Why do Americans celebrate Halloween?
“Who are you going to be for Halloween?” For some Americans, finding the perfect Halloween costume is the most glorious moment of the year, but for others, the entire costume idea is one more reason to avoid the holiday. For American children, the costume is merely a means to getting more candy. It’s true, American kids can be obsessive about Halloween candy. Ghost costumes and candy are common symbols of Halloween in the U.S., but is there more to this holiday than dressing up and getting cavities?
The roots of Halloween are in the Celtic festival of Samhain (“SOW-win”) which marked the transition to the shorter, darker days of winter. Believing that on Samhain, the dead would come back to visit, people wore masks and left food on their doorsteps to divert the spirits. In medieval times, children would travel house to house asking for food in exchange for songs, poems, or jokes. In an effort to reform the holiday, the Christian church made November 1 “All Saints Day,” in memory of deceased saints, and October 31 became “All Hallows Eve,” or, “Halloween.” In the 19th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought these customs to the U.S., but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the modern practices of costumes and trick-or-treating (collecting candy from neighbors) developed. Today, it is estimated that Americans spend $6 billion annually on Halloween costumes and candy, second only to Christmas.
In American society, marketing and mass media have helped transform Halloween from its Celtic origins. From movies franchises like Halloween or Scary Movie to the Halloween themed pop-up stores selling loads of costumes and decor, the message of modern Halloween has taken a turn toward the commercial and trivial. “Doing” Halloween “right” requires spending money on candy, grotesque or sensual costumes, and making your front yard look like a graveyard. From haunted houses to horror films, it seems a central of modern Halloween is “Evil is entertainment, indulge.” Of course, pumpkin carving, dressing up, and receiving candy are usually fun and harmless, however, we must not be so amused that we diminish or forget that evil exists and is not “fun.”
Making friends and learning a new culture are central to the international student experience, but not all parts of culture are necessarily good. How can you participate in Halloween without implicitly trivializing or even celebrating evil? Here are a few tips for making the most of your Halloween:
1. Get creative with your costume and avoid those that celebrate violence. Instead of spending $100 on a costume, try making something on your own!
2. If you live in a neighborhood where there are children, stay home and hand out candy. You’ll love to see the costumes and all the happy kids!
3. Host a Halloween party with your friends in which you welcome new students to your community, take up food or clothing donations for the homeless, raise awareness about the evil of human trafficking, or dress up as historical figures who have resisted evil in the world and share their stories.
4. Take candy to your friends and offer a prayer for all those experiencing evil in the world.
Halloween is one of many holidays in America that have changed quite a bit from its origins. As you prepare to participate in, or just observe, Halloween festivities this year, enjoy the “cultural” experience, spend time with friends, and don’t be afraid to engage in Halloween creatively, for good, and not for evil.