It’s Halloween! This holiday has been getting bigger in the U.S., and with it, controversy has grown. If you are not from here, you may want a better understanding about some of the debates that surround this haunted day.
When I was a kid, Halloween was all about candy. My siblings and I would traipse around the neighborhood, delighting as we received a treat from nearly every house (except for those that handed out notes condemning our parents for letting us celebrate, or who insisted in giving raisins instead of chocolate). We would then enjoy having a morsel for the next few evenings after dinner and bartering for other candy at school. Eventually the novelty wore off and my dad would sneak some for himself. By Christmas, it went in the garbage because more candy was on its way.
Despite the apparent waste, and the lack of economic rationalism (what sense does it make for each child to go door to door when they can just eat candy at home?), the candy part of the holiday has recently come under attack due to rising childhood obesity rates. They have a good point, and if extra calories were the only reason for celebrating, the holiday would probably wane instead of metastasize. So why, in this low-carb, low-sugar era, is Halloween becoming ever more popular?
Children and adults alike revel in the innocent and sanitized version of what goes bump in the night. Ghosts, mummies, bats, and all of those things that scare us are toned down and made cute, or at the other end of the spectrum, jazzed up to really make us jump out of our skin. Although some religious groups see this as dangerous dabbling in the occult, many average Americans just see it as good old fashioned fun. Some people will put fake spider webs in their trees or around their front door, hang skeletons that are motion-activated, and stick gravestones in their front yard. Even my mom zombie-fied her Facebook profile pic and my nearly 80-year old grandmother has a door mat that scares kids.
Even in parts of the country that do not experience four seasons of equal length, Halloween symbolizes our traditional connection to autumn. Carving pumpkins (jack o’lanterns), decorating with leaves, visiting corn mazes, and going on hayrides are all activities associated with this time of year. It may be an even bigger deal in places like Phoenix than in colder parts of the country, as these give us what the weather cannot: a way to “have fall.” As the homecooking movement has taken off, many are experimenting with squash recipes, canning, and other fall flavors – and posting photos to their social networks.
Besides all of the above, Halloween is also a time to showcase one’s creative talents. Each year I am amazed by the pumpkins my friends carve, some with entire scenes or patterns which put my raggedy childhood jack o’lanterns to shame. For those who can sew – and who can conceptualize a cool costume – it is also a fun time to show off. I remember one girl who came to high school dressed as a bushel of grapes (made of purple balloons) and another who dressed as a picnic. Thanks to a talented babysitter, my sister was a present one year, wearing a cardboard box wrapped in paper and a bow on her head.
Costumes deserve their own category, as they are arguably the centerpiece of the holiday, and as such, the most controversial.
In recent years, a campaign has swelled against dressing up in ethnic costumes, specifically Native American, Asian, Hispanic, and African American, although this year I also saw universities including Hillbillies, Rednecks, and Cowboys on the list. (You can read about it here).
This seems to be a convergence of two trends. One is that Millennial members of these groups are vocal, socially-engaged, and fed up with being mimicked, parodied, objectified, lampooned, or just used as props for others’ entertainment. Particularly among children and grandchildren of immigrants and civil rights activists, there is a feeling that the time has come to have a voice, to stake their claim over the representations of their own identities, and to have just as much say in their nation’s holiday as those who are White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The other is that themed parties have sprung up (or have at least gotten more attention), which have showed a lack of sensitivity and good taste on the part of participants (think fraternities showing up in blackface or yellowface). This has proved the activists’ point that more awareness and criticism are needed.
Still others decry this as an example of political correctness run amok. (See one example here). Many people share the writer’s perspective that choosing to dress up as a geisha honors Japanese culture. As a child, I agreed. I wore a Native American costume one year because we had been to Jamestown and learned about Pocahontas, and I found her inspiring. I also went as Harriet Tubman once. While you gasp, it may be worth noting that my fourth-grade teacher got around a ban on Halloween parties by having a “historical person day” on October 31, during which we dressed as a person we admired and give a short presentation. I really admired Harriet Tubman for her role in the underground railroad, so I went as her. (And not in blackface).
Given what I know now, and in light of our evolving society, my own Halloween past feels uncomfortable, and I can hardly point the finger at others who choose similar costumes. But what I can say is that I personally did not know back in the early 1990s that my choices could be perceived as offensive instead of flattering (I do not mean that no activists were protesting, only that I, as a kid, was unaware). Now, as I hear the voices of those who are hurt by such actions, I can no longer plead ignorance. Perhaps the most objective way to state it is to say that, like much else, Halloween and culture are contested terrain. As this post on Thought Catalog points out, choices have consequences even if you don’t know about them, or don’t want them to.
Halloween is also the one time in the U.S. calendar when many adults feel that “anything goes.” There is a trend of women dressing up in sexy costumes (sexy pirate, sexy nurse, sexy witch, etc.), and increasingly it seems that adults are having more parties of their own instead of just waiting at home to hand out candy. Perhaps because we do not have a holiday like Carnivale where this kind of behavior is temporarily deemed permissible (with some notable exceptions, like New Orleans), Halloween has become the default day. It’s not without criticism, but I know some very strong women who feel it is their prerogative to dress up, for example, as sexy police officers, so it is hardly a clear-cut issue.
- Gender roles
Lately there has also been a growing awareness about how the way we talk to girls and boys shapes their identities, and these assumptions play out when children choose their costumes. In particular, there is concern about girls being told that they should aspire to be pretty over intelligent, like a princess over a doctor. For many parents, nothing is more precious than seeing their daughter dressed in a Disney costume, but for others, it is a moral battleground in which they try to appeal to their children’s future selves over media pressure to be cute. Likewise, there is a movement to be more open to boys experimenting with non-stereotypically male costumes, like this boy who wants to go as Alice . However, in my experience, you will see far more costumes aligned with traditional gender norms than you will those that break barriers. While social media is full of people discussing these issues, many people simply want their kids to have a good time and do not think about it too much.
Speaking of having fun, Halloween remains appealing because it is a rite of passage for most American children. Getting dressed up, being out in the cold at night, showing off one’s costume, and receiving little gifts in a pumpkin-shaped bucket epitomize the magic of childhood that adults want to give to their children. Even for adults without children, it presents a rare opportunity to use our imaginations, play, and bask in the moment. The fact that aspects of the holiday continue to be controversial might, I propose, mean that our work-oriented culture could use a bit more fun for the sake of fun spread throughout the year. So go ahead: dress up, go out, and have that piece of candy. Your inner child will thank you.