Friday, October 31, 2008

The Great Halloween Dilemma

Happy Halloween, everyone! Oh, wait. Happy All Saints' Eve! Er...happy vigil of the feast of All Saints' Day?

You know where this is going, don't you?

Every October 31st, Catholic families, especially homeschooling ones, wrestle with the question of just what to call the day, and just how to celebrate it. Is Halloween pagan and evil? Is Halloween silly harmless kids' fun? Is Halloween overly-commercialized to the point where it will soon be the Christmas of October? Is Halloween too gruesome and scary these days? Is it better, more holy, more spiritual, more right, to celebrate All Saint's Day instead?

In point of fact, since Halloween is just a shortening of All Hallow's Eve, which itself pretty much means the vigil of the feast of All Saint's Day, I don't think it really matters all that much what you end up calling it. So, Happy Halloween, everybody!

But all those other questions remain. Now, I don't think you can make the claim that Halloween is pagan and evil; at least, I can't make that claim. I realize that serious scholars dispute the pagan connections to the day's celebrations, and just how many of the old rituals got wrapped up in the new ones--but then, we have the same fight every year about Christmas, and whether the tree or the lights or the various Christmas foods are somehow a continuation of some kind of old evil paganism, and what Real True Christians (tm) should do about it all. The point is that regardless of which of the scholars of antiquities are right about how much or how little influence the various pagans (Druids get blamed a lot) had on our present celebrations, unless you're busily stirring a cauldron full of foul-smelling stuff and chanting Druidic (or would-be, fake Druidic) spells, you're not practicing paganism by celebrating Halloween (or Christmas for that matter); you can't be a pagan by accident.

It's pretty clear, too, that the intention of Halloween is for it to be silly harmless kids' fun. Whether the kids in question dress up as superheros and go door to door looking for goodies, or whether the kids in question dress up as saints and have a blast at an All Saints' party, the point of the evening is hardly forging chains of thralldom to the evil underworld, is it?

So far, I've been pretty neutral about Halloween. The truth is that we've celebrated it in two different ways: costumes and trick-or-treating, and saints' outfits and an All Saint's Party. The reasons I got tired of the first way of doing things and started participating in the second way had to do more with the next two questions in the third paragraph: Halloween as over-commercialized, and Halloween as gruesome and scary.

I may not be the crunchiest of crunchy-cons, but I've started to feel unsettled about our nation's way of celebrating holidays. As soon as the back-to-school clothing and items disappear from the store shelves (in early to mid July) the first glimmerings of Halloween merchandise start to show their black and orange glory in the "seasonal" aisles of the big-box stores; and long before Halloween even arrives we can see the Christmas trees and other "holiday" goods being set up in the hopes that the longer the items are on display, the more of them will be purchased by eager consumers who can't get enough of red and green plastic. If Halloween were just candy and costumes it would be bad enough to have these items on display from before August through the end of October; but now we have Halloween goods in every section of the store, as if people can't celebrate October 31st without hanging pumpkin-face towels in their guest bathrooms and purchasing the matching hand-soap dispensers and other accoutrements with which to festoon their homes long in advance of the actual holiday.

And nearly all of those goods are made overseas, most of them in countries under Communist rule, where the young people--many of them women--work fifteen hour days seven days a week for a salary that equals a few hundred dollars a month. Reporters are digging into the toxic working conditions and other exploitative business practices that characterize these workers' lives--but as long as there is demand for these kinds of cheaply made, worthless seasonal goods, the goods will be produced.

Granted, the average Catholic homeschooling family isn't really contributing to this problem--few of us go out and snap up silly "seasonal" items, and many make and re-use costumes even if they are choosing to celebrate the "trick-or-treating" way.

But the other disturbing trend in Halloween is the trend toward the gruesome and scary--really scary, not "silly green-faced witch on a broomstick" scary--aimed and directed at our children by the marketers behind the masks and costumes.

In a big-box retail store last night I saw a little boy, younger than any of my children, gleefully playing with a fake knife his parents were buying for him, making stabbing motions with it. Now, I'm well aware that little boys can turn almost anything into a weapon, and I have no problem with toy knives or even toy guns--but this thing was grotesque: the "blade" part was clear plastic, and every time the boy made the "stabbing" motion dark red fluid like fake blood filled the blade, so that it looked as though he was holding a knife drenched in blood. The boy thought this was great, and was having fun aiming it at his little sister.

