THE HOLIDAY HAS GAINED IN PARTICIPATION
EVEN AS IT BECOMES MORE CONTROVERSIAL
Encountering Halloween for the first time, their two little girls, Cecile and Laure, were much taken with the American custom of Trick-or-Treat. They decided, in collusion with our daughter, Judy, that they would all go door-to-door dressed as fairy princesses. Naturally, this yielded several adorable (slightly fuzzy) photos which now reside in family albums on both sides of the Atlantic.
Halloween has always had a special — if rather quirky — significance in our family. My wife and I were married on Halloween (I told you it was quirky). This makes it easy to remember our anniversary, though over the years it’s limited our options for celebrating the occasion to giving out candy at the front door.
As a kid, I was rather ambivalent about Halloween. I enjoyed the costume aspect, but I was always a little uneasy about going up to the houses of people I didn’t know and begging for treats which I had strict instructions not to eat until they could be inspected by my mother when I got home. These inspections were, of course, prompted by the lurid tales of poisoned candy bars and apples with embedded razorblades that circulated in those days.
Neither I nor my mother actually knew anybody who had received poisoned candy or razor-embedded apples. But you couldn’t be too careful.
The most immediate and realistic danger associated with Halloween was traffic on dark autumn streets. This was the 1950s, before Daylight Saving Time was extended and parents had taken up the practice of driving their kids around town (in particular to more affluent neighborhoods in search of higher-grade booty).
Halloween was definitely child-focused in those days. There was the occasional adult costume party, of course, but the emphasis was decidedly on kids, who were encouraged to take the initiative in costume design and construction (with help from Mom, Dad or older siblings). Consequently, certain themes were repeated with great regularity: ghosts, witches, ghouls, cowboys, soldiers (this was post-World War II, and there were lots of military items stashed in attics), doctors and nurses, Frankenstein’s monster, and other clichéd figures.
Store-bought costumes were tacky, and we didn’t have nearly as many pop-culture images to draw on. Mostly there were Disney characters, Howdy Doody, and The Lone Ranger — “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” being yet decades in the future.
Today, Halloween is big business, with adults getting into the act in numbers that compare with the legions of kids dressing up. While sales of costumes, goodies and related bric-a-brac are expected to be below those of last year — probably another sign of the recovery that just doesn’t seem to ever recover — the National Retail Federation projects that some 158 million people will join in the fun. A September press release announced…
“According to NRF’s Halloween Spending Survey … nearly 158 million consumers will participate in Halloween activities, slightly less than the survey high of 170 million people last year. Those celebrating will also trim their budgets, with the average celebrant expected to spend $75.03 on décor, costumes, candy and fun, down from $79.82 last year. Overall, average spending on Halloween has increased 54.7 percent since 2005, with total spending estimated to reach $6.9 billion in 2013.”
Down or not, that ain’t pocket change.
Another area in which we’ve seen growth is controversy. It would hardly seem like Halloween if somebody didn’t get themselves in hot water over some costume considered offensive by somebody else.
I’d have considered it long settled that white people don’t go about in blackface anymore. So I was surprised to see an Associated Press story reporting an apology issued on Twitter by white actress Julianne Hough who apparently attended some Hollywood bash with her skin darkened to imitate a black actress named Uzo Aduba, who plays a character called Crazy Eyes on some TV series titled “Orange is the New Black.”
It’s a sign of my age and minimal attention to television that I don’t know who either of these women are, nor had I heard of the show. But didn’t Ted Danson get into a jam some years ago doing a blackface skit with his then-main-squeeze, Whoopie Goldberg?
Hollywood folk — cutting edge as they like to think of themselves — are wildly out of touch.
Sensitivity has reached something of a high point this year, with new categories of costuming and props added to the restricted list. Schools throughout the country have banned all weapons. Blood and gore are out, and ghoulishness toned down substantially. Some schools have eliminated masks.
