Archive for category Halloween

The True Meaning of Halloween

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!


The Way Halloween Should Be

Living out of town a few miles, it’s necessary to head into town to go trick or treating.   We met up with a few other families, and made our way through the streets of Farmington, Maine, criss-crossing the street to hit every house with a light on.   The town was full of trick or treaters.  Families had to stock up on mass amounts of candy in order to serve all the kids that prowled the streets…robots, ninjas, hippies, zombies, skeletons, ghosts, witches…the sidewalks were so full of kids and parents making the rounds that it was sometimes like a traffic jam.   We ran into friends, people were laughing, having side conversations, and the spirit of community was intense.   This is how trick or treating was meant to be.   One house even had a tub full of apples kids could grab or bob for.   None of us had even a passing concern that a razor blade would be in one (unlike my parents when I was growing up).

Halloween is holiday numero uno in our family.   We have our annual halloween party every year (this year it was on October 25), usually with 20-30 children and just as many parents.  Our spooky woods in the back yard were elaborately decorated.  Not only did we go out there in the afternoon to play and have a scavanger hunt with some games, but the highlight was going back there after dark.   The play house, a small log cabin, had a laughing witch, a spider that descended from the ceiling, and numerous little decorations.  The kids would ring the scary doorbell, go in (only four or five could comfortably fit at a time), and then go through the spiderweb netting down the exit slide.    Watching all the kids laugh and have fun (and ingest lots of sugar — that’s part of the holiday spirit) was fantastic.

We start decorating for Halloween in early September.   The kids started getting excited, talking about what they were going to be, and of course planning the party.   This year was the third annual party since Ryan was 4 and Dana 1.   Our Halloween decorations even outnumber the Christmas ones.    For the last month and a half we’ve been playing Halloween songs (Wee sing for Halloween, Kidsbop Halloween, etc.)   We made a conscious choice to make Halloween the “big holiday” for the kids, and so far it’s paid off.

The reason has nothing to do with religion.  Some Christians eschew Halloween because of all the pagan symbols (I think they take that too seriously).   Wiccans, of course, see it as the most important Holiday.   For us, it’s a mix of a few things.  First, we love autumn, and with our back woods play area, it’s beautiful even in late fall.    Second, Christmas is about family, and our family is far away.   Many Christmases we spend either alone with the kids, or going to friends.  We play the Christmas carols, and talk about the spirit of the season, which is first and foremost LOVE.

But if not family, Christmas for most people is about religion and a church community.   We have neither.  I have strong spiritual beliefs and want my children to learn about all major religions and respect them, but I can’t with good conscience make them become part of one.   Thus, Christmas is usually not the kind of social season for us that is for others.    Since the university is on break, many of our friends travel, though it’s been hard for us to afford to get out to South Dakota.  For me I think Christmas is personally much more meaningful than Halloween, since I experience Christmas as a time to reflect on the power of love and connections between us all, but so far the kids are too young to really understand that with much depth.

Halloween, on the other hand, also has a sense of ritual and community.   It’s fun.  A few places go all out with haunted walks, and there are, of course, spooky hay rides and a place we didn’t get to this year, a massive corn maze.  But walking with friends on crowded streets full of laughing children on a warm full moon night, that’s priceless.  When he saw the full moon, Ryan was beside himself, “Daddy, look,” he said eyes wide open with excitement, “It’s Halloween and we have a full moon!!!!  Oh man, this is the best day of my life.”  (That would make it about the 100th ‘best day of my life’ he’s had this year, but who’s counting?)

This weekend we also mowed the yard to mulch the leaves, raked the back woods play area, cleaned the garage so the cars can fit there in winter, and it felt like we were getting everything ready for the onslaught.  The leaves are almost all fallen, though still beautiful on the ground — and who cannot help but love the smell of fallen leaves.    The grass is still pretty green, but within weeks all will be covered with snow.   We played on the swings and took down the Halloween decorations, realizing that this is the time of the year when the summer growth gives way to the stark and cold beauty of winter.   Late fall has an eerie beauty, Halloween is the perfect holiday to celebrate that.

To top it off, the Vikings beat the Packers 38 – 26 in an exciting game which puts the Vikes clearly atop the NFC North.   “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”