Spiderman poses in red sunglasses and flannel cape, one finger planted up his nose. Our resident clown sports knock-off Birkenstocks and some serious attitude. Superman wears blue rubber boots and a bodysuit with reinforced seams. He presses a polyvinyl jack-o’-lantern to his face. The snapshot captures our first Halloween in South Africa, our first Halloween at all, for Alex and Jon were only two years old, and Thomas had just turned four.
I knew the day was not widely celebrated in this country — no candies or costumes lined shop shelves — but I’d planned an evening with a new South African friend. Jan had two young sons, and a sister with school-age kids in the neighboring subdivision. They’d never trick-or-treated but were game to try. We drove between our three houses, collected a modest stash of treats, and called it a small but successful Halloween.
The following year, 2009, grocery stores stocked a variety of orange-and-black wrapped candy, and some shop windows displayed skeletons and wispy cobwebs. We visited friends who live in central Cape Town and our three boys joined fifty or so other children to trick-or-treat around their block. We returned to our own neighborhood after dark to find a band of teenagers roaming otherwise desolate streets. Those kids must have pinned us as North Americans: they asked for treats and set off firecrackers on our step. Halloween seemed to have gained momentum.
Last year, our third October in South Africa, a relative bounty of Halloween bric-a-brac filled the stores, and I decided to involve our own cul-de-sac. I envisioned charming the neighbors with a North American tradition, pulling the parents together for a glass of red wine, allowing the kids to play late…. My invitations were politely but firmly refused with: “We don’t celebrate Halloween.” I was taken aback. Halloween has never been my favorite occasion, but my kids enjoy it and I thought others might too. I was unsure what to make of the rebuke.
A week later, I took the boys to gymnastics class at a nearby elementary school. The children negotiated miniature vaults and rings, while I perused the bulletin boards. I spotted a poster, a jack-o’-lantern encircled and slashed in red. “No Halloween,” it read. Beneath the poster were announcements for Bible studies and church camps. Click!
We live in a very Christian part of the world. According to the most recent census, 91 percent of our suburb is Christian. While that figure is not vastly higher than South Africa (79 percent) or North America (about 76 percent) as a whole, our neighborhood is striking, to me at least, for its public display of religiosity. Crucifixes dangle from rear-view mirrors. Wooden crosses fill an entire wall at the decorating shop. A pick-up truck displays the bumper sticker, “Real Men Love Jesus,” and on the jungle gym near our house, childlike graffiti affirms “Jesus Saves.”
It is difficult to gauge how much Halloween-reticence in South Africa stems from religion and how much is absence of custom. I suspect both factors play a role, in our suburb probably an equal role. It is clear, however, that Christianity figures more directly in my life now than it has in several decades.
Although I was raised Catholic and attended church, on and off, until adolescence, and my husband was raised Anglican by a church-going family, we have not raised our own children as Christian. We don’t go to church and we don’t espouse the major principles of the Christian faith. Yet we live in a neighborhood where nine out ten people do, a place where Bible bags are not out of place at the playground, where anti-Halloween signs are posted in the gymnasium, and where — perhaps most significantly — our three boys attend a Christian school.
In South Africa, as in many countries, private schools may hold religious affiliations while public schools may not. We considered several schools for our boys, and chose one based on its educational approach. That it was a Christian school, that the boys would attend Bible study and sing Christian hymns on Friday mornings, seemed, at the time, incidental.
About two months after the boys started school, I heard Jon break into song in his bedroom: “Roll the gospel chariot along!”
Alex and Thomas joined right in, and I moved to the threshold to watch my boys belt out this gospel tune with fervor: “If the devil’s in the way, we will roll right over him!”
Small arms punched the air, eyebrows furrowed, mouths rounded for the final chorus: “Rooooll the gospel….”
This was the first of many songs brought home from Friday morning assembly. In subsequent weeks, Jon marched from the bathroom shouting: “I’m in the Lord’s army. Yes sir!” and Alex played with Legos while muttering: “And there ain’t no monkeys in my family tree.”
Then came the questions: Where, precisely, is heaven in relation to the atmosphere? Can a rocket go higher than Jesus? How does God put your eyeballs in? And finally, there were statements of fact. “Jesus made my sandwich,” Alex claimed with much reverence one lunchtime. Shortly thereafter, he stood on our front step, took in the fields, the wetlands, the row of eucalyptus on the hilltop. “God made all of this!”
The time had come, I felt, for parental input on such matters. I conferred with my husband. He thought the songs harmless, the questions provocative, and he challenged me to embrace Alex’s proclamation as one of several beautiful ways of seeing the world. I did, indeed, find this a challenge. Spirituality had been on my back-burner for many years. Actually, I’d switched the burner off completely, cut the gas line. But those songs, questions and statements of incontrovertible fact, kindled something — not piety, but a flicker of irritation.
I did not want my son “in the Lord’s army.” I do believe there are “monkeys” way back in my family tree. And I made that sandwich, thank you very much. Yet my reaction surprised me. I like to think I’m open-minded. I believe respect for diversity is vital, and hope to instill that respect in my children. But was I any more open than those opposing Halloween? Could I really accommodate fervent Christianity in my boys? Tough questions, the kind of questions about yourself that only your kids — and perhaps living in a foreign country — can spark. The kind of questions worth exploring.
I want to contribute more to my children’s spiritual upbringing than agnosticism, more than, “No one knows for sure,” and certainly more than irritation. I cannot, on the other hand, teach one faith exclusively, imply that any one religion is wholly right. My children may grow to believe differently but in the meantime, we’re reading “The Heavy Load,” and other Buddhist tales, alongside Moses in the bulrushes. We talk about things they see around us: the significance of turbans, that some of their friends do not eat pork, why some people pray at midday. And when Alex tells me that Halloween is “the devil’s birthday,” and that he learned this at school, I resist the urge to spout Wikipedia but pull up a chair and talk about beliefs. As for October 31st, our plans this year involve an American expat family, an enchanted olive grove, that old polyvinyl jack-o’-lantern, and I hope, a whole lot of fun.