What in the world has happened to Halloween? When I was a child, it was a welcome celebration, but a modest one. As grade-schoolers, we were given a little party in our classrooms, and then permitted to parade in costume through the halls of the high school to be admired by our elders. That evening, trick-or-treating was the order of the day – along with handing out candy to those who braved the sheet-and-pillow ghost that we gleefully tossed out of an upstairs window. That was it – and it was wonderful.
But today, Halloween has become one of the biggest days on the American calendar. U.S. consumers will spend $3.29 billion on Halloween this year, up 4% from $3.12 billion last year, according to a survey by the National Retail Association and BIGresearch. And the average consumer celebrating Hallowing will spend $59 on merchandise.
No, Halloween isn’t what it used to be, and it’s worth asking why. How has a formerly low-key, unpretentious occasion become, in effect, the kick-off to the holiday retail season – and why has a day previously devoted to children become a “drinking” holiday, to the point where 54% of all alcohol-related traffic deaths last occurred between October 30 to November 1, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving?
In one sense, it’s easy to understand how Halloween’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. With Christmas celebrations ever more frequently interpreted by some as an ill-bred form of Christian triumphalism, Thanksgiving increasingly used as an occasion in schools to examine the treatment of Native Americans, Columbus’ reputation under assault from the left (which has tried to refocus Columbus Day on “indigenous peoples”), and Memorial and Veterans’ Day condemned in some quarters for their glorification of the military, Halloween is, happily, one of the few events left untainted by modern political agendas.
But more than that, it’s almost the only holiday on the American calendar that’s not about someone or something else. Unlike Valentine’s Day, no sweetheart is required. It celebrates no particular ethnic heritage, like St. Patrick’s Day does. And Halloween entails none of the religious commitments presupposed by Easter or Yom Kippur. Nor is it about the birth of America – or dedicated to anything grander than ourselves and a good time.
Certainly, there should always be a time and a place for fun – and the occasional costume party never comes amiss. But when grownups routinely begin to usurp what used to be a children’s holiday, perhaps it’s time for us to ask what that says about our society in general. Why have adults begun to find it so compelling to shed the shackles of maturity each year, and to disguise themselves in increasingly risquÃ?Æ? Â© or gruesome get-ups for raucous parties? How is it that sophisticated (and profitable) haunted houses have replaced the home-grown varieties that were a part of many neighborhoods in a simpler time? Is there a particular allure these days in the supernatural (or the “dark side”) that figures so prominently in Halloween observations – or do we really have so little (or so much) to fear that we welcome the opportunity to enjoy few cheap (or cathartic) thrills?
As we mark Halloween, between bites of candy or sips of “adult beverages”, it’s worth wondering: What does the “new” Halloween say about all of us, and about America?
[This piece originally appeared at The One Republic.]