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On the Importance of Mayhem: Embracing All Hallow’s Eve

Written by: Sloan de Forest, Special to CC2K


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A Symbol of fun…or the harbinger of evil?

A woman I have known for over a year – one who consistently conveys a healthy, cheerful semblance of sanity – recently said to me with a straight face, “I don’t celebrate Halloween. I’m a Christian, and I just don’t believe it’s right.” Period – end of explanation. Though our conversation was carried no further than that, I think I can guess what’s scurrying through her staunchly anti-All Hallows’ Eve brain. It probably goes a little something like this: God/angels = good. Devil/demons = bad. (I was taught this in Sunday school, so I know it’s true.) Halloween = demons (or people with flimsy, flame-retardant demon costumes unconvincingly draped over their jeans and sneakers, anyway), therefore Halloween = bad. Not that this woman is stupid or particularly simple-minded, but I honestly doubt that the thought process of her rationale has been driven much further than this. After all, how many of us can say we’ve spent a lot of time analyzing why we celebrate Halloween? It’s just one of those things that we do because it feels like the natural thing to do – like laughing when someone trips and falls over.

After this seemingly isolated incident occurred, I began noticing some things I hadn’t noticed before. Is it just my imagination, or do stores that once spent the entire autumn season peddling ghoul masks and shrieking skeletons now only half-heartedly pile a few shelves with candy corn in October, not even bothering to disguise the rows upon rows of green tinsel and red Santa hats looming in the background, waiting to be foisted upon a Christmas-hungry crowd? It’s as if everyone can barely stand to suffer through that silly, secular, black-and-orange holiday so the real (read: church-sanctioned) party can begin.

 

Also, since that first Anti-Halloween Lady encounter a couple of weeks ago I’ve experienced two more acquaintances casually mentioning to me that either they don’t celebrate Halloween at all, or make a point of celebrating it accompanied only by plump, cherubic jack-o-lanterns and friendly scarecrows – no corn syrup blood, horror movies or anything remotely resembling devils, the dead or the undead. These are the same people, I suspect, who send out their homemade, glitter-encrusted Christmas cards and hang their flocked pine wreaths at sunrise on the first day of November. As a certified Halloween-o-phile from way back, the message I’m getting chills me to the bone: Christmas (which used to be one day but has been overfed until its massive girth consists of about three solid months) is encroaching on my favorite holiday. Is Halloween as we know it slowly being phased out by the Christian right?

Now let me make it clear that I live in the Bible Belt, which I’m sure accounts for much of the Halloween-is-evil attitude surrounding me. But there has to be more to it than that, because I grew up in an even more conservative notch of the Bible Belt, and yet when I was a kid there was only one house in our entire neighborhood whose inhabitants frowned upon Halloween. I’ll never forget asking my mom why that one family always kept their porch dark and pumpkinless during prime trick-or-treating time. “They won’t give out treats because they don’t celebrate Halloween,” she explained in hushed tones to my sister and me. “They think it’s sacrilegious.” In retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have egged their house later that night when mom thought we were asleep, but how could we resist? These people not only piously denied what we knew to be our God-given right to free candy on one night of the year, but as the sole home on the block not adorned with glow-in-the-dark skulls and skeins of polyester spider webs, they were simply inviting ridicule. The rest of the neighborhood kids agreed: the anti-Halloween abode was the freak house. So when exactly did rejecting the supernatural spirit of October 31st cross from freakish to mainstream?

Now let me make another thing clear before the accusations begin: I have no problem with Christianity as a belief system, or with Americans exercising their right to follow their chosen religion as they see fit, including their right to take part in certain holiday observances and not others. People can ignore Halloween, dress in costume on Columbus Day and prance naked through the streets in honor of Ash Wednesday for all I care – this is America. What I have a problem with is the ever-more-prevalent attitude that there is something vaguely and intrinsically wrong about celebrating Halloween, but everything inherently right about celebrating Christmas. Anyone who feels this way should brush up on his or her holiday history. The fact is that the pagan origins of Christmas are racy enough to make the pagan origins of Halloween blush.

Both celebrations share the same basic heritage, both are rooted in an ancient fear of the dismal days of winter. Though it may sound like superstition and ignorance to us, this fear was perfectly rational considering winter has always (until relatively recently) meant starvation, illness and freezing for much of the world’s population. Those few days between the warm, bright half of the year and the cold, dark half of the year have always been regarded as something of an in-between time – the life and death parallels are obvious – so Halloween naturally grew from this blurring of the boundaries between realms of the living and the dead. This became the time of year to communicate with departed loved ones, evolving gradually into a night of fortune-telling games and séances. To Irish and Scottish cultures, steeped in fairy folklore, the boundaries between the fairy world and the mortal world dissolved on Halloween night too; tricks were played as people imitated the prankish behavior of imps and goblins. The UK traditions of door-to-door begging and mask-wearing on Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night (on November 5th) combined with the prank-playing to form our modern trick-or-treating; North America adding the final touch with its signature carved and lit pumpkins.

