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May 8, 2008
In The Village
Navigating the world of holiday traditions
by Orson Scott Card

We're supposed to be in the world, not of it. This means we can pick and choose among worldly traditions that we might want to adopt in our families.

When my wife and I got married, we had to decide which traditions we would carry forward from our families.

For instance, my family went insane over birthdays. Lots of presents; the birthday honoree got to decide on the menu that day; the cake always had foil-wrapped coins between the layers; presents were opened throughout the meal so the honoree could hardly eat.

Her family? A modest, respectable number of presents. No madness.

My wife was happy to go along with some of my family's traditions. But she drew the line at the wrapped-up coins -- because during the first birthday celebration she attended at my family's house (while I was on my mission), she swallowed a coin. Not a happy memory.

Halloween

We liked trick-or-treating as kids, but we draw the line at twelve years of age. Some of our kids have been fine with that; others have resented it when their friends went out trick-or-treating and they couldn't go.

There's just something obnoxious about having a "kid" the size of an adult begging for candy at our door, and we don't want any of our children to be that kid.

It's kind of sad how trick-or-treating has been transformed by urban legends. There is no recorded instance of, for instance, poisoned candy or razor-bladed apples that were given to children by someone they didn't live with. But the urban legend grew, and now we all vet the candy as if it had ever happened.

And parents go around with their kids. That's just sensible.

What is a Mormon's neighborhood, for trick-or-treating purposes? It's the ward.

In Utah, of course, "neighborhood" and "ward" are nearly synonyms, unless the boundary runs down the middle of your street. Where I live, though, trick-or-treating at friends' houses would mean hours of driving around a farflung ward.

So the institution of "trunk-or-treating" is great fun. On activity night or the Saturday before Halloween, families drive to the church for a costume party (no masks!) with traditional party games for the little kids. Meanwhile, a lot of us parents are outside, decorating our cars.

My tradition, which began when I owned a Crown Vic, was to climb inside my own trunk. With the Martha Stewart Scary Sounds CD repeating itself on my car stereo, I would snake out a giant spider from inside my trunk, and then drop candy into the bags.

This tradition had to be modified when a few younger kids screamed and ran in terror from the giant spider. Oops.

But it's all moot. The Crown Vic has moved on, and I'm too old and unbendable to fit inside the trunk of a Ford 500 or Taurus.

Halloween parties often involve haunted houses, but that's a worldly tradition my wife and I absolutely rejected. We argued against ever holding them at church, and we didn't take our kids to the haunted houses set up in the community. They're too much about death and horror. Not fun to put such memories into the minds of children.

So yes, we're the Halloween spoilsports in whatever ward we're in.

Easter

We're even more radical about Easter. When we first got married, we decided that bunnies and baskets had no place in our home on Easter Sunday. That was a religious holiday.

We didn't want our kids to link the real resurrected Christ with the imaginary Easter Bunny.

So we told our kids that we had a special arrangement with the Easter Bunny to come on the day before Easter. On Friday night we color eggs as a family and put them in the fridge. Then we put out baskets filled with grass. On Saturday morning, we go in search of the Easter baskets, which the diabolical Bunny hides in increasingly hard-to-find spots as the kids get older.

But it's all over on Saturday, and Sunday morning is about music and sermons and prayers of thanks.

Christmas

Public Christmas is a great American holiday, with Santa and decorated trees and presents and reindeer on the lawn and colored lights on the house -- and we love taking part in all of it.

Private Christmas is a sweet religious holiday tied to scripture, dealing with shepherds, wise men, stables and mangers, singing angels, and the birth of the Savior of the world.

How do you draw boundaries between them?

We try to keep in mind that Christmas, even as a religious holiday, is not as sacred as Easter. The Atonement is the center of everything, not the Birth. Where we don't let the bunny into our Easter Sunday, we're fine with the tree and Santa being commingled with the manger and the angels.

