I decided to just sit quietly and let the students hash out this cultural dilemma amongst themselves. It was nearing the Mexican holiday of Day of the Dead, and our Christian university students were arguing about what was appropriate for a Christian to do or not to do during this holiday. Since I was still in the cultural learning phase and didn’t fully understand all the implications of the holiday for Mexicans, I decided to keep my mouth shut and see where this conversation goes.
“Yes,” said one guy in the group, “I know that we don’t want to glorify death, but what about eating the Pan de Muerto (the traditional Bread of the Dead was sold in all the stores this time of year.) My Grandmother makes it, and it’s SOOOOO good! Do I offend her? Do I NOT eat the bread? But I reeeeeally like it!” A hot debate burst open between the students who argued that the Pan de Muerto symbolizes everything they were wanting to avoid, and those students who felt that you can’t become corrupted by what you eat like Paul arguing about food sacrificed to idols. I could see both sides of the debate. Personally I was thinking about how shocked and offended our students would be if they knew that I had 3 carved pumpkins in my backyard as we spoke! Heathen!!
In the end, the Pan de Muerto issue was not resolved, but the students agreed to make their own “ofrenda” or display to show their campus how Christians view death. They constructed a cardboard coffin and painted it black. Inside the coffin they placed a mirror at head height. Around the mirror they wrote scripture verses, “It is appointed unto man once to die, then after that the Judgement,” and “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” I was impressed at what they came up with!
I was inspired by their solution. So at our own house we decorated for Halloween, which is just starting to catch on as a candy-centered bonus to Day of the Dead. I bought a ton of candy, pulled out a box of pocket sized Bibles in Spanish that a team had given us, and fired up my computer to print up some bookmarks with those verses on them in Spanish. That night as the Trick-or-Treaters rang my doorbell, I gave out 75 Bibles and 125 bookmarks with Bible verses on them!
Secretly, I also bought a loaf of Pan de Muerto just to taste it. I wasn’t impressed, so that detail no longer tempted me. But you can see that as a missionary, I had to decide how to handle a holiday that is based in the pagan culture. What does it look like from the perspective of the Christians in THIS culture? How do I go about becoming all things to all people so that I might win some? Can I use the base of a pagan holiday as a tool to do something good for the Kingdom of God? Heck yeah! The Devil is always trying to take our good stuff and twist it for his evil plans, so I just consider this and eye for an eye.
We don’t have Halloween here in Costa Rica. It’s still considered a pagan holiday from America. I’ve noticed that the Fanta (soda pop) company has put up billboards with silhouettes of bats and jack-o-lanterns, but nothing over the top spooky. It’s just not accepted here. Some of the grocery stores dabble in selling pumpkins, but there aren’t many sold, even fewer carved, and most people only buy them as a novelty… secretly wondering how to eat the thing. We bought 3 mini pumpkins to decorate the coffee table at home, and that is the entirety of our Halloween festivities.
I have to say, it’s really nice not to have that pressure anymore. I don’t have to create a costume for each kid, with the ever-increasing pressure to out-do my last years’ creations. I don’t have to buy any candy for greedy monsters and sugar-high superheros. I don’t have to man the front door and sweat it out, hoping that my stash of goodies lasts until the last group passes by. And I don’t have to chase my kids around an over crowded harvest celebration, trying to keep their fairy wings and wigs in place while they bounce through the carnival games and “jumpy house”. My kids only know what Halloween is from watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” and from the pictures that families post on Facebook of their kids at harvest parties and church pumpkin parties. The whole holiday is kind of on the perimeter of our awareness, but no one really cares. I’m happy about that.
The one new, imported “holiday” that I got a kick out of last year was “Black Friday”. Even though Costa Ricans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, somehow the concept of Black Friday sales appeared in malls all over the country just last year. But I thought it was funny that often the prices were not actually SALE prices and the Black Friday Sales lasted until the following Monday or Wednesday, no biggie. So the concept is slowly catching on, just not the actual DETAILS of the “holiday”.
And I have to say, I hope it never catches on like it has in America. Black Friday has become very frightening to those of us not obsessed with shopping. I just can’t fathom the emotional rush that a sale can ignite in people. The obsession to possess has in actuality possessed the obsessed! But for Costa Rica’s sake, I hope it never gets as out of hand as it has gotten in America. I hope they never make “Black Friday” a real holiday here… nor Halloween for that matter. We are better off without the stress and hype of both of those imported holidays. But I won’t object if someone sends me their left over Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Butterfingers.
My Favorite Valentine Candies- If anyone wants to send me some, I'd love you!
When I moved overseas I carried my old culture with me. But my holiday joy fell out when the bottom of the box broke. Holidays just aren’t the same in another country. You don’t realize how much emotion is packed around each holiday until you try to unpack them and realize that no one around you feels the same way about this date on the calendar. Much of the culture built into each holiday is developed in childhood. But if you don’t spend your childhood in this country, you don’t have all the same packaging around your memories.
Think about it. Do you remember the first Valentine’s Day heart you decorated in Elementary school? Probably not, but I bet you remember the joy (or stress) of passing out your cards and candy in class. And where did you learn about Martin Luther King Day? Probably in school. And who doesn’t remember all the hype and build up before Easter and Halloween?- holidays synonymous with Candy in the kid world. And what if you moved to a country where Thanksgiving and Christmas were no big deal- or worse- didn’t exist?! Would you feel jilted if you had to go to work when your American friends and family back home were celebrating together?
Holidays aren’t the same overseas. For us here in Costa Rica, Juan Santamaria Day just doesn’t thrill my soul. And unless we go buy them ourselves, July 4 comes and goes without fireworks (but you can hear fireworks on random other days… like last night.). Unless you are Catholic, Easter means a two week vacation to the beach instead of a new dress, an Easter basket, and a special church service. No one has ever heard of the Easter Bunny here! (And they have a Rat instead of a Tooth Fairy! Imagine growing up with THAT legend crawling under your pillow!)
So when I unpacked my box of holiday memories, I feel the sadness of losing something that I didn’t even know I had. We make a lot of sacrifices to be where we are and to do what we do, and this one hurts me a lot. We do our best to replace or replicate the broken holiday joy, but it’s never the same. We will always be outsiders on those special holidays in our adopted country, and over time, we start to forget about the American holidays that come and go without a Hallmark card reminder. I guess holidays don’t travel well.