Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Ah, the American Halloween. Now that I’m outside of the U.S., I rather miss the adult costumes. When I was growing up in New Zealand, anyone above the age of twelve dressing up for Halloween was a curious sight.
This used to be true in the U.S. as well. As of the mid-20th century, trick-or-treating was an annual event for children, but adults seldom dressed up. But by the turn of the millennium, an estimated 65 percent of American adults celebrated Halloween, spending billions on costumes and party accessories. Halloween had become the second most important holiday for America's retailers, second only to Christmas.
Beyond the skimpy “sexy nurse,” “sexy cop,” “sexy cat” costumes or your annual fad like Deadpool, however, Halloween has actually served a very serious purpose in American history. And it was this purpose that made the holiday adult.
Halloween an occasion for transformation, for simultaneously wearing and mask and showing who you truly are. It’s okay because by the next morning you can always claim that it was only a costume. So marginalized groups began to dress up for the holiday in order to make a political point. The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade began in 1973 on Christopher Street because it was New York’s gay Mecca, and it was a way for LGBTs to announce themselves without provoking a full backlash.
Masks are what traditional societies commonly use when taboos are to be broken. Similarly, the transformational nature of Halloween, its tradition of masquerade, allows marginalized Americans to make statements from which they would otherwise shrink.
Another instance of a political purpose to Halloween is most relevant to today. In 1912, students at Wellesley and Barnard, both women’s colleges, held a mock presidential debate on Halloween, with women dressing up as presidential candidates. That time they were calling for women’s suffrage. The 19th Amendment would not be adopted until 1920.
Conservative forces have in turn repeatedly sought to suppress the holiday. New England Puritans hated Halloween. Early American almanacs took no notice of October 31, highlighting instead Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. The Rev. Increase Mather, a 17th century rector and acting president of Harvard, approved of a ban on All Saint's Day, the nominally Christian holiday following Halloween and excusing it. Appropriately, Mather also had a hand in the infamous Salem witch trials. Mather-esque attitudes have lived on. In 1982 Pat Robertson declared Halloween a "satanic ritual.”
Postwar America tried to tame the holiday instead. At least one scholar has argued that the Halloween of the 1950s served the function of preparing children for a society of mass consumption, "a rehearsal for consumership without a rationale.” And Halloween is a ridiculously wasteful holiday, with all the cheat plastic costumes and accessories bought and used for one night before heading for landfills. One wonders why environmentalists have not campaigned against it.
Although I won’t be there to see it, I expect this year’s American Halloween to be all of the above: the flaunting of sexuality alongside the spirit of 1912, the tsk tsk of conservatism just audible above the din of capitalism’s consumption without a cause. In other words, I expect it to be profoundly American.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."