This Is How Christmas (and Life) Should Be More like Halloween

I used to think Christmas was the holiday during which we love best. But after trick-or-treating last weekend, I’m pretty sure the grace of Halloween puts Christmas to shame…

grace

Photo Credit: Senor Velasco via Compfight cc

“Daddy, will other kids get more candy because their costumes are scarier?”

We are minutes away from taking to the streets for the annual Halloween ritual. My daughter is standing in front of me, dressed in white from head to toe, holding above her a transparent umbrella with homemade eyes taped to it and purple and pink streamers hanging from it. She’s a jellyfish with shimmering tentacles.

And she’s not one bit scary.

But I don’t have to think twice before smiling and answering. “No, Sweetie, with trick-or-treating, all you have to do is show up, and everybody who shows up gets exactly the same amount of candy. No matter how big or how little, no matter how young or how old, and no matter how scary or not scary you are.”

She smiles and skips away, tentacles flowing behind her.

I smile, too, because I’ve always liked Halloween, but all of a sudden I like it a lot more. Especially when I imagine my daughter six weeks from now, in kindergarten, learning a very different holiday lesson about what she has to do to receive good things. Most of us know the lines by heart:

“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. Santa Clause is coming to town.”

Yikes.

We teach our kids the most loving of their mythical guardians will punish them if they feel or express their sadness. And we teach them the gifts of the season aren’t really gifts—they’re payment for acting the way we want them to act.

We teach them, even as kids, to work hard for their holiday bonus.

Of course, it’s just a song, and we don’t really penalize our kids for bad behavior with fewer Christmas gifts. The truth is, the song is probably a better representation of how we act the rest of the year. How many times and in how many subtle ways are we always sending each other this message: you have to be more and do more if you want good things from me.

I smile, as my daughter skips away, because, in comparison, the implicit message of Halloween is quite lovely: “Come as you are. There are plenty of good things to go around. No matter who you are, no matter how you look, and no matter how you perform. Everyone is identically lovable in our eyes.”

And I smile again thirty minutes later, when I see my son and daughter have abandoned their costumes altogether. My son’s terrifying Zombie pirate mask—already soaked on the inside with sweat and condensation—has been torn off and stuffed in his bag of candy. My daughter’s jellyfish umbrella—adorable but not terribly pragmatic—is in her mother’s hand. Now, he looks like an ordinary boy in torn clothes, and she looks like an ordinary girl in white clothes.

And, yet, they’re still receiving the same amount of candy.

I smile because my kids have simply done away with the formality. In doorway after doorway, kind souls are not giving out candy because of the quality of the costumes; they’re giving it out because they know what exists underneath the costume. They see the lovely little one beneath the layers and are sending a clear message: thanks for showing up, you matter, you are valuable, and you are all equally beloved.

Which is to say, Halloween is a night full of grace.

Grace is what happens when someone or Someone sees through our many masks and glimpses the innocent little one that still resides in our depths somewhere. Grace is the presence that announces: underneath all your layers, there is a true self buried, and it is beautiful and beloved. Grace is the assurance that everyone is of equal value and equally worthy, so all you have to do to be loved is show up.

Of course, there are places in the world where we need to do more than just show up. For instance, in school, we need to study and learn, and at work, we need to perform and produce, and of course we should be graded and paid differently based upon our performance.

But maybe, just maybe, we already have plenty of places like that in the world.

Maybe we don’t need to create any more of those places in our homes and our friendships and our communities and our holiday rituals. Maybe we need more places like the streets of my neighborhood on Halloween night—places where you’re loved just for showing up and seen for the lovely thing underneath your layers. And if you choose to take off your mask?

More power to you.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Patricia

    Dr. Flanagan I loved everything about this post especially the jellyfish costume! Going to borrow that idea for my granddaughter. Grace, when we receive it or give it, is so powerful I am always amazed! Thanks for the great wake up this morning.

    • drkellyflanagan

      The costume was a huge hit with peers and parents alike! Like I said, though, be prepared to hold an umbrella for most of the route. : )

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    I love the idea that Halloween is, at its core, a come-as-you-are holiday of communities embracing their kiddos through the magic that is chocolate. You don’t have to earn it, hunt for it, or wait for a reclusive jolly man to hide it in your sock: your neighbors have a whole bowlful they bought for the explicit purpose of giving it to you and your friends.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You made me think of the Seinfeld bit about it. He talks about how the idea of trick-or-treating is almost incomprehensible to kids because it is such good news. Again, like grace, it’s incomprehensibly good news!

  • Clinton W Spence

    Dr. Flanagan, although I appreciate your essay to claim Halloween as grace-filled, would it not be more productive to reclaim this holy day as All Hallow’s Eve? We could dress our children as saints from history and teach them about the lives and witnesses of these women and men of God through the ages. (Like the Santa Claus song that you cite, we need to teach the true story of St. Nicholas.)

