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The Trick of Halloween

October 31, 2019

All Hallow’s Eve. The time when the nights are getting longer and there is supposed to be a thinning of the veils between this world and the otherworld.

A time of revelry, celebration, costumes and community.

When guises and masks allow us to taste being other than we are, maybe more of who we really are or as fantasies of who we could be. When the shadow side — the ghastly and ghoulish — find expression.

There is much to appreciate about this holiday, especially because our collective culture has limited ecumenical traditions that bring us together with rituals and opportunities for what social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich calls “Dancing in the Streets”.

Meanwhile, I brace myself as Halloween approaches.
It’s not a popular stance to take issue with this favorite of holidays for so many children — who am I kidding? adults — or rain on their (costume) parade.

As much as it has all of the right ingredients and I want to love it, I have trouble getting behind how it has evolved in mainstream culture – the large scale distribution of candy to children, negative environmental impact and commoditization .

Candy Land. In this age of widespread child-obesity and record levels of diabetes: the addictive qualities of sugar are well-documented to stimulate the same parts of the brain as opiods and the people who profit off this holiday are the hands of the few in giant corporations without conscience like Nestle.

The same people are responsible for more harm than good in this world including infant deaths from contaminated formula. Yes – the candy companies also produce conventional baby formula with extremely high levels of sugar so that it is attractive to the developing palates of babies. Hmm…future customers?

Few of us pay attention or perhaps the pressure to conform is too great but at least some pediatricians and dentists will trade Halloween candy for books or money in order to discourage consumption. While it doesn’t address the sugar epidemic, there’s a movement started by parents for people to display teal pumpkins as a sign that they have allergy-friendly treats, some of which are non-candy.

Plastic, plastic everywhere. How about the plethora of individually wrapped candies and cheap plastic objects given to trick or treaters when daily news articles highlight concerns about climate change and levels of plastic in the ocean?

Celebrations of Halloween ignore the staggering volume of garbage due to single-use packaging and blindness to the fact that when we throw things away, there really is no away — it’s just goes somewhere else until that place runs out of space.

Haunted Houses. This holiday inspires community participation, creativity and great efforts are made to decorations homes, stores and public areas. Unfortunately, the amount of disposable products and waste is troubling. The ubiquitous fake spider webbing is a nightmare for birds and other wildlife who can get trapped in it or choke on it. Other common materials used do not break down and may even have carcinogenic properties.

The Dark Side. Many of the images associated with Halloween themes are quite disturbing and fodder for nightmares. It’s very hard for young people to filter images and they don’t yet have brain development to process them rationally.

Of course there is some appeal to scary Halloween themes. The holiday is a place holder for aspects of our culture that need expression. We might think of it as the shadow side or collective unconscious coming to light.

Unfortunately, some individuals use the holiday as an excuse for mild to extreme bad behavior that compromises safety and to instigate violence, cruelty and fear.

Seeing doubles. It’s become common for costumes to be based on characters from popular television, movies and video games and sold ready-made through brands and companies who are reaping profits off children advertising for them.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a character from a favorite movie but when we’ve seen the millionth spiderman in the same exact costume, we must begin to wonder who ultimately benefits. What values are being modeled by how we observe this holiday?

Nor am I suggesting that every costume needs to be home-made and an original. But it’s interesting how conformity and commercialism can so easily replace creativity. Used only once, many of these ready-made costumes are from materials that tear easily but don’t break down easily .

What’s a conscious, witchy mom to do? 

Because of the internet and cultural pressures, it is getting harder to opt out without our children feeling left out or missing a very real opportunity to be part of something cool. As kids get older, we can risk them feeling judged or rebelling if we try taking it all away.

I believe we can reclaim Halloween for our times. Here are some ideas:

  • Make Halloween about celebrating the season, not just trick or treating. Attend harvest festivals, street fairs and the small celebrations and crafting projects available in many communities. Recreation centers often have listings of events online. Some neighborhoods have their own festivities on Halloween and on some commercial streets, stores will collectively welcome people or sponsor entertainment. Going out in the afternoon and early evening works well for families with younger children.
  • Connect with the origins of this holiday and be inspired by other cultures. Coinciding with Halloween, Celtic people had Samhain and there’s the Mexican Dia de los Muertos — an important holiday when people remember and honor their ancestors. Celebrations include rituals like the ofrenda (ancestor altar), special foods and social gatherings. Story-telling is a big part of these traditions and not just ghost stories but those of the other-world, fairy stories and family lore. Another resource for alternative celebrations is Waldorf Schools. The one near us hosts an enchanted evening called the Wanderer’s Way close to Halloween. House parties, school costume parades are other possibilities to make it your own. 
  • The Switch Witch. She takes all or the bulk of candy collected in exchange for a gift. Our tradition is to leave it out on our doorstep for her and a present is left there in the morning. There are several myths about what she does with the candy – like eat it and that’s why all her teeth are rotten or perhaps she places it in her cauldron and does some magic to make it into something useful. This switch with enables us to enjoy walking around our neighborhood and come face to face with members of our community who open their doors and give treats that are part of a good intention.
  • Create your own special Halloween traditions. Though I have been critical about media and sugar, I love the movie Coco and have made a tradition of watching with my child and drinking Mexican cocoa (with rosemary, cinnamon and spice) around this time.
  • Model your values and talk to your children about what you appreciate about this holiday. Kids, even very young ones, are much more influenced by what we do than what we say and if we do say it, we need to back it up with action to be effective. However, it’s helpful to share with them what we appreciate and value. It might be the gift-giving part Halloween because it is an important aspect for building relationships. Or you might love the creativity in decorations and costumes. It might be how dressing up as a favorite superhero lets us sample feeling strong, courageous or popular…

The idea is to sample all the flavors and gifts that Halloween can offer for connection, community, creativity and celebration.

Many of us make this holiday about children, yet the very acts associated with it have a negative impact on their health and that of the planet to which their futures are tied.

However, it’s important to recognize the potential for good and treat of a night when people open their doors, our streets are lively and inhabited at night, when we mingle with our neighbors and appreciate artistry, imagination and innovation.

However you celebrate, happy halloween. I’ll be flying off on my broomstick now.