Friday, November 12, 2010

Evolving Traditions of Halloween

In just my own life-time, popular attitudes towards Halloween have changed considerably. As a kid in the 1970s, my friends and I enjoyed dressing up in costumes and going trick-or-treating. We did worry a bit about wackos putting needles and razor blades in the treats, but as long as it was not a homemade treat and the factory seal on the candy was intact, mom wasn’t too concerned.

My elementary school always had a big daytime Halloween Festival on a Saturday before Halloween. We kids wore our costumes, played games, and without our parent’s knowledge sometimes bid on silent auction items. It was a lot of fun and was a big money maker for the PTA. At some point, however, they changed the name mid-season from the “Halloween Festival” to the “Fall Festival.” No one ever explained why. I had a vague sense that the prior name must have offended some folks. As a kid, I didn’t think too much about it, but guessed it was similar to how in music class we always made sure to sing both Hanukah and Christmas songs in December. And the songs chosen by our aptly named teacher, Mrs. Wise, were always pretty bland and avoided religious references. Instead of singing about miracles or Jesus, we sang about dreidels and Santa Claus. Back then I wasn’t sure how Halloween might have offended someone’s religion, but I had a general sense that was why the festival’s name was hastily changed.

At some point as I got closer to junior high, it was clear I was too old to still participate in the festivities and I didn’t think much about Halloween for a number of years. Halloween was baby stuff. But to my surprise, in college, Halloween experienced a resurgence in popularity among many of my peers. It was an excuse for some to put on costumes (togas were a popular one as I recall) and drink beer in massive quantities. Perennial nerd that I am, I did not go in for that sort of thing. Keg parties were just not my milieu. Instead, I hung out with friends in regular clothing on Halloween drinking lattes or eating Mexican food.

After undergraduate school, when I was an au pair in France in the 1990s, my French host family told me they admired the American holiday of Halloween. They had read about it in a magazine similar to National Geographic. They considered Halloween to be an interesting cultural difference between me and them. My French parents thought it was a really lovely tradition that children got to indulge their imaginations to dress in costumes and visit neighbors to receive sugary treats.

My French mother was no secular leftist; she was in fact a pretty conservative woman. She was a stay-at-home mom to five children and a practicing Catholic. One of her aunts was a nun serving in an overseas mission; one of her uncles was a priest who ministerd to a local community of Roma. My French mother had a pretty traditional view of the role of women. She also did not permit her children to watch T.V. except on rare occasions, and the family did not even own a VHS or DVD player. The only popular music in the house was the French equivalent of Raffi.

I had never thought about Halloween in quite the terms my French mother had described. It was interesting to hear an outsider’s perspective on my culture’s traditions. I remember my French mother was interested in trying to organize her neighbors into observing Halloween as a fun, community building event that the kids would enjoy. She asked for my advice in the logistics of Halloween, and I did my best to share my cultural insights.

I didn’t think too much about Halloween again until many years later when my husband and I became parents. When our first daughter was barely a year old, we had two different adorable costumes for her. She wore a comfy lion sweatshirt outfit at her nursery school. It had a hood with a mane, and the pants had a little fuzzy tail. Then we walked her around the neighbor in a Winnie the Pooh costume. It was fun. She was so cute.

Each year since then, our kids have gotten more involved in choosing their own costumes. They look forward to dressing up and getting candy. I’ve even made a few of their costumes though my sewing skills are quite limited. Fortunately, they’ve had mercy on me and chose to dress as Pocahontas, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, i.e., characters who wore fairly simple smock type outfits that mommy could actually put together.

This year, our kids talked my husband and me into dressing up as well. At our kids’ direction, I went as a princess and my husband dressed as a pirate—complete with tiara and eye patch, respectively. We wanted to be good sports because we know the kids will not always want to dress up, and we were honored they even wanted to include us in the fun. At some point, they will undoubtedly be embarrassed to do things publicly with their nerdy parents. But on the other hand, my husband and I were a bit mortified to wear silly costumes outside the safe confines of our home, and we frankly hoped to not run into anyone we knew as we escorted our kids around the neighborhood to go trick or treating. We were grateful that trick or treating doesn’t begin until after dark!

Our family does enjoy Halloween, but it is not a huge deal for us. We never get around to decorating our home, though last year we did stick a pumpkin near our front door. We never got around to carving it, so it ended up staying there through Thanksgiving. It seemed to go with several fall holidays and never went bad.

