
But another cultural good I had internalized was positive appraisal from others about my physical appearance. In light of my earlier post about infantilizing women and sexualizing girls, I should acknowledge (again) that I was not immune to the pervasive cultural pressure to present myself as a sexual object. Thus, in my early twenties, when my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I would hit the clubs at Halloween, I really looked no different than the other scantily clad women around me (see fig. 4).
I have already applied a feminist analysis of the afore-mentioned infantilizing women/sexualizing girls phenomena and discuss in part II how Halloween has taken on new importance now that I’m parenting two young boys. What is left, then, to scrutinize is my early childhood and adolescent experiences.
The former is relatively straightforward: young children of immigrants often have strong desires to fit in to the dominant ethos and I pass no judgment on them or myself for having had assimilationist inclinations. A mature and healthy racial-ethnic identity, however, would require the recognition that conformity to mainstream values or social norms is not an unqualified good.
My reflections on the latter will take some unpacking, as it defies simplistic explanation. For my teenage willingness to alter certain aspects of my behavior to accommodate my friends’ religious scruples was not tied to the culprits that feminists commonly suspect—a lack of confidence or agency on my part or a power imbalance between or among us friends due to gender, race, or class (and so forth) differences. What is more, I believed then (as I still do now) that my friends would have changed their behavior if the roles had been reversed (i.e., if the religious objections had been mine, not theirs).
So what I’m left thinking is this: the intense accountability to one another that I had experienced in my teenage years with my Christian friends is something that I will always cherish, even though my preoccupations with orthodoxy as a progressive Christian today are certainly not as they once were when I identified as an evangelical.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She has yet to determine what she will be going as for Halloween this year.