We have family friends that love halloween. For these families, this holiday is a time when children are free to run around in public, at night, dressed up as someone else. Ok, this part? Yeah, this is fun. About 15 years ago, one such family, who have since become great friends, converted their entire backyard into a giant Candy Land playing board, complete with friends acting out the characters, so that kids could work their way around the yard in search of King Kandy, the Lost King of Candy Land. And this was all before dark, when families could return to their neighborhoods for the trick or treat candy crawl. Serious fun.
We loved the whole run around the neighborhood thing when we were young. But our thoughts about Halloween are complicated. We have never quite recovered from the experience of our own very young children becoming terrified by the images of angry and lecherous ghouls on billboards advertising the halloween “superstores” … these images hovered over our neighborhood for a full month prior to the holiday. We called out, “Cover your eyes!” whenever we drove that section of El Camino. When we remember the way our innocent children were driven to tears by thoughtless businesses whose target audience seemed to be the more calloused mind of a teenager, we feel something close to fury.
Now, if we’re talking about young children becoming exposed to reality, even hard or disturbing realities, we are not ones to shy away. We are the kind of parents who will speak honestly with children about illness and even death. We don’t think they need to be protected from reality.
The question for us, is what exactly is real and true about Halloween? Most people know that Halloween is the evening before All Souls Day in the Christian Church calendar. What used to be called All Hallows Eve became Halloween. All Souls Day is a day to celebrate saints that don’t get a day to themselves, which means every normal person of faith who has died. Traditionally, in the Catholic church, one would pray for the souls of the departed. In the roots of the Halloween tradition the ghosts of the departed, conveniently, knock on the door to remind you to do so: if you give them a prayer, they bless you … withhold the “treat” and they will haunt you. So. Halloween: babies dressed up like pumpkins, 2nd graders in $37.99 Disney costumes, and teenagers in horror-movie masks and hoodies come to your door to demand sugar.
In the 21st Century United States, we have a very uneasy relationship with questions of death and what follows. And since we mostly don’t think about it, and don’t know what to say to our children about it, our solution seems to be to abdicate the whole question to candy and costume companies, who seem to take their cues from horror movies that many adults refuse to watch. These companies do know a thing or two about making money, but since young children have no money of their own, their concerns have less to do with the overall tone of the holiday. Halloween is a season populated by imagery that is closer to a teenagers thrill-ride or an adult’s nightmare than anything we want in the mind of our children.
We guess we have to deal with it: halloween is NOT a season to remember those who have died, nor to pray for the departed if that’s your tradition. It’s probably too much to ask that once a year we consider that death is a part of our story and is perhaps worth giving a little thought to. Halloween, in this culture at this time, has become a season to remember that our culture is hopelessly lost in a state of confused horror when it comes to death. We may dress our little ones up as vegetables or baby animals (as if we needed an excuse to do that), but it won’t really shield them from the strange haunted-house culture around them.