Halloween: An American Artifact

Halloween is approaching. Giant plastic spiders hang from roofs, rows of pumpkins adorn front porches, paper ghosts and black cats litter lawn. Yes, it’s time again for this quintessential American celebration. Halloween, like Thanksgiving, is an American holiday.  Other countries have tried to appropriate the tradition, but failed miserably. While living in London, my children and I witnessed attempts by a handful of neighborhood kids to “do Halloween.” They came to the door, not wearing any costumes, and stretched out their hand, demanding candy. Now, that did not go over well with my sons, then aged 7 and 8. That’s not Halloween, they said.

They were right. Americans, as befits members of a culture with a penchant for superlatives, have mastered the art of celebrating Halloween by constructing an entire industry around this special day, not only for children but for adults as well.  Elaborate costumes, spooky house decorations, bags and bags of candy, themed parties–those are the trappings. One of the reasons October 31 is so exciting for young and not so young alike is the anticipation of finding out who is wearing what. Mothers blessed with sewing skills start gathering materials to make their own children’s costumes. Ideas are thrown around, minds are changed, hopes are raised, disappointments are voiced, until finally a decision is made: You are going to be a [….]. That’s the first step.  Then come the accessories–magic swords, glittery tiaras, rubber masks, make up (it could be Dracula’s pasty face with fake blood dripping from his fangs), props (witches in pointy hats inviting kids to taste their brew: peeled grapes that feel like eyeballs).

Preparing for Halloween is a serious affair. Friendly competition exists among neighbors wanting to show off the “best” costume or having the “scariest” lawn display–say, a make-believe corpse rising from a creaky coffin as unsuspecting trick-or-treaters pass by. Entire neighborhoods gear up for the holiday by putting up decorations with sound effects, setting up inventive devices that move, shake, hiss or cackle, engaging in theatrics and generally trying hard to repulse while humoring their audience for one day. Schools hold parades, shopkeepers hand out goodies, working parents leave the office early to join their children on their rounds before it gets dark. During the day, one might encounter adults in outrageous outfits, looking completely at ease, going about  their business.

And then there is the inimitable, irrepressible, invariably controversial Gay Parade in Greenwich Village. New York at its creative best: Anything goes, everyone glows.

The moral of this post is this: Don’t try to import/export a cultural artifact. It won’t work. Halloween is a celebration that is embedded in American culture. As such, it cannot be transposed to another country without losing its original meaning.  The English have Guy Fawkes Day. On the fifth of November, at dusk, they build bonfires in designated areas and chant:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot. 

I can understand children around the world wanting to get candy, any way they can. But Halloween is not just about candy. It’s also a reflection of American values–friendliness, initiative, openness, optimism, multiculturalism. That, at least, is how I view it. Feel free to disagree.




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