Is it just me, or is that way too graphic a "toy" for a child to be playing with?

I've heard from parents who can't even take their children in or near the "Halloween" aisles of the stores: from the truly horrific monster masks to the Frankenstein statue whose motion sensor makes him rip his own head off every time someone gets close, this stuff is the stuff--literally--of nightmares. By the time a child is old enough not to find these things frightening, he's almost too old to be trick-or-treating anyway.

Our girls went trick-or-treating the first few years we lived in this neighborhood. It always seemed like a bit of an anticlimax: all that costuming and preparation, followed by about an hour of going door-to-door for too-much candy, not all of which they could even eat (allergies, alas). So when my sister-in-law, whose littles were even littler than my girls, suggested a family All Saints' party as a substitute we jumped at the chance to celebrate in a way that would last longer and be more fun for everyone.

At this point, two of my girls feel like they're "too old" to trick-or-treat anyway (boys seem to enjoy this aspect longer, don't they?). So getting to dress up like a saint or a virtue and then going to a party with games, food, fun, and a really awesome cake (at least, when it's Aunt's turn; they can't wait for the pumpkin cake roll!) is much more fun than going door-to-door for candy.

Now, is it better, holier, more spiritual, etc.? I'd never say so. Not everyone has the opportunity for a party like our family party, and there's certainly nothing wrong with the "trick-or-treat" variety of celebration. We decided to do what we're doing because this really is what works best for our families, and it's turned out to be a lot of fun, and to be a way to keep Halloween special and exiting long past the age when trick-or-treating seemed like the most fun thing in the world (which seems to be somewhere between five and eight, but that's probably just at our house).

The truth is that there's no one "right" way to celebrate Halloween. This really is a holiday for which the Bean Principle, "Do what works best for your family," seems to be operative. However you celebrate All Hallow's Eve, have a happy celebration--and a wonderful All Saints' Day tomorrow!


drewann said...

Don't know if you saw this on The Deacon's bench...
I enjoy your blog very much!

Daddio said...

I've heard some pretty good discussion of this topic on The Doctor Is In podcast lately. We've decided to trick-or-treat in saint costumes. Partly because we didn't get invited to any saint parties this year, and also just for fun. The Dr. recommended telling kids that the scary stuff - skeletons, tombstones, etc. - is there to remind us of the reality of hell, to pray for the dead, and to make sure our own lives are holy so that we don't end up there. Nothing wrong with that, i reckon. Our kids are very sensitive towards scary stuff, so we'll have to avoid those houses that go over the top with fog machines and scary music and screaming and such. But we can still have a good time and bring a little religion to the nice people who ask them "Who are you supposed to be?"

Evergreen said...

What really first opened my eyes was hearing the perspectives of my immigrant friends and husband. They found Halloween to be disgusting and morbid and they wondered why we celebrated it. I began to see how desensitized I had become and I didn't like what I saw, nor could I really defend it to my own satisfaction.

John Thayer Jensen said...

My wife and I grew up in America and of course did the Hallowe'en thing. We have lived in New Zealand for the last thirty-five years and - also of course :-) - it seems very strange now. And there is a little tiny bit of it creeping in here now, but almost exclusively because of people seeing American films and shops seeing there is a bit of money to be made.

But I have realised that the holiday is something that perhaps most cultures have - a holiday that is not religious in character, not patriotic, has no particular purpose (like Labour Day) - it is, in fact, sort of like the Saturnalia.

In Italy, it's Carnival.

In New Zealand - from England, of course - it's Guy Fawkes.

If it doesn't get out of hand, I don't suppose it's too harmful - but as I say, for us who now are more Kiwi than Yank - it's a bit weird :-)


Journey of Truth said...

I think that "toy" knife is over the top, but then, most of that gore junk is. My kids dressed up in what they had and added a bit of black make-up (two went as goth; one went as a robber). Neither were scary, but all forbidden in daily life *wink*. It's just a bit of fun to collect candy. I do have to say, ALL of the kids I saw at our door (and some neighbours) were exceptionally polite this year - not one of them grabbed, pushed or shoved, and all of them said "thank you". It was quite different from last year's crowd.

Scott W. said...

This Halloween it was my three kids and two others we saw around the neighborhood in a decent sized city. We were the only ones in the neighborhood with a carved pumpkin. So there is the onslaught to banish religious holidays, demographic winter will sweep away the rest. Halloween pagan/not pagan? Sounds like a deck-chair/Titanic issue. :)

eulogos said...

