All Hail Halloween!
Damian Thompson, writing in the UK's Telegraph, recently noted that "This is the only time of year when I become seriously anti-American." The reason? He hates Halloween.
Apparently, Halloween is one of "America's worst exports" according to Thompson, and he is at least the second British writer just this year that I've noticed going on a tirade against this venerable American holiday.
Now, I don't fault Thompson (who is one of my favorite religion writers) and his fellow Brits for hating Halloween at all. The dreary streets of London suburbs simply don't mesh with the spirit of Halloween, and I'm reminded of the one Halloween I spent in Rome where tiny children wandered through the streets (all dressed in identical witch or ghost costumes) and begged shopkeepers and restaurateurs for some kind of treat that I couldn't identify.
So no, Europeans don't know a good Halloween any more than they know a decent hot dog, so I don't begrudge Thompson or his brethren on the continent who also apparently have their own reservations about Halloween.
But what a magnificent American festival it is. The smell of candles burning inside pumpkins, the sound of crunching leaves beneath our feet, and the chance to dress up and beg for free candy are all a recipe for childhood memories that easily rival the fun of even Christmas.
It's the trick-or-treating that the Brits seem to hate the most, but in America, the act of going door to door to beg for treats is as American as candied apples and pumpkin pie. Indeed, going door to door for treats was once considered the thing to do on numerous holidays. Thanksgiving especially was once considered a day for treat-hunting throughout the neighborhood, and for impromptu and raucous parades of strangely dressed citizens looking for a fun time.
Over time, these door-to-door parades were quashed by the guardians of the respectable middle classes who thought such activities too working-class and too un-bourgeois to be tolerated. Thus, they invented the Thanksgiving turkey dinner and the Thanksgiving football game rituals out of nothing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in an attempt to replace the more spontaneous celebrations of the common folk.
But Thanksgiving was a cynical creation of government, and Halloween has never been a government-sanctioned holiday, so it is all the more encouraging that trick-or-treating thankfully survives in spite of all the efforts of fear-mongering suburbanites and crazed religious devil-fighters who do their best to ruin the holiday every year.
And what a testament to the inherent goodness of humankind that trick-or-treating survives. Every year, millions of Americans go out and drop quite a bit of money on treats for children, and then give it away for free. And, in all these years of trick-or-treating there are no documented cases of poisonings of children by strangers. Yes, some sick people have poisoned the Halloween candy of their own children, but the risk of being poisoned by some nut in your neighborhood is just about zero.
In spite of what the guardians of decency may have us believe, most people simply aren't interested in poisoning children. Instead, we Americans take great joy in handing out free stuff to people who ring our doorbells and demand candy.
If foreigners can't appreciate the sheer fun and exhilaration of such a festival, so be it. I can't stand it when Americans act like there's no such thing as a uniquely American culture. Maybe the average American has become too ignorant and classless to know it, but American civilization is simply among the best in both music and in English-language literature. And it's been that way for well over a century.
And it's some of that excellent literature that informs what we think of our best secular holiday. The entire mise-en-scène of Halloween comes to us from Americans.
While the idea of the jack-o-lantern may come from an Irish version made from turnips, the modern jack-o-lantern, made from pumpkins, which are native to the Americas, is as American as they come.
And when we think of the elements of Halloween with its dark forests and headless horsemen and gothic freaks and menacing ravens, we are taking a page from the works of writers like Washington Irving and the inimitable Edgar Allen Poe who is the undisputed father of the American horror movie, the ghost story, and the American folklore behind haunted houses and masquerade balls.
Yes, tales of werewolves and monsters, and even Dracula and Frankenstein's monster come to us from Europeans, but that unique feel of Poe-ish gothic creepiness within a chilly North American autumn is what we all strive to re-create every 31st of October.
What Halloween is complete without a recitation of "The Raven?" And who would let a Halloween go by without carving a jack-o-lantern? Hopefully few of us would be so thankless as to let such a great American opportunity pass.
October 31, 2009
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