It goes without saying that ethnic imagery is a no-no, but the urge to protect feelings (and avoid pushback from offended cultural groups) has reached new heights. The University of Colorado Boulder warned its students against costumes or parties with themes as traditional as cowboys and Indians, hillbillies, or Japanese geishas, which a university spokesman said could all be thought of as “crude stereotypes.”
The Indian thing I’m not surprised at, since we have President Obama and everybody else kvetching about the Washington Redskins name. But cowboys? I wasn’t aware that livestock handlers were especially sensitive to slights about range culture.
Ethnic/racial/cultural stereotypes aren’t the only aspects of Halloween attire drawing criticism. As the holiday has gained in adult participation, women’s costumes have tended to become naughtier. French maids and sexy witches are common fare these days. Indeed, Halloween is an opportunity for the normally prim and reserved housewife to embrace her inner temptress. Which, of course, Hubby might appreciate — until Bob from next door gets tipsy at the party and secret longings are revealed.
Another controversy that surrounds Halloween is its origin. Some people — among them, those of less conventionally religious inclinations — claim pagan roots for the celebration. They maintain that the Church Christianized a preexisting Gaelic harvest festival called Samhain.
The History Channel website explains that…
“Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
“To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.”
This more or less tracks with what I had been given to understand: that as Catholic missionaries evangelized pagan territories they tried to tame the wild autumnal goings on and turn ancient rituals to Christian purposes.
There’s a whole different take on the origins of Halloween, however. According to the evangelistic publisher, Catholic Answers…
“Virtually all of the customs associated with the modern secular celebration of Halloween developed only in the past 500 years and have very few (if any) connections to ancient pagan religious practices.”
Father Augustine Thompson, O.P., of the Domincan School of Philosophy and Theology, agrees. Interviewed by Catholic apologist Marcellino D’Ambrosio for one of his Crossroads Initiative podcasts, Fr. Thompson explained…
“It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on Oct. 31 — as they did on the last day of most other months of the year. However, Halloween falls on the last day of October because the Feast of All Saints or ‘All Hallows’ falls on Nov. 1. The feast in honor of all the saints in heaven used to be celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to Nov. 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome. Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere. And so the holy day spread to Ireland. The day before was the feast’s evening vigil, ‘All Hallows Even’ or ‘Hallowe’en.’ In those days, Halloween didn’t have any special significance for Christians or for long-dead Celtic pagans.”
Well, controversy notwithstanding, I want to wish everyone a happy, safe, and memorable Halloween. Don’t pig out on your candy, at least not to ridiculous extremes.
After Kathy and I finish giving out our treats, we’ll wish each other a Happy Anniversary, look through those old photo albums, and wax nostalgic. Maybe we’ll come across the shots of those three fairy princesses from back in the ’70s.
By the way, don’t stay up too late celebrating. Remember, Friday is a holy day of obligation.
It has become the practice among some Catholic families trying to play down the macabre side of Halloween and play up its Church connections to have their kids go out trick-or-treating dressed as favorite saints. Catholic All Year, a blog devoted to homemaking, homeschooling and Catholic family life, is a strong advocate of this approach, and offers a cute overview of saint costumes, including some that are surprisingly ghoulish. After all, many saints came to quite unpleasant ends…
At any rate, don’t get caught like Julianne Hough having to make embarrassing apologies, particularly as related to ethnic stereotypes…
Of course, you can’t always be sure what’s considered offensive — as a Michigan mother and daughter found when they dressed up in white plastic trash bags bearing labels that read, “White Trash,” causing an uproar at a local school Halloween party that even made the TV news…
As for Halloween’s origins, here’s the pagan-centric theory as proposed by The History Channel…
…and then from The Crossroads Initiative…
Maybe it’s a valiant rear-guard action against the advancing forces of political correctness — or maybe it’s just youthful stupidity — but a bunch of fraternity guys at the University of Michigan have drawn the ire of their academic establishment with a frat party that incorporates both racial and sexual themes. Well, if you’re gonna offend, by all means do it comprehensively…