October 16, 2010

Why bother to save Halloween?

Written by - Richard Seltzer

Halloween is in trouble. Each year editorials in magazines and newspapers and on television warn of dangers to children. And each year more communities "ban" Halloween.

So what? Who needs it? What is Halloween anyway? It's just an excuse for big kids to make trouble, little kids to eat too much candy, and candy companies to peddle their wares. Bah, goblin-bug!

Or so I thought until, despite all the warnings, I took my three children out last Halloween. Nine-year-old Bobby was the boldest. Seven-year-old Heather held back and was reluctant to approach houses of near neighbors she didn't know well; but curiosity and pride in showing off her home-made witch's costume won out in the end, and she'd go racing after Bobby up the walk, and be just as delighted as he was at the smiles and words of praise and handfuls of candy that greeted them. Three-year-old Mikey held me tight and wouldn't let me put him down, but he wouldn't let me take him home either, watching all the doings intently.

The same as previous years, many of the people we visited were folks we only see at Halloween even though they live just a few doors away. Most of them, the elderly especially, had bought supplies of candy and were waiting. Most gave out two or three times as much per kid as they had originally intended, because there were so few kids out. And they were as delighted to see the kids as the kids were to see them.

When I got home, I couldn't help but wonder what had gone wrong with Halloween. And it occurred to me that it wasn't just a handful of crazy people who were endangering this tradition and the joy it can bring to little children and adults as well. It's apathy on the part of everyone else, the failure to recognize that Halloween plays an important function in our society, the unwillingness to speak out in defense of Halloween when the media were so unanimously against it.

tumblr_l9resv7IMO1qd1iswo1_500 So what's so important about Halloween?

Maybe at one time Halloween helped exorcise fears of death and ghosts and goblins by making fun of them. Maybe, too, in a time of rigidly prescribed social behavior, Halloween was the occasion for socially condoned mischief -- a time for misrule and letting loose. Although such elements still remain, the emphasis has shifted and the importance of the day and its rituals has actually grown.

Nowadays people often don't know their near neighbors, much less the neighbors a few blocks away. For little chidren these strange houses and strange people are a source of fear and anxiety. Children have been taught not to trust or talk to strangers, to beware of them. But on Halloween that prohibition is lifted; and, with fear, but impelled by curiosity and greed for candy and other loot, little ones ring doorbells at houses of strangers to find time and again that these strangers are really friendly people like the people they know well.
In the course of the evening they gain confidence in themselves and in their neighborhood and come away not only with bags full of candy to be enjoyed for weeks after, but also a warm feeling about their neighborhood and people in general.

As for adults, especially the elderly and those who never had chidren or who haven't had young children at home for some time, children in the neighborhood are normally a source of anxiety and distrust. What mischief and vandalism might this strange new generation growing up with television violence be capable of? On Halloween night their fears too are exorcised, as wildly and imaginatively costumed kids parade to the door, a reminder of what they themselves did as children -- a common link of experience.

Looked at another way, Halloween is a time that reconfirms the social bond of a neighborhood (particularly the bond between strangers of different generations) by a ritual act of trade. Children go to lengths to dress up and overcome their fear of strangers in exchange for candy. And adults buy the candy and overcome their distrust of strange children in exchange for the pleasure of seeing their wild outfits and vicariously reliving their own adventures as children.

In other words, the true value and importance of Halloween comes not from parading in costumes in front of close friends and family, but from this interchange with strangers, exorcising our fears of strangers, reaffirming our social bond with the people of the neighborhood who we rarely, if ever, see the rest of the year.

So when you hear all those warnings about pins and poison, use caution and common sense. But don't just abandon a tradition that you yourself loved as a child, that your own children look forward to months in advance, and that helps preserve our sense of fellowship and community with our neighbors in the midst of all this madness.

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