Belief in the Santa story inevitably leads to disillusionment. We know some Mormons who simply don't let Santa visit their homes. There are others who love the whole tradition of someone dressing up as Santa to deliver the gifts.

We tried to strike our own balance. I had learned from my parents that on the first Christmas where their firstborn child was old enough to get what was going on, she looked up at them from the midst of her Santa presents and asked, "Mommy and Daddy, did you give me anything?"

From then on, Santa brought only one gift per child, plus whatever was stuffed into the stockings. I brought that tradition forward into our own family. In fact, in our house all the Santa gifts are given in one room, and all the family gifts are under the tree in another.

My wife's family had a great Christmas eve tradition of three families of close friends visiting each other's houses in turn. I loved taking part in that, but we simply didn't have a trio of lifelong friends like that.

Instead, Christmas Eve is when we have our religious celebration and family prayer. Yes, we're in the same room with the tree, but the difference is still clear between the real part of Christmas and the fun public fantasy of opening presents on Christmas Day.

Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July

American holidays like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and Mother's Day and Father's Day are state-instituted and have no particular significance in the calendar of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving originated with the government in an era when a day of prayer was still regarded as being any of the president's business. It's good to bring that spirit into our meetings.

Yet, oddly enough, because Thanksgiving is on a Thursday, it barely touches our Sunday meetings. Yes, we sing the Thanksgiving hymns and there might be a choir number or two, but we all know the real thing is on Thursday, and it's about the family and friends who gather together for the prayer and the feast. It simply has nothing to do with the Church, and everything to do with being a God-fearing American.

As for the Fourth of July, we know that our religion assigns the American continent and the U.S. Constitution a special role in the history of the world. But in a worldwide Church, American Independence Day is only a local matter.

It's good for Mormon citizens of every country to take a church meeting to express pride in their nationality. But the era when Mormonism was a solely American religion is long past.

Mother's Day and Father's Day

I personally dislike the intrusion of Mother's Day and Father's Day into our sacrament meetings. At our church meetings, I'd like Mother's and Father's day to be just another Sunday. But don't mind me. I'm just an old curmudgeon anyway.

The gospel regards the family as vitally important to salvation. But our relationships with our parents are private and individual, and they are expressed in different ways. We all have different histories.

What feels warm and wonderful to one person might feel sappy and offensive to another -- or might bring back bitter memories of loss or pain to yet someone else. Why not leave the commemoration of those days within the family, to celebrate -- or not -- as we choose?

The problem, for me, is that instead of drawing a clear line between the Church's understanding of the family and what the world has to offer, too often we simply adopt the Hallmark Card view of the family.

That means effusive sentimentality about heroic moms. Which is fine, except that the stories always sound as if they had raised their families alone. Is it really Widow's Day after all? A day to celebrate mothers with absent, lazy, or incompetent husbands?

Then comes Father's Day, with lots of lightweight joking about dads, or praise of a particular kind of father -- the athletic/hunting/fishing/fixing-things kind of dad. Never a dad like me.

And scant admission of the fact that you can also be a bad mother or a bad father. Or that good parenting is best done by an equal partnership.

If we used the day to teach what it means to be a good parent, or if we had real gospel content, then these holidays might have some legitimate part to play in our church meetings.

Aren't you glad I don't get to make decisions about Mother's Day and Father's Day in your ward?

My Lines

Many readers may think I'm overly picky; others will be offended that I have not drawn the lines as strictly as they do.

Fortunately, we are free to make our own decisions on most of these matters.

If your ward does things differently from the way you'd like -- if you don't want your kids to have a "visit from Santa" in a ward Christmas party, for instance -- you can always stay home, or explain to your kids why you think it shouldn't happen.

Parental words and actions have far more power in children's lives than anything the world or the ward can do. Even in my fifties, and even where I haven't followed my parents' practices, I can still feel the lines they drew.

What matters most is that we have a line between the traditions of the world and the traditions of Church and family, and holidays are some of the best occasions to make that separation clear.


Copyright © 2019 by Orson Scott Card Printed from NauvooTimes.com