Can Halloween Survive 21st Century Cynicism?

 

Halloween may well be an outdated brand of the past, and yet All Hallows Eve continues to captivate the hearts and minds of generations young and old.  A transcendental knickknack handed down from a bygone era of supreme superstition, Halloween reminds us that no matter how sensible and adult-like we’ve become; there lurks a creeping subconscious awaiting its chance to wreak havoc on our imagination.  Despite the fun and fancy aspect of Halloween, many parents today view the whole ghost-ghoul-goblin spectacle rather cynically, considering its ideology unfit for our children and its customary practices ultimately unsafe.

Childhood fear by way of imagination and storytelling is not a new thing.  In fact, for centuries, mythologies and folklore were created to scare children into complacency during a time when discipline relied on fear.  Instead of calming and soothing children, fairytales and folklore were used as tools to teach children, albeit at a very young age, the harsher realities of life through metaphorical anthologies.  The Brothers Grimm, for example, introduced their collection of ghoulish, eerie “children’s stories” in 1812, believing the tales were of significant value as they labored to reflect the intrinsic cultural qualities of their time.  Purposefully written in a didactic fashion, stories such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood were cautionary tales and warnings for young children rather than comforting and happy make-believe.

In retrospect, our 21rst century bias may feel a sense of triumph over our ‘provincial’ Brother’s-Grimm-past.  And yet all the components that mark our history – violence, war and destruction, disconnect and disillusionment, continue to plague modern day society.  In many ways, while culture has indeed undergone drastic changes, humanity remains very much the same throughout the course of human history.  We have simply traded fairytales for video games and storybooks for iPods and TV, but these newer, fresher renditions of the past, are simply wolves in sheep’s clothing.  So the question remains: What is the relevancy of Halloween in the 21rst century, and should we be concerned over its message and its safety?

Today’s Halloween customs are the amalgamation of an epigenetic inheritance passed down by immigrant families who arrived in North America from the British Isles during the 1800s.  Like many Western traditional celebrations, Halloween takes root in both pagan and Christian ideologies.  Historically, on All Souls Day, impoverished people and children solicited door-to-door, singing and praying for those souls trapped in purgatory in return for food and cakes.   Likewise, customs surrounding the festivals of Samhain throughout the British Isles saw local townspeople wearing guises and costumes to ward-off harmful spirits, while petitioning door-to-door for fuel for bonfires, and food for feasts and spirit offerings. The modern-day notion of dressing-up for Halloween, did not however become commonplace until the late 19th century, when British children disguised in costumes, would parade throughout the neighborhood carrying lanterns made from hollowed turnips.  By 1911, this practice had migrated to the New World along with the influx of British immigrants and by 1952, the custom was widespread in North American popular culture.

Despite Halloween being a very historical and long-lived tradition, the last few decades have bared witness to its change and perhaps its ultimate demise.  Long gone are the days of the five and dime, homespun costumes, treat-bag pillowcases, and groups of unaccompanied children of all ages, (usually chaperoning a younger sibling or two).  Trick-or-treating is becoming something of the past, while kids no longer reach for candied apples, popcorn balls, taffy bites, tootsie rolls and homemade treats.  Welcoming neighbors with hot apple cider and warm cookies are but a wistful image of a time departed, while neighbourhoods, once a child’s sanctuary, are now unlit suspicious streets.  Yes, the very idea of Halloween seems as outdated as the Grimm’s fairytales and their politically incorrect classic Disney counterparts.  So what happened to Halloween?

Undoubtedly tremendous change in both the makeup of our population and how we live our lives has reshaped the social and political landscapes of our civilization – stretching, pulling and retracting the very fibers of society.  While 100 years ago most people lived in rural areas alongside several families, today, we see the majority of our population in metropolitan centers, with households of no more than one or two people.  Along with the drastic population growth, developments in both the private and business sectors, together with the ‘Technological Revolution,’ has ushered in the dawn of a new age.  Over-crowding, competition, redefined family structures, immigration, globalization and social media are some of the many things that has made our world a much smaller place, and a much bigger threat.  Having replaced communal strategy for individualistic thought-think, we are seeing an insurgence of isolationism, distrust, suspicion and tenacity, the many pitfalls of our modern, fight-or-flight society.   Given these changes of the social mechanism, it does not come as a surprise that Halloween and other traditional holidays and festivals, have come under much scrutiny and controversy in recent years.  We have arrived at the event horizon.   Cities now offer alternatives to the traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating, by providing gatherings and festivals at churches, community centers, and neighborhood malls, while in some cases, trick-or-treating has been banned altogether.  Hospitals continue to offer X-rays for Halloween candy, and health officials resume their campaign for germ-free in the name of prevention, while those Children who do choose to brave the streets, are shadowed by a studying parental presence.  It is a fact: gone are the days of laissez-faire Halloween-ing. But it’s not the homemade costumes that we miss, or the candied apples, or the story telling or the worn-out pillowcases and Ouija boards.  What we truly yearn for is a return to the nostalgia of historical society – to the authenticity of family and community, to the simplified lifestyle of DIY without the busybodies of Wikipedia and YouTube.  We covet earthly connection, to our food source, to our friends and family, away from the Big Brother watchdogs of cyber world’s final frontier.  Halloween may indeed be out of favor, but our politicians and corporate heads are still churning the pot, chanting: “double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble!”

Even though street safety and in some cases, safe costume-wearing and costume-handling, is just as prevalent a threat now as it was 50 years ago, we must reconsider the meaning of Halloween in the 21rst century.  Pumpkin patches, pumpkin carving and pie making, pumpkin seed roasting and jack-o-lantern flickering, bobbing for apples and fireside stories, dress up and make-believe, decorations and corn mazes… castles of leaves, parties and hay rides, friends and family and treats!  The value of Halloween is in the gatherings and get-togethers, the laughter and fun, the sharing, the caring.  And whether you choose to trick-or-treat, or buy your costume or make your own out of bed linens and tablecloths, this Hallows Eve is all about the little toasts of the season.  After all, that’s what life’s about, right?  All the little things. So eat, drink and be scary!

-Elizabeth Cucnik

 

 

 

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