Reading “Say Boo to Halloween” in last week’s issue of The Phoenix, I kept thinking about the Puritans. Not really because of the H.L. Mencken quote that defined Puritanism as the “fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun” (although that, of course, crossed my mind), but because of their similar propensity for abolishing holidays that they found impure.
Long before Starbucks and people who say “Happy Holidays,” the Puritans fought America’s first war on Christmas. Thanksgiving, which “Say Boo” makes sure to direct some scorn towards, was their main weapon. Finding the festivities around Christmas and Easter too impious, they banned them, replacing them with “days of feasting,” and “days of thanksgiving.” Piantanida continues this grand American tradition, although with Halloween in her sights this time.
Her objections about its consumerism and artifice are unpersuasive, however. “Say Boo” seems to situate its main objection to Halloween in its association with “consumerism and capitalism.” I happen to like capitalism, as it happens, and if consumerism means more fun-size M&Ms and Twix, sign me up. The only argument the author presents against these twin evils are the “massive amounts of harm to people and environments around the world.” It’s hard to respond to such sweeping assertions, although I’m confused at the easy condemnation of a system that’s lifted more people out of backbreaking poverty than any other political system in history. As for the point about consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption she highlights has far more to do with normal days of the year, not a day specifically set aside for indulgence. It’s fine to overindulge every once in a while, and holidays can help to set parameters on that indulgence.
Piantanida goes on to attack the artificiality of Halloween: it exists only “because there is a need for American people to escape and find a nationwide excuse to party.” Sounds great. Americans are sorely in need of those kinds of days; because of our immigrant roots, we don’t have the dense web of local traditions and holidays that other, older, countries have. We also enjoy a lot less time off than people in other developed countries. We deserve a break.
Halloween, to Piantanida, is illegitimate because “There’s no longer a religious tie to it, it’s not about one of America’s ‘victories’, and it’s not the start of a new chapter.” I’m unclear what the holidays celebrating our “victories” are, and about the use of scare quotes — is she proposing we abolish Veteran’s Day and the Fourth?.
Her point about religious ties is interesting. All Souls and All Saints, the Christian holidays most closely associated with Halloween, are still celebrated although they’ve lost connection to the holiday itself. But to contend that a holiday centered around dressing up as something you are not, celebrating the macabre, and acknowledging the supernatural is not “religious” is a mistake. It may not be associated with what we typically think about when we hear the word “religion,” but Halloween is how we remind ourselves that, to paraphrase, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than explained in our philosophies; human life involves regular encounters with the utterly inexplicable, and it is good to remind ourselves of that.
Piantanida’s solution is to focus on holidays that “revolve around love for each other and ourselves.” Easter and Christmas are out, then, with their stubborn attachment to ancient religion. And no to the Fourth, New Year’s, St. Patrick’s Day, hell, even Earth Day; there’s a dearth of holidays built around a generalized celebration of “love for ourselves and others.” In fact, the only one that comes to mind is … Thanksgiving. Darn. Piantanida wrote that she didn’t like that holiday either.
But Halloween’s lack of seriousness is perhaps its best attribute. There are no religious services to attend, no awkward family obligations: just candy and costumes. Halloween is gloriously stress-free and self indulgent. And while Piantanida spends a lot of time worrying about offensive costumes, I don’t think it’s that difficult to expect people not to wear blackface or Native American headdresses. And while Piantanida objects to “dressing up as something you’re not”, costumes can be a wonderful outlet for creativity and playfulness, as well as liberating. It’s nice to have a night where permission’s granted to be a little weird.