In the weeks leading up to Halloween, however, our kids actually get a little nervous at the macabre approach that some folks take when celebrating the holiday. Grocery stores, drug stores and many other types of businesses decorate in pretty gory and spooky motifs to encourage Halloween sales. During that period, my husband has to be careful which aisles he goes down when he takes the kids grocery shopping.

He took them to a drug store for their flu shot last month. They were already nervous about being stuck with a needle, but at the sight of angry looking skeletons and threatening monsters all over the store, our younger child began trembling and screaming hysterically, refusing to go to the back of the store to get her shot. She is typically pretty brave, and has fearlessly apprehended spiders in our home with her bare hands. But skeletons and monsters are a different matter. My husband tried to keep calm at the public drugstore meltdown though this was quite a challenge.

On another occasion when they went to a party supply store to get a piñata for a birthday party, our younger child had to be carried through the scary stuff to get to the benign kiddy piñatas. She had to bury her face in my husband’s neck and shut her eyes tightly. My husband said the decorations at that particular party supply store were really over the top and even he was a little creeped out. If he hadn’t struck out with respect to the paltry piñata selections at several other stores, he wouldn’t have even gone to that party supply store.

And even just trick or treating can be a little dicey these days. A few of our neighbors decorate in such gruesome ways that we have to avoid their house when we trick or treat; our kids are too frightened to approach such homes even when Skittles or M&Ms are on the line. For example, one neighbor hung across the front of their home an absolutely humongous skeleton with an angry face, outstretched hands and ghost-like gauzy attire. The skeleton was much larger than a grown adult and was very ominous looking. Our kids wouldn’t go near that house; we had to walk (quickly) on the sidewalk across the street.

There was another house in our neighborhood that decorated with pretend butcher cleavers, knives and drills with fake blood dripping from them. On Halloween night, those same homeowners were blaring Marilyn Manson music, had some sort of contraption emitting smoke, had added more decorations of monsters, and had someone on the front yard dressed as Jason from Friday the Thirteenth. Our kids were terrified just walking across the street from that house, and refused to trick or treat at any of the more benign looking houses in the vicinity.

Beyond the sometimes disturbing decorations, some families also try to scare trick-or-treaters, even the real little ones, which makes the holiday a challenge. One year when we took our kids trick or treating, a teenage boy laid down in the middle of the sidewalk in front of his home pretending to be dead with fake blood on him. His parents were a few feet away handing out candy. As we walked by, my older daughter was very nervous and asked me “Is that boy ok?!?” I assured her that he was just pretending, but it freaked her out and we went home not long thereafter.

At another house that year, the parents were in the garage handing out candy in a seemingly benign setting. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw that there were several teenage boys in the dark by the side of that house dressed in scary costumes and about to pounce on us. Knowing this would terrify my kids (and not wanting to be woken up for many nights to come as my kids suffered nightmares), I called out to the hiding teenagers in a friendly voice, “Hi! How are y’all doing tonight? Happy Halloween!” This alerted my kids to the teens’ presence and diffused the possibility of a surprise attack. The teenagers were visibly annoyed that I had ruined the opportunity to terrorize pre-schoolers.

I just don’t get families like that. Why would parents let their kids terrorize little folks like that? I also just don’t understand the over-the-top approach many vendors take to increase Halloween sales. I also don’t get those gross haunted houses that spring up in October that are intended to scare teens and adults. What on earth is the appeal of all that? I’ve always thought of Halloween as a holiday for little kids, but it seems to have been taken over by older folks. In the process, at least in some contexts, it sometimes seems like little kids aren’t able to enjoy the holiday any more.

In my failure to understand these things, I sometimes feel that maybe our family is just really out of it. We don’t watch much TV and my kids get scared by things that don’t affect other more media savvy kids. Maybe our family is not in the mainstream culture, but I’m glad my kids (as well as my husband and I) are not desensitized to violence. And our own cautious acceptance of Halloween traditions makes my husband and me at least somewhat sympathetic to the growing number of families who refuse to celebrate Halloween at all.

Genesis 3:17

The ground will sprout thorns and weeds, you'll get your food the hard way, Planting and tilling and harvesting, sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk, Until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried; you started out as dirt, you'll end up dirt."


  1. "Halloween", aka "All Hallows Eve", was originally not a children's event. It originally was celebrated as a time when "the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin"( and the purpose of costumes was to disguise oneself from evil spirits. It seems from what you describe in your post, that older kids (teens) and adults have shall we say "taken back" the holiday--what with the emphasis on images of death(skeletons) and monsters, all of which seem quite appropriate, except for the excessive marketing, that is(wink)

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