Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween!

The Halloween I grew up with in 1950s America was a happy, fun holiday. The Halloween I grew up with in the Bronx in the 1950s was a very kid-friendly holiday, that had apparently incorporated some of New York's old "Ragamuffin Day" traditions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, New York kids would dress as stereotypical "tramps" or "hobos," and these "ragamuffins" would receive apples or candy or even pennies from their neighbors on Thanksgiving Day, the custom that would later turn into Halloween "trick or treating." 

By the 1930s, however, there was a reaction against the practice. Perhaps the reality of the Depression, when there were far too many real beggars in America, made people uncomfortable with the custom. The City's Superintendent of Schools declared that "modernity is compatible with the custom of children to masquerade and annoy adults on Thanksgiving Day." Instead of begging for treats, costumed children participated in neighborhood parades, one of which had as its slogan "American boys do not beg." These parades themselves soon died out, however, as the much grander Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade became city's the most prominent public Thanksgiving Day event.

Children (and sometimes adults) dressing up and parading around in costumes has, of course, been around a long time and may well be universal. Variations on such customs can be found, for example, in pre-Lenten carnivals and the Jewish festival of Purim. Given Halloween's ancient Celtic origins, I was not surprised to learn of masquerading's centuries-old association with Halloween in Britain and Ireland. Shakespeare famously referred to "a beggar at Hallowmas" in his play The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Such imported Halloween customs seem to have become very popular in the US in the early 20th century - just in time to displace New York's old "Ragamuffin" traditions.

The Halloween that I grew up with featured costumes of all kinds, but the old tradition of dressing up - or rather down - as a "tramp" or "hobo" or "beggar" remained popular, and I can well remember going trick or treating so attired on several occasions. In those wonderful days, we went out in late afternoon after school and in early evening after dark. We rang doorbells in our apartment building and other nearby buildings and typically netted the traditional apples and candy and cash (no longer just pennies, but nickels and dimes and occasionally even a quarter!). It was fun, and it was safe, and no one ever imagined a day when parents would want to - or be expected to - accompany their children. It was a truly children's holiday. As I have suggested before, Halloween's peculiar evolution in recent decades into an adult celebration for adults as well as their children may be a perverse praise of that old children's holiday. Maybe because we "Baby Boomers" liked it so much as kids, we continued it into adulthood!

But the point is that Halloween should remain fun! Adults can have Halloween parties if they want, but the focus should be on a happy and fun kids' holiday!

Of course, I am conscious that Halloween has its serious side as well. Around the 8th century or so, All Saints Day was moved to November 1. (Previously it had been May 13, the anniversary of the rededication of the Roman Pantheon as a Christian Basilica in 609.) In relation to the older pagan festival on the previous day, All Saints celebrates the victory of Christ over the demons and of God's grace over sin (as manifested in the lives of the saints) and, in an historical sense, the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Halloween's contemporary prominence sadly seems, at least in certain circles, to symbolize the reverse - a revival of paganism and its attempt to subvert Christian faith in the modern world. 

These are important concerns. But they need not prevent us from enjoying the Halloween holiday our history has created for our younger generations to enjoy.

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