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  • Jan Flynn

Do We Need Halloween?

Yes, we do. Now more than ever

Photo by Sudan Ouyang on Unsplash

We’re already eating candy and wearing masks, so why Halloween?

It’s the weirdest holiday we celebrate in the U.S., and hasn’t this year been weird enough? Our lives have been reconfigured in ways we couldn’t have imagined back when we were taking down last year’s Christmas lights. Add the pandemic to a host of natural disasters and a looming election in which the suspense might literally be killing us, and 2020 is already a living horror story.

So is this really a time when we want to revisit an occasion with murky origins steeped in 2,000-year-old Druidic mysteries? The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain established the basics: with winter approaching and the hours of sunlight fading, the Druids figured that the veil separating the dead from the living reached its thinnest point, so attention must be paid.

The bad news was, returning ghosts had a fondness for spoiling crops and making trouble. The good news? According to the Celts, the thinning-veil situation made excellent conditions for fortune telling. On the night of Samhain (it’s pronounced nothing like it’s spelled, and let’s assume it was October 31, but who really knows), Druids built huge bonfires and everybody dressed up in costumes. Why that helped with the ghost situation is unclear, but people got into it just like they do today. With no Halloween Spirit stores or Amazon available, the cosplay tended toward animal skins and skulls rather than sexy vampiresses or rubber masks resembling celebrities. Since candy was not really a Celtic thing, everybody stood around in the bonfire-light, wearing their hides and animal heads, trying to tell each other’s fortunes.

Something like political pollsters right about now, come to think of it. But I digress.

With the Roman conquest of Celtic territory, followed by the rise of the Church, Halloween underwent a certain amount of reinvention while retaining the costumes and ghosts. The Romans incorporated their day to honor the dead plus the autumn harvest celebration in honor of the goddess Pomona, whose symbol was an apple. That explains why we bob for apples, or did until recent years, when we finally realized it’s a disgusting and unhygienic thing to do. In 1000 AD the Church established November 2 as All Saint’s Day, perhaps in an attempt to co-opt the popularity of Halloween — and, several centuries on, that combined with Mesoamerican and Spanish traditions to inspire Mexico’s El Dia de los Muertos. So it’s complicated.

But in America, Halloween is just goofy

Little kids dress up and beg strangers for candy; adults dress up and behave ridiculously. Pumpkins are carved. Giant inflatable yard decore is displayed. “The Monster Mash” and “Thriller” are played ad nauseum. Obscene amounts of candy are purchased, distributed, and gleefully consumed.

For one night, everybody gets to put aside their usual concerns and composure and pretend to be somebody else — a princess, a pirate, a presidential candidate — or to personify something horrifying, like a monster, a zombie, or a presidential candidate. We can flirt with our fears and laugh at mortality and pretend we don’t know what all that sugar (or whatever’s in the punch we’re drinking) is doing to us.

The next day, we get up, go to work, and face the fact that the serious holidays are bearing down on us like a tractor trailer that’s just lost its brakes. But we’re ready to power through. We’ve been refreshed, if overindulged, by the one celebration that despite its history is devoid of serious meaning. It’s playtime for kids and grownups alike. Cultural recess.

And that’s why we need Halloween this year more than ever

It won’t be the same, just like everything else in life thanks to bleeping Covid. Big parties are out, or they damn well should be. Ditto haunted houses. Trick-or-treat, if it happens at all, has to be finessed with social distancing and sanitized treat distribution. The streets will have to be content with remaining eerily empty rather than crowded with little flashlight-wielding demons trailed by their parents.

But that doesn’t mean we have to give it up entirely. The kids need a break; we all need a break. We can’t cave when it comes to safety measures. Relaxing our guard because we’re sick of the pandemic presents a real fright, especially with winter and flu season approaching. But with some imagination we can enjoy the evening anyway.

Party with your pod, if you have one

Double down on the costumes; why not? Bonus points for incorporating Covid masks into your getup, and extra candy corn for anybody who comes dressed as a coronavirus particle (maybe accompanied by a vaccine shot). Go ahead and decorate like crazy — even if nobody else sees it, it’ll lift your spooky spirits.

Or hop in the family hearse and drive around town to look at other people’s decore — the giant inflatable spiders, the pretend graveyards, mummies in front porch rocking chairs, and of course jack-o-lanterns. And then go home and watch a classic horror movie or two (personally, I love watching old Hitchcock films on Halloween), while munching on carmel corn or Whoppers or whatever suits your fancy. Halloween calories don’t count.

Show 2020 it hasn’t knocked the fun out of you

Yes, a diabolically contentious election is days away, although its outcome may be in question for much longer. Meanwhile the end to the pandemic is nowhere in sight, and there’s winter coming on. And, like I said, the Big Three holidays — Thanksgiving, followed by your preference of Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or Winter Solstice, and then New Year’s, all of them centered around getting everybody from far and wide together in one place which is exactly what we need to avoid — will be here before we know it.

But, assuming we get through all of the above in one piece, when it’s all said and done it won’t be 2020 anymore. Whatever is next in our political future, the pandemic can’t last forever. With resolve and diligence and a little luck, we can anticipate better times ahead.

Meanwhile, we need a little goofiness. Happy Halloween, everybody.

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