Well, that’s done for another year. You know what I mean: Halloween. Call me a sour puss whose kids are beyond the trick-or-treat phase, but Halloween seems to get more eerie every year, and not in fun or healthy ways. The ghosts and goblins come out earlier, with some stores now stocking Halloween candy and costumes before Labor Day. On daily autumn walks through my suburban neighborhood, I saw a growing number of houses with tombstones and skeleton hands rising from lawns and white sheets flapping from trees. In today’s cancel culture, which suppresses Columbus Day and considers “Merry Christmas” a microaggression, it’s safe to celebrate death and the dark side of life for several weeks before October 31.
I would not mind this Halloween mania so much if it were part of something larger—an appreciation of the very good and natural human desire to gather, recreate, and commemorate. But the focus on this one fall day is more indicative of a greatly reduced calendar of shared celebrations and an impoverished sense of what a festive culture looks like. Indeed, we need the opportunity Halloween gives us to put on the mask of death and express—and, hopefully, control—the darker impulses of our humanity. But the celebration loses its value and balance when separated from what traditionally has come after—All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, when we celebrate the light of this life and the afterlife. After all, the name Halloween is short for All Hallows’ Eve, and has meaning only in relation to the following day, which is dedicated to the saints.
The drawn-out Halloween season is not just a chance for marketers to fill store shelves between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. There’s a hollow rot beneath the spooky masks. With religious practice waning and churches closing, Sunday is just another day rather than a time for rest, worship, regeneration, and togetherness. What was once the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, a prompt to restart our clocks according to God’s time, is now a day for football and other sports or maybe for online gaming or website surfing in the growing digital universe. Sundays, saints’ days, holy days, fast days, days of harvest and plenty—they just don’t fit well into this virtual web of assumed identities and relationships. Most of us, secure in suburbia or isolated in urban settings, separated from the lay of the land and the cycle of the seasons, lack the common experience of nature’s beauty—and fury— that drew our ancestors together in tribal survival alliances. Yet our spirits still yearn for close connections and stirring dramas of life and death. Though sometimes intriguing and informative, the increasingly woke and obscure Google Doodle games fail to fill the void.
And so we are left with an ever-expanding celebration of Halloween, the perfect holiday for the growing number of people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. We all have an intuitive sense of death, and also fear at some level our own entry into that unknown realm. In Halloween we share a basic anxiety about life itself, along with candies and sweets. Not a bad deal.
Of course, trick-or-treating during a pandemic is scary business. Last year, following best CDC advice, we left candy in plastic jack-o-lanterns on the front stoop for the kids to take. We could hear the young ones arriving in socially distanced groups yelling “trick-or-treat” as they took their handful of wrapped goodies while their parents stood by with bottles of hand sanitizer. Back in my day, we were warned about sickos putting razor blades in apples or lacing candy with LSD, but today kids worry about someone either purposely or inadvertently coughing on their candy. In the age of COVID, danger has become more general, evil less personal—you can catch and carry death during an innocent evening of trick-or-treat.
This Halloween, COVID weary and vaccinated, we opened our doors to the troops of house-hopping ghosts, ghouls, witches, and monsters. Parents looked less nervous than last year, yet kids were again double-masked, the inner one to protect, the outer one to scare. We still fear one another and don’t know how to interact as our breath mingles.
It’s evident to me that, on its own, Halloween cannot bear the full burden of our shared humanity and inevitable death. Halloween alone is like the white witch’s world of Narnia, “where it’s always winter but never Christmas.” Today in our Halloween world, it’s always “Eve” but never “All Hallows.” The scary decorations are put away November 1st, and the saints do not come marching in. So let those of us who have the hope of faith celebrate as though discovering something new and bold on the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Go to church, put candles in your windows, sing hymns and songs, and bring flowers to graveyards, assured in the resurrection of our loved ones and ourselves. The eve is long-passed, and the everlasting day is dawning.