    • drkellyflanagan

      Clinton, I think you and I are on the same page as far as making sure our kids are rooted in the historical and religious underpinnings of their traditions. I guess, though, I don’t think of trick-or-treating as a teaching moment, but more just an opportunity to enjoy something that, as Shel points out, seems almost too good to be true!

  • Merlin Willard

    I have always placed Halloween at the bottom of my holiday like list. Thanks for this new perspective. Your blogs always help me see the positive side of living on this earth!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Mr. Willard! I’ll resend this to you next Halloween at about 5pm, right before the doorbell starts ringing. ; )

  • Candice Marquette

    As I enjoy this thought provoking blog post I am eating a mini Kit Kat from the candy stash….no regrets !!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m a sucker for the peanut butter cups myself, Candice!

  • Pcw

    I have been thinking a lot about grace lately. I have felt for some time that I need to be more forgiving, less critical, more supportive, less irritable, more willing to laugh or shrug at mistakes, less insistent on doing things my way, more able to see the good in difference, less self-righteous…. Family should be a place of security, warmth and acceptance. And yet, it is so easy to focus on the bad, the disappointment, the things that do not go as planned! Thank you for the reminder that everywhere the world asks us to do more and be more. Home should be a piece of heaven on earth. God allows us to grow and become at our own pace, in our own way. May we all see our loved ones as God sees us, and love them as God loves us! Then the masks can come off more easily.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Great point! My kids masks could come off specifically because they knew they would be loved, even with them off. Grace has the power to transform us in this way. Thank you!

  • freelytree

    My God this is beautiful! I decided this Halloween that I don’t like Halloween. I decided this mainly because of all the violent horror movies on TV (my boyfriend and his daughter had it running 24/7 watching all the bloodfest marathons. They love that stuff!). But after reading your post, I now love Halloween again. I failed to see the grace through all the layers of horror. And wow, that’s a life lesson for me in other ways than this article intended. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome! And for what it’s worthy, Brene Brown recently redeemed horror movies for me, too. She describes them as “emotional porn” for a culture that has stuffed its emotions and needs something external to feel emotionally aroused. That perspective, too, is grace!

  • Dori Anne Abbott

    Thank you. I realize now what a competition Christmas has become. Seeing Halloween in a whole new light.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good way to say it, Dori. May we be mindful of our competitiveness this holiday season and give grace instead!

  • David Eakin

    “Grace is what happens when someone or Someone sees through our many masks and glimpses the innocent little one that still resides in our depths somewhere.” Nope – grace is unmerited favor plain and simple. Grace is receiving a gift IN SPITE OF how we are in our depths; despite whether or not it is “beautiful and beloved” (and usually not). I like your commentary on Halloween being a celebration (in the USA) of receiving gifts regardless of any pretext, even if it disregards the gang-like British origins. Christmas should be celebrated the same way, for the same reasons. It is the reason that we did not place any emphasis on “the big red lie” (my term) when our children were growing up.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You and I may have to agree to disagree on this one, David. : ) As a beginning therapist, I assumed I’d find crummy stuff in the depths of people. Come to find out, those are really the shallows. Wade in a little further, a little deeper, and then you get blinded by the light.

  • Your perspective is always a gift of new vision. I have never thought of Halloween as an expression of grace. What a beautifull idea. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Seth, thanks for saying so.

  • Thank you for the great insights again! I LOVE the idea of “just showing up” which is something that i have been personally working on “being” for myself so that I can then also do the same for others. Thanks for the great reminder of what a beautifully blessed and gracious gift Grace is!

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re so right on, as always, Jenny. We practice love on ourselves, and then we know how to go out and do it in the world.

  • I never consider this for the Halloween. I look forward to taking kids trick-or-treating! Next year I will think of this perspective.

  • Stacy Haskell Reilly

    In my house, my kids choose their favorite candies and leave the rest out for the Great Pumpkin…he takes the candy and leaves them a toy. They love it and they get less cavities.

  • Really good, but it’s Santa Claus, not “Clause.” 🙂

  • Grace

    So good, so true! For a decade we’ve lit every light in the house, given out loads of candy, made cookies and hot cider for all the freezing parents and I’ve dressed as the tooth fairy. This year I thought I’d let it go until someone stopped my in a restaurant in September. “I know you!” She said, “You’re famous! You’re the Tooth Fairy with all those adopted kids and cider for the parents each year. My kids are always happy to see you!” Who knew! As the nameless tooth fairy’s household, we made people feel special. I was weary of the whole night, thinking no one cared much. But we never know the impact blessings have. It’s probably better that way! But you nailed Kelly. Grace over all can be so simple to express but linger long afterwards and children soak it in. Happy Halloween and don’t forget to brush!

  • nico

    this is beautiful

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