Monday, October 31, 2011

Why Halloween Matters

Today 161 million people in the United States are celebrating Halloween. That makes it our second most celebrated holiday behind Christmas. (Or third highest if you count the Super Bowl as a holiday.) 70% of Americans are spending money on Halloween this year, the highest percentage ever. They are shelling out more cash per person than ever before as well...even in a down economy. $72.31 per person...or a grand total of $6.86 billion. There is a national shortage of black turtlenecks this year. So, you can guess who a few nerdy guys in your office will be going as tonight.

Chart: Halloween 2011 - Average Historical Spending

Halloween 2011 - Average Historical Spending
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Chart: Halloween 2011 - Plans to celebrate

Halloween 2011 - Plans to celebrate
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All of this spurs a few thoughts in me. Here are the reasons why I think Halloween works so well in our culture...and why, ultimately, I think it is more good than bad.

1. An excuse to celebrate.

Sure if you go back far enough you will find that this "holiday" is really the day before a church holiday celebrating the saints. This was the day to drive out the evil spirits from the village. If you look even further you will see that before the church got a hold of it, it was an ancient Celtic tradition to light bonfires on October 31 and scare away a few ghosts and zombies. I am going out on a limb here and saying that 99.9% of the people spending almost $7 billion aren't doing so as a sacrifice of praise to some evil force. Some of my people (evangelical Christians) get a little worked up about the origins of Halloween. I don't think the origins have anything significant to do with the modern American tradition. I don't think demons are rejoicing that kids are dressing up like Angry Birds and Harry Potter.

Most American holidays are the same way. Modern Christmas has a little, but not much, to do with the birth of Christ. Modern Independence Day and Memorial Day (much younger holidays than Halloween and Christmas) have relatively little to do with Independence or Memorial. For some people they do...but for the majority of Americans those days are about burgers on the grill and fireworks in the sky. Even MLK Day, a holiday less than a generation old, is becoming more of a mid-winter's day off than a true solemn reflection on civil rights. September 11th is not an official holiday, but it is the closest thing we have now to a day of remembering. That said, I'd bet the farm that my grandkids will have that day off school and have no idea why.

I should say that none of this really bothers me. It just is. It's up to me to teach my kids about these traditions - and I do some of them and not others. My whole point here is that we live in a culture that is way less concerned with remembering (origins of holidays) than using them as an excuse to celebrate. Maybe behind all of this is that we don't celebrate enough. People need to party...

2. An excuse to play.

Halloween gives us (adults and kids alike) an excuse to play. We are more pent up than we would ever care to admit. Truth be told, we should all dress up and pretend more than one day a year. As a trained improviser, I see this more clearly than most. I would submit that part of fascination with Halloween is that it is a free pass to take a risk, to improvise, to pretend. Everyone who wants to play gets to play on Halloween. Try showing up to work in April dressed as Gandalf. It won't go over well. But anything goes today...

3. An excuse to be generous.

People are all selfish, right? Halloween proves that, doesn't it? Greedy little kids begging for candy door to door. It's pathetic. is really more about the people giving out the candy. Every year I hear people complain that they didn't get enough greedy little beggars at their door. Sure, every fourth house is locked up and darkened to keep the little ones away. But three out of four are lit up and waiting for an excuse to express generosity. People love to share when it feels safe to do so. Who doesn't like watching a five-year old princess light up after landing a snack-sized Snickers? Giving is good for the soul.

4. An excuse to be communal.

Most of us live in neighborhoods or apartments designed for isolation. As an introvert myself, I see why this is not a bad way to go. The downside is obvious. Most of us don't know our neighbors, let alone love them. Then comes that one night in October when you can't avoid them...unless you flee the neighborhood for a few hours. Every Halloween you get a glimpse of a neighborhood running on an open door policy. And for most of us, it feels strangely right. For some of us, it gives us the courageous to be more neighborly other nights of the year.

Of course, you could look for all of the negative indicators that our fascination with this night brings. They are there - excuses to be gluttonous or promiscuous or whatever. But let's not overlook what is trying to break through...maybe all of this is really a desire in us to be a bit more normal in a world that says normal people never dress up as superheros, give away candy to strangers or hope someone comes knocking on their door asking for a handout.

For those of us who believe God is redeeming everything on the planet, it only makes sense that a pre-modern Celtic tradition rooted in the fear of demons, ghosts and zombies would morph into an excuse to love our neighbors in America several thousand years later.

Happy Halloween to you and yours.

*Halloween stats courtesy of National Retail Foundation.


Rod said...

I had never had it explained like this before.....just that it was evil....even though I knew it's wasn't....thanks for putting insight into my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Joe - great perspective!

skruthaupt said...

I can not figure out the reference to a shortage of black turlenecks and nerdy guys at the office. Please reveal the mystery.

Just Vegas said...

@skruthaupt, Steve Jobs