American Halloween Manifesto

By Andrew Harris

Halloween is the time when the spiritual and worldly planes merge more than at any other time of year. There are two general currents of traditions for this time around the world. The American style Halloween comes from a worldly perspective, while the customs of many other cultures honor the dead at this time with much more spiritual focus. But as people of the world grow closer together, these worldly and spiritual currents merge like the living and the dead on Halloween night. 

In many places around the world, people have a celebration at this time of year to honor the spirits of the dead. The cartoonish American version, Halloween, doesn’t usually focus on this seriously due to the challenges it presents to many prevalent religious ideas in the country. Instead, Americans relegate the celebration of the dead to a kids’ holiday in which adults either play a supporting role or have their own parties that usually have much less to do with honoring spirits or considering the dead than do the celebrations of children. Children are far more the focus and architects of Halloween in America than the spirits of ancestors are. However, the adults do still retain the imagination and belief, qualities that American culture stifles in many people as they grow up, and they use these to infuse their festivities with understanding of the spirit world. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebrates both deceased loved ones and children together, recognizing a connection we generally would prefer not to notice in America. While our Halloween customs have roots (specifically beets and turnips) in Celtic and other celebrations that were as spiritual as any other around the world, there is no doubt that Halloween represents a more commercialized, even sanitized, form of the festival of the dead. But the American celebrations are being adopted around the world and its influence is growing, and in turn, Halloween is being enhanced and colored by the existing customs to honor the dead in different parts of the world and is evolving like the spread of any other religious idea. Halloween probably will, and possibly should, be as commercial as the culture in which it takes place, a reflection or exposition of the nature of each culture. The extent of commercialism won’t ever block the spirit world from more fully merging with the worldly one, just influence the forms it takes (you might have a lot of Darth Vaders and Hannah Montanas in a more commercial culture, much less in a culture without access to Vader masks or who haven’t heard of the singer).

Children have taken this special night for themselves and used their natural attunement to the spirit world to create a tradition that reveals mystical truths despite its commercial trappings. We can thank kids for showing us some special things on Halloween that have value all year round. We can learn lessons about life in their hallmark celebrations for the dead including jack-o-lanterns, costumes, and trick or treating.

In America, carving a jack-o-lantern provides many people with some of their closest contact with nature. Finding a pumpkin might be the only time many Americans go to a farm, and even from a store, selecting and preparing one is more involved than we get with most vegetables or for some of us, whole meals. When we use the shell, pulp, and seeds it binds us closer with nature. Carving the face is self-expression but also creating an identity, and lighting the candle is one of our few chances to symbolically create life. Putting out the candle or coping with our new pal rotting or even being broken is inevitable and we can learn from this little life cycle.

The best thing about jack-o-lanterns are the faces, creating a new identity, and even better are the costumes we wear ourselves on Halloween. Each reflects something of our personality, magnifies it or addresses it for the first time. “What are you going to be this year?” is an oft-asked question of anyone likely to participate. Even if your costume completely contradicts your character, for this night, you are it. This shows how we can be connected with anything no matter how far, even so intimately entwined as to be one and the same. It also shows how arbitrary identity can be. Anyone becomes a better actor in costume, and if you really get into a role with a costume just for one night you might take it off and resume your normal persona but question if that is not also a mask. Another identity lesson whose effect is increased by commercialization is the ability to be in a new group than you previously identified with. As a pirate or a witch, you are part of a family of witches or pirates, from every different walk of life, who decided to “be that this year” to go door to door. If we thought about this and felt the experience of being one of 20,000 scarecrows or 15,000 mummies, all united on one night, I wonder if we could take the bickering between the other groups to which we belong quite as seriously.  

Trick or treat is more than a phrase or threat, it is a maxim. The threat of a trick involved has been greatly reduced over the years to the point that in most cases it is merely traditional. Sure, kids still play pranks but in the past this was more common as retribution for not providing candy and now participating houses (if your porch light is on, this means you!) almost invariably have the goods. But it isn’t fear of property damage that caused more people to provide candy, though the kids do play the role of vengeful spirits or imps when they play tricks. Nor is it just successful commercialization by the candy companies. The reason it is more common, and the reason Halloween continues to grow in popularity and spread around the world, is more basic than that. It simply feels good to give someone a treat and make them happy. It feels good to compliment someone’s costume and see them pleased with their choice and effort. And yes it feels bad to clean toilet paper off your lawn or eggs off your windows, too, but again these days the “trick” part is practically just a formality. Still it points to a basic truth about life we’d all do well to remember: in every choice and act we make we can do something good for someone, we can treat them nicely or treat them to something nice, or we can withhold that kindness if we choose, but there’s a warning right up front on Halloween night from kids in costumes we can trust. And if we choose to be mean and scorn others we can expect the world to play a trick on us, and on Halloween the spirits will play and teach us that lesson before the light of the next day.

In America we should take advantage of the growing popularity of Halloween around the world to learn more of the incredible variety of celebrations that other cultures have for the dead at this time of year, and we should not fear the spiritual aspects, but become comfortable with them and learn from them. This is why the spirit world merges more with the worldly one in the fall, to teach us these kinds of lessons. On the other side, cultures with rich spiritual traditions should not fear the American Halloween celebrations their children are likely to love, nor should people who disapprove of American culture deprive their children of this celebration that is more about children and spirits than anything people object to about America. American Halloween, with all its secular and commercial presentation, still has the deep truths of the spirit world intuited and refined by this special holiday for kids, by kids. Most importantly, we should appreciate this holiday however we celebrate it in our own culture, and recognize the contributions of children and how wondrous they can be. It is easy to discover delight and magic in kids on Halloween, and another Halloween lesson we should remember year round is how much we can learn from children if we take the time to focus on them and give them the freedom and support to do something special. However it is celebrated, Halloween is always special and it just gets better all the time with more people participating and contributing. I wish on the Great Pumpkin for everyone to enjoy what they are going to be this year, and for people not planning to be anything just to go for it. It’s great fun! 

Happy Halloween, everybody!

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Tarot Reflections is published by the American Tarot Association - Copyright (C) 2009

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