Saturday, October 31, 2015

Re-Thinking Halloween

I'm from that post-war Baby Boom generation that grew up in the Golden Age of Halloween. We bought - or improvised - a costume and happily went trick-or-treating from building to building (and apartment to apartment within each building), bringing home candy, apples, and not a few coins. Halloween has an inherently transgressive dimension - like all such once-a-year topsy-turvey holidays (e.g., "Feasts of Fools" and Holy Innocents Day festivals in the Middle Ages). That transgressive dimension survived symbolically in the donning of a costume, the assumption of a false identity (heroic or royal) which one was not entitled to in ordinary life or which one would not normally want in ordinary life (witches, ghosts, etc.). But otherwise it was all pretty much tamed by my time and was understood to be more fun than frightening or threatening in any way.

Since then, Halloween has become fraught with fears of a different sort. Parents now accompany their children as protection, and candy is carefully scrutinized for safety. In some places, the Nanny State has even taken it upon itself to regulate the time and date of Halloween - even rescheduling it to an alternative day, thus depriving it of its vestigial historical and religious symbolism.

And now the censorious scolds of "political correctness" that now increasingly dominate places like universities have gotten into the act - warning celebrants against, for example, "cultural appropriation." The whole messy situation is detailed in an article in today's NY Times“Halloween Costume Correctness on Campus: Feel Free to Be You, but Not Me.” 
(online at

It may indeed be true, as the censorious scolds of "political correctness" contend, that the melding of cultures is often about which group has the power to take symbols, styles or language from another. But it is likewise true that such power differentials are more than symbolic in origin and that they remain largely intact unless more serious substantive conditions are addressed. Policing language - so favored by cultural elites - does not in itself accomplish that.

In any case, what this misses is that the whole point of transgressive holidays like Halloween is to permit precisely what is normally not acceptable, even while keeping the transgressions within certain restraints, within the bonds of "fun." Of course, not every transgression is fun. Insensitive forms of mockery that are more insulting than fun are rightly reprobated. No one I ever heard of or saw when I went trick-or-treating, ever dressed up as Stalin or Hitler, for example. But a sane society can make sensible distinctions between what is totally out of bounds and what is only moderately so. And such a society also provides serious moral education and character formation for its young that enables them to learn to make those necessary distinctions.  But a society that becomes so rigid that it cannot accommodate any ritualized transgressive behavior at all is in serious danger of being a society in which no one will ever be able to have any fun at all.

But, back to Halloween, which has also come under fire from religious groups as well. According to Terry Mattingly in today's Knoxville News Sentinel - "Good vs. evil influences of halloween festivities considered" - many religious people are increasingly less likely to see Halloween as just "all in good fun." Apparently, Catholics have a more favorable view of the holiday (71%) than many Protestants (only 41%). This, the author suggests, may reflect the historical connection of Halloween with All Saints Day. Thus Fr. Steve Grunow of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries is quoted as saying we need to affirm what Halloween meant in the past while rejecting the "violent, macabre" themes and "pop-culture images" of "today's secular holiday."

Therein, I think, lies the real challenge, since the secular holiday has largely overtaken the original religious significance of Halloween and All Saints. In moving the feast of All Saints from May to November, the medieval Church was symbolically celebrating the triumph of Christ over the demonic elements traditionally associated with the pagan festival we now call Halloween. And, in so doing, it also celebrated the historical triumph of Christianity over pre-Christian European paganism. If Halloween is now a $7 billion extravaganza that now largely overshadows All Saints, perhaps it may likewise be becoming a symbol of the cultural triumph of a new post-Christian paganism over a Christian faith increasingly being consigned to the past. If that is the case, then I am all for re-thinking and ultimately even abandoning Halloween.

That said, I went to the store this morning and stocked up on candy to give "all in good fun" to tonight's trick-or-treaters, whatever the holiday may actually mean to them!


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