Why You Should Let Your Children Celebrate the Holiday – The Case for Halloween
“You can’t go, honey. You know we don’t celebrate Halloween.”
I have lost track of the number of times I’ve heard a parent or guardian deliver that line, or one very much like it, to some poor five-year-old who doesn’t understand why she can’t go trick-or-treating with her neighbors, participate in her elementary school’s costume contest, or join her friends at the haunted corn maze outside of town. While it is ultimately the right of parents to decide which holidays their children honor, it is imperative that the guardians of children realize exactly what their kids will miss out on if not permitted to celebrate Halloween.
Even more so than Christmas, Halloween is the ultimate children’s holiday – a day of fantasy and let’s-pretend, games and parties, chocolate and caramel apples and copious amounts of candy. It is the one day a year where the backyard legends and make-believe worlds of childhood come to life and roam the streets in search of treats, an enchanted day where children morph from ordinary kids with early bedtimes, chores, and homework into Jedi Knights, princesses, superheroes, pop stars, and whatever else they dream of.
On Halloween, it is the children who hold the power, instead of the adults, a truth aptly revealed in the common query “Trick or treat?” Though this question is asked more as tradition than actual threat nowadays, it harkens back to a time when kids really would egg cars, decorate homes with toilet paper, and play other youthful pranks on households that failed to cough up candy. Both the “treat” and the “trick” testify to crucial components of childhood. The former bears witness to children’s proclivity for sweet things, their love of desserts and festivities, their ability to live purely in the moment and thoroughly enjoy a candy bar without fretting about cavities, calories, and all the other potential consequences of indulging. But children, for all their sweetness, are also tricksters with playful, mischievous sides, a trait demonstrated in their declared willingness to trick any adults who dare to wrong them on Halloween night.
Halloween thus provides kids with a safe forum to dress up, enact their daydreams, express themselves, challenge authority in the most innocent way possible, and hold at least the illusion of authority over the adults who usually regulate their lives. Halloween overturns the usual rhythm of the structured school day, exchanging it for a day – and late night – of health-free sugar highs, juvenile jokes, monster masks, and frivolous, fantastical fun.
But what of the much-bemoaned (at least, in certain circles) “harmful” aspects of Halloween – you know, that holiday that, far from being holy, supposedly glorifies the mutated and the monstrous, the underworld and the undead? In truth, there is nothing remotely evil in the celebration of Halloween. Cultures both ancient and modern have long honored the dead and the process of dying, recognizing that life is but another fleeting stage of phenomenal experience and that death is the unavoidable outcome of birth. Those who genuinely make an effort to study and understand traditions such as the Mexican celebration of El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), the Japanese Bon Festival that honors deceased ancestors, and the Festival of the Dead held in ancient Egypt realize that there is nothing cultish or demonic in these practices. Rather, festivals such as these, Halloween included, enable us as human beings to both celebrate and come to terms with our own mortality, while at the same time providing an atypical venue for speculating on the nature of what awaits beyond this life. For a thorough exploration of Halloween and similar death-oriented holidays around the world, I suggest reading American author Ray Bradbury’s short, hauntingly beautiful novel The Halloween Tree, which provides a much more poignant defense of Halloween and its place in the hearts of children than any I could ever hope to give.
Bradbury’s novel has quite a few things to say to the oft-quoted members of conservative religious groups who insist that Halloween leads children down a path of darkness. Of course, there is no evidence that kids who celebrate Halloween or any other holiday honoring the dead will go on to become Satanists, suicide bombers, or serial killers, just as it is not true that all children from families who reject Halloween will remain on the straight and narrow path of righteousness. A variety of factors, from childhood abandonment and lack of parental guidance to trauma, genetic makeup, and personal inclination, combine in myriad ways to create social deviants, criminals, and sociopaths, but the celebration of Halloween has never been one such contributing factor. It is ridiculous to assert any kind of correlation between attending a Halloween party and joining a cult, between dressing up as a glow-in-the-dark skeleton and choosing to worship the devil. In fact, kids who are exposed to Halloween and allowed to celebrate it grow up just as normally as their sheltered counterparts, if not more so, considering they have the added bonuses of being included in their peer group, comprehending and identifying with the traditions of the secular world, and feeling empowered by the opportunity to dress up for a day and explore the world of magic, mummies, and Mars Bars that is Halloween from a child’s point of view.
There is something about being young that makes the idea of death fascinating rather than fearful, hilarious instead of horrifying. Perhaps because they are so much closer to birth than death, children tend to be more eager than their parents to explore and express the macabre aspects of reality, more willing to admit to their own mortality and confront their fears and questions with regards to what lies beyond. Teenagers and college co-eds, of course, take this brave attitude to new heights, challenging every polite, socially-acceptable notion of death and giving their pent-up fears, buried longings, and unexpressed emotions full reign by co-opting Halloween and making the holiday their own.
In a world increasingly bounded by rationality, science, and technology, by what can be seen, dissected, analyzed, or made into a Smartphone app, people of all ages need an outlet for their admittedly irrational, yet nonetheless inescapable, fear of the dark – or, more to the point, fear of whatever lies in wait in the darkness. Halloween provides an opportunity to collectively peek outside the boundaries of reason and resurrect the archetypes of humankind’s most deep-seated fears – bloodthirsty vampires and flesh-eating zombies, invisible ghosts and spell-casting witches, shape-shifting werewolves and dangerous, magical beings who are more than human but decidedly less than divine. No matter how technologically advanced our global society becomes, we will always carry within us the genetic memories of our pre-human ancestors, huddling in a cave around a flickering fire as unseen creatures pace and prowl outside. No matter how many forms of energy and light we learn to harness, we will always fear the dark. And we will, therefore, always need Halloween – to express those fears, to explore them, and, ultimately, to embrace them.