Although the dead (and death’s familiars: spiders, bats, ghosts, witches, etc.) crawl out on Halloween, the holiday’s true purpose is to provide us one night of the year when we’re allowed to engage in behavior that would get us arrested, or at least garner us a few open-mouthed stares, on any of the other 364 days in the calendar. It’s a time for masquerades and high jinks; a night of sanctioned, planned mayhem. When kids began saying “trick or treat” around the turn of the century, it was not an empty threat or a catchphrase meaning “May I have some candy please?” – it was a loaded ultimatum! Any poor soul who denied treats to a caller received a handful of flour in the face, a raw egg smashed on the door, or firecrackers set off on their porch. The tricksters never hurt anyone – Halloween has never been about doing any real damage, it’s about having fun. More specifically, it’s about the fun of scaring others and being scared ourselves. It’s a designated time to safely revel in all that frightens us; to mock, jeer and cavort with our darkest fears for a while in hopes that they will abate. How could anyone have a problem with this?

The wintertime festival that eventually became known as Christmas was like Halloween taken to the extreme, with a touch of Mardi Gras and a dash of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure. Again, the fear of death/winter triggered the folks in Rome to go a little crazy during the winter solstice. The feasting of Saturnalia lasted a whole week (December 17th – 23rd), as did the drinking, gambling, animal sacrifices, and who knows what other hedonistic practices (some are probably best left forgotten). As in our current Christmas traditions, homes were decorated, gifts were exchanged and candles were lit to keep the roaming demons at bay, but there was also a sense of accepted chaos in the air. Saturnalia was a time of role-reversals and general upheaval; men and women often swapped clothes, slaves could be found giving their masters orders and kings were no better than common beggars. Businesses and schools shut down so everyone – for one week at least – could live out their wildest fantasies. When the Christian church started hankering to convert the pagans, they found out just how fond the public was of Saturnalia: these people were not giving up their favorite week of the year, even if their mortal souls were in peril! So, the church eventually designated December 25th as the birthday of Jesus Christ in order to put a sacred façade on a wild party, and voila – the Christmas season was born.

Of course, once the holiday was church-sanctioned it lost most of its edge. Heathen rites were banned and the masked merriment dropped in favor of prayer as Jesus suddenly became “the reason for the season.” It’s funny, though, how people clung to the costumed craziness of Saturnalia, transferred it to October and began unleashing it at Halloween-time instead. To me, this indicates how important one day of mayhem can be – not just to certain cultures during certain eras in history, but to the human race en masse.

From the ancient Egyptian festival of Opet to Germany’s Walpurgis Night to the French Carnival to India’s Holikotsava, designated days of masquerade, tricks and mischief have been observed in almost every human civilization since the dawn of time. If Americans stopped celebrating Halloween tomorrow, I’ll bet April Fools Day would experience a surge in popularity until it became what Halloween once was. Ban April Fools and Fat Tuesday would suddenly grow fatter (and spookier). The point is that we live in a politically correct, death-fearing society that desperately needs one night in which the rules of acceptable behavior are not just suspended but completely turned on their heads.

On Halloween, instead of avoiding that which terrifies us we deliberately seek it out. Rather than dressing to impress and gain social approval, we use clothing and makeup to amuse, shock and even disgust. This is a vital sliver of the human experience because when, for one night, we surpass the boundaries of “normal” in our behavior and appearance, our perspective broadens ever so subtly and we see the world (and ourselves) in a slightly different way the next day. Ask Pat Benatar, who used to sing in nightclubs in the late 70s (dressed in dull, lounge singer-ish duds) and got nowhere until she climbed onstage in her Halloween costume one evening. The heavy black eyeliner, black boots and skimpy get-up drove the audience wild and her career finally took off. Pat kept the tight-fitting black attire in her act from that point on, solidifying her image as a leather-clad rocker and proving the importance of one good Halloween costume.

October 31st is more than just plastic masks and kiddie candy. Everyone, young and old, is encouraged to oppose the typical on Halloween, which is something that Christmas, for all its good will, good food and fabulous prizes, hasn’t been able to offer since the fall of the Roman Empire. I’m not going to use the tired old argument about Halloween having nothing to do with devil worship (it doesn’t, but that’s not the point), and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with Christmas – I like Christmas. But Halloween, it can be argued, offers as much in the way of transcendence as the holiest of Christian holidays. It’s the day when we transcend the everyday and the night when disembodied souls come out to play. Who’s to say our souls aren’t sweetened just a little in the process?

Author: Sloan de Forest, Special to CC2K

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