Anthropology Defends Halloween

So, today I was driving, in between Halloween parades, and on my way to my second Halloween parade of the day. I was flipping radio stations searching for something to listen to. I could listen to talk radio since I only had Starman in the car and he is still too little to have an opinion on whether or not we listen to Disney music for the five thousandth time. While flipping, I landed on a gentleman discussing Halloween and all the things that were wrong with the holiday.

As it turns out, the station I had landed on was a fairly conservative Christian talk show and they were busy lambasting Halloween as a holiday where we encourage our children to dress up in inappropriate/scary/sacrilegious costumes and extort unhealthy candy from our neighbors. They spent a bit of time on the specific idea that the whole concept of "Trick or Treat" is actually teaching our children to give free reign to greediness and blackmail and extort candy from their neighbors. The show host then discussed the concept of All Saint's Day, celebrated on Oct 31st, a celebration of Christians living sacrificial lives and that somewhere along the line a bad decision was made on how to celebrate that day. He lamented Halloween celebrations and indicated that instead we should be out helping people and celebrating doing good works by volunteering and giving old folks a hug and spending time with them (his general words).

While I have absolutely nothing against doing good works and I wholeheartedly celebrate the act of volunteerism, as an anthropologist I would just like to make a case in defense of Halloween. I think that the host of the talk show was way off base when he associated going door to door and collecting candy with extortion. Extortion is a serious charge, which I believe requires forethought and malice to qualify. Instead Halloween represents the childhood fantasy of a holiday built around candy. But, from an anthropologist's viewpoint, Halloween is so, so much more than that.

My husband and I moved into our neighborhood a few years ago in the spring, and for the first 8 months we lived in the house, we did not meet or speak to any of our neighbors. It wasn't until Halloween night, when we dressed up the kids and started ringing doorbells that we had a chance to meet the people who lived around us. Now, a few years down the road, I still hold that there are some neighbors who, if it weren't for Halloween, we might never speak to. But, once a year when my kids ring their doorbell, we stand and chat like we have been old friends for a while. One nice woman from down the street even invited us in to see her new kitchen renovations.

Why is this important? It is important because, as any anthropologist would say, people fare better when they feel like they belong to some sort of community. And belonging to a neighborhood where people are connected and engaged helps keep our kids safe, helps provide a safety net if we need help if we fall ill or run into hard times. It decreases crime and promotes the swift identification and the meting out of justice when it happens. I do not see how these could be considered unchristian ideals.

Sure the kids dress up in all kinds of costumes, even scary ones, but most cultures have a celebration or holiday or tradition that revolves around the exploration of the dark side of human nature, death or demons. It allows our children to feel a sense of power, a conquering of the dark, so to speak. As far as I am concerned, all good things. Not to mention it is fun. The kids love seeing the other costumes, waving to someone after they realize they recognize them in their disguise. It brings out creativity and personality. And again, it is pure fun. Children don't understand the religious and personal reasons why they are not allowed to celebrate. I viewed this first hand when I dropped off Snowflake today only to see one of her classmates in tears at the door. Turns out, this classmate wasn't allowed to celebrate the holiday for personal or religious reason but I doubt she understood that. What she was most likely upset about was seeing all the other kids coming in, faces lit up, excitement twinkling in their eyes carrying sacks that contained their costumes and there she was empty handed, on the outside of it all.

And lastly, in response to the radio host who suggested that instead of Halloween, kids should go find an older person to hug, my children used to always visit the assisted living facility their Great Grandma lived in and the folks living there derived great joy from the joyfulness and cuteness of children dressed up with the promise of sweet revelry. Yes, there are the rude, greedy children who are just out for the "big score." But, those children would probably act that way on any day of the year. I shudder to see what they are like at Christmas. To me, that should not dictate our view of the holiday.

The night before Halloween this year one of my neighbors came over and asked if my girls would like to come dip caramel apples at their house after dinner. We went over and had a wonderfully pleasant time making caramel apples and chatting. They are a couple whose children have left home and do not have any grandchildren as of yet. They are lovely people, and I am glad the holiday gave us the excuse to get together and enjoy the company. Then, after the parades, and the visiting relatives in costume, we arrived home to find our next door neighbors emerging from their home with their 3 year old son and new daughter. My girls immediately started in, "Oh Mom look! The neighbors are going Trick or Treating, can we go with them, Please? Please?" We all ended up going around the cul de sac where we live, talking to other neighbors, laughing at the kids darting around the street and generally enjoying the night.

As we finished the girls took up stations at our front door. Some kids came from my daughter's school and we talked to them and their parents. After I thought we were all done and ready to wrap it up for the night, about seven, one of Snowflake's best friends showed up at our door. They were just getting started and pretty soon the girls were begging to go back out together. Before I knew it we were back out on the streets, not because the kids wanted more candy, but simply because they wanted to have fun being with each other. Walking with the family of my daughter's friend, we went to streets I hadn't even been on before and I was introduced to people they had met in the neighborhood. New connections were made, and our sense of community deepened.

I therefore would like to make an impassioned defense in the case against Halloween. Despite it's outward appearances and people's accusations of celebrating the macabre and encouraging greed and gluttony in children, I see Halloween as an excuse to go door to door and visit your neighbors. It is a chance to deepen the bond with your community and celebrate the innocence of fun and the simplicity of childhood where the worst fear you have is the thing that goes bump in the night. It won't be long before they realize some nightmares are real and there are far scarier things in life than the local grocery store bagger dressed up like a zombie.