The Halloween decorations went up after Labor Day. We’d told the kids (who wanted to get them out in June) that they would have to wait for fall. When they saw the first colored leaf they insisted we get out the lights, skeletons, cobwebs, spooky posters, spiders, etc. We have more Halloween decorations than Christmas decorations, and our kids host an annual Halloween party. This year will be the fourth one, and each year things get a bit more elaborate.
Yesterday we decorated outside for the party — the entry way, and then the back “haunted” woods, including a leaf-filled “dummy” wearing a mask in the playhouse. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and the kids will be able to play outside. Halloween is also gaining importance nationally as a holiday. What once was primarily a night for kids to trick or treat and Wiccans to celebrate has become a national event. So what is the true meaning of Halloween?
Just as Christmas is not just about Christianity and materialism, Halloween is not just about the occult and candy. Indeed, just as secular folk celebrate Christmas in terms of peace, love and joy even if they do not share a belief in its religious origins, celebrating Halloween does not require one to believe in ghosts. Just as Christmas means much more than the materialist excess of holiday spending, Halloween means more than just sugar highs and candy. But while Christmas has a long track record of having meanings conveyed in cards, movies and songs, Halloween’s true meaning remains a bit unclear. I’ll take a shot at defining it.
One thing clearly associated with Halloween is spookiness. Scary movies, haunted houses (in Farmington there is both a haunted barn which really spooked the kids, and a corn maze that is haunted on Halloween weekend), and the Simpsons’ annual “Tree House of Horror” attest to that. Yet it is not really a celebration of fear. The goal is fun, an enjoyment of confronting something “scary” and laughing about it. So to me Halloween is about play and the power of imagination.
Imagination inspires costumes, spooky stories, and haunted houses. We imagine ghosts, ghouls and witches; even my four year old will roll his eyes up and don a blank face with arms outstretched to become a zombie. Imagination is fun, the limits of the real are dispensed with, as are concerns about what would really happen if creatures could suck our blood and turn us into vampires. Imagination is play, and Halloween is the ultimate play holiday. We are all playing, creating scenarios and pretending to believe in all sorts of creatures and story lines.
Halloween is also a very social holiday. In Farmington the streets are crowded with ‘Trick or Treaters,’ and is truly a community affair. People put up lavish decorations or props to make things fun for the kids, and at the very least most people have candy to hand out. If Christmas is more about family, Halloween is about community. People rarely go door to door any more, visits are planned, and if you want to see someone on the spur of the moment you usually call first. The days of just “stopping by” are long gone — but on Halloween nearly everyone’s door is open to provide children with a small gift. It is a social event.
In our society people often lose perspective, driven to anxiety by an apparent contradiction: our lives are both unimportant and extremely meaningful. No matter how serious things seem to be, in not too long we’ll all be gone and the things we obsess about will be forgotten. Yet, even if nothing in life is permanent, life is all we have. How do we reconcile those two facts?
Halloween reflects the answer: recognize the power of imagination and play, and the importance of social contact. In the film “Life is Beautiful” the capacity of the hero to use imagination and play to make even a holocaust concentration camp more tolerable for a child attests to the importance of play. No matter where we are or what we’re doing imagination can flourish and help us through, and a sense of play can add to the experience. When things are bad, imagination can keep us sane by encouraging hope; when things are good, imagination is key to maximizing enjoyment. Life as play helps us have the energy to act and achieve without succumbing to stress and anxiety. Life as play is living with perspective.
So I embrace the true meaning of Halloween. It reminds us to imagine, and to treat life playfully. Living with perspective means not letting life’s annoyances and pitfalls cause too much anxious stress or depression. Imagination is to our mental health what diet and exercise are to our physical health. So happy Halloween!