Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why We Need Halloween

I have a particular gift for selecting the seat at a banquet table right next to the person I am least likely to enjoying having a conversation with: bores, braggarts and people who believe I will be fascinated by a recitation of their various medical conditions. It was during the last week in October some years ago that I was seated next to a woman who was delighted to learn that I was a pastor because she was certain I would support her cause, which was a national ban on Halloween and everything associated with it. Away with trick or treating! Down with jack o’ lanterns and cardboard cut-outs of witches on broomsticks! Be gone, ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night! In her eyes, Halloween was a demonic festival, propagated through the combined efforts of “atheists and devil worshipers.”

I cannot resist a quick aside here. Why is it that such folks believe that atheists reject Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism but think that “devil worshipers” are really swell people? If atheists reject the truth claims of all religions, why would they make an exception for devil worshipers? But I digress.

The woman was shocked, of course, to learn that I – a pastor no less! – had no objection to Halloween. I tried to explain to her that its pre-Christian history among the Celts had nothing whatsoever to do with Satan, but she wasn’t buying it. Someone whose mind is already made up has no interest in facts, so arguing with them is the equivalent of mud-wrestling with a pig: you just get dirty and the pig gets annoyed.

There are also folks who object to Halloween for non-religious reasons. Some see it as a celebration of greed and tooth decay. Others view it as another bit of consumerist hype, or an excuse for adults to drink too much and behave in a licentious manner (even our morally upright Goodwill stores sell fishnet stockings for sexy witches). There is a dribble of truth in all these objections, I suppose, but in the end they all amount to the same thing: some people get offended and upset by anything that looks like too much fun.

Halloween is when kids get to deal with the things that frighten them – monsters, pirates, ghosts, witches – in the healthiest way possible, which is to make fun of them. It is what sociologists term a “transgressive” festival, where we deliberately do things we normally do not. Small children should not be wandering the streets after dark, but on Halloween it is ok to do so (with a parent hovering nearby, of course). Small children should not accept candy from strangers, much less beg for it, but on Halloween we break that rule. Responsible adults with high moral values should not be dressing up like hookers and pimps. In a very real sense, we affirm our normal values and practices by violating them in small and safe ways for a special occasion. How will we know where the acceptable boundaries are if we never step a single foot outside of them?

Halloween is about being silly, about breaking the rules a little bit, about a tiny whiff of danger. It is about having fun simply for the sake of having fun. Children understand all of this intuitively, which is why they get so wonderfully excited. When times are hard and the economy is in the toilet, we need Halloween more than ever.


colin said...

I'm going as the scariest thing of all ... a socialist.

Otherwise, I might go as a Real American.

trina said...

Of all the ghosts and goblins, I think Colin's costume is by far the scariest! Great writing...

trick or treat!