First of all, I used to love Halloween as a kid. I dressed as a princess, a robot, a gypsy, all home made. The robot was cardboard boxes painted silver by my father, a very uncomfortable costume to wear but pretty impressive looking. Most kids dressed as ghosts, ie in sheets with holes in them, or as a gypsy, or a vagabond. The vagabond costumes-I can't remember the other name for this-were ragged clothes, blackened faces, and a stick with a bundle tied to it. There were few two income families in those days and I lived in a working class town, so bought costumes were extremely rare. There was no fear of razor blades in apples or poison or any of those horrors, so many people gave handmade treats. We were often invited into people's homes for cocoa and marshmellows or hot cider. We went out without parents from the age of 6 or 7,or younger if older siblings had us in tow, in groups of kids, and no one thought to tell us not to go into people's houses. Kids did this right up to high school age, and everyone did it. There were crowds of kids on the street.

When my kids were young, I went with them. There were still lots of kids on the street and most people had a pumpkin out and lights on and gave candy. By then many more kids had bought constumes; mine stuck with gypsies, princesses, cats, ghosts, witches, and devils, all homemade, I had a large trunk full of stuff to make costumes out of. We did trick or treat for hours. We insisted on a good meal before we went, and after a brief glut afterwards we doled the candy out over a long period. They had fun trading each other for favorites. I admit to not making anything religious out of the holiday although I explained its relation to All Saints day to older ones.

I have seen a decline in the number of people out doing this over the past ten years. Last night I sat out on the porch with my bowl of candy and my lighted pumpkin, and only ten kids came. Because I enjoyed this so much as a child, and my kids enjoyed it so much, I am sorry to see this. The aspect of it which was so good is that the whole community was involved and older people interacted with the kids in a positive way.

I suddenly feel as if I have become an old lady talking about "the olden days." Geez, I am only 58.
But in this case, I do think the Halloween's of my youth were "the good old days."

Susan Peterson

Red Cardigan said...

You know, Susan, I think you may have hit on one of the problems we have today with Halloween.

We've lived in our neighborhood eight years. We know the people on either side of us and a couple of others, but many of the other houses have been occupied by different families over this time period. The family from Pakistan who used to live across the street don't anymore, but they never participated in Halloween--it's not part of their culture. Some of the other non-English speaking families don't participate either for much the same reason.

If we go just a few houses down, we start to hit people we don't know at all: renters who come and go, people who don't have kids and keep to themselves, divorced/remarried couples where the husband is the same guy we met years ago but the wife/girlfriend is different, single homeowners who don't quite see the point of handing out candy to other people's kids.

And for that last, it's hard to blame them, because once the first half-hour of trick-or-treating is over I don't recognize the kids coming to our house--and I see the cars following them around, driving and dropping the children from who knows where to likely clusters of lighted houses. Lots of our trick-or-treaters don't live anywhere near here: people seem to "pick" neighborhoods where the houses are close together and where plenty of porch lights are on, and go door to door miles from home.

In other words, trick-or-treat isn't a neighborhood or community event anymore, at least not where I live. It's just a brief contact with total strangers who probably won't live there next year, and most of the time it involves children who aren't part of the community either.

Anonymous said...

Halloween is still very much a neighborhood event where we live. Our neighborhood is an old coal patch (that is, the little "town" a coal company created about 100 years ago to house its employees) that is a bit isolated from the main part of town. We don't have a lot of trick-or-treaters, but have finally (after 4 years of living here) come to know some of the families down here pretty well. We were invited into several houses this year, and the kids had a blast! We're pretty big fans of Halloween--it works out well for us.

We skipped our parish All Saints Day party so that we could go visit grandma today and do some trick-or-treating on the mountain my husband grew up on. It was fun, too. Now I just have to try to resist all this candy!

--Elizabeth B.

LeeAnn said...

Not so many gory costumes this year. Instead we had old school friends of my daughters come to our door as "dead" versions of themselves. They were wearing regular clothes but with a little bit of fake blood coming out of their mouths and noses. It seems to be the cool thing. The dead cheerleader. The dead bride. The dead princess. Little Dead Riding Hood. Yuck.

Our hs group had an All Saints' party last Sunday, so we did both trick or treating and saints. But we managed to make the majority of our costumes from stuff we had at home, so little cost (which is good). I took one of your ideas for expanding the saints costumes a bit and my son dressed as a golfer, representing St. Andrew. :)