This year, a mid-week Halloween will clog the street with trick or treaters and keep wild costumed kids up on a school night with candy-fueled excitement. And while the celebration will be an experience shared by nearly every community in America, the yearly ritual will be crowded on all sides by business as usual. The stock market won’t close. The banks, schools, and post offices will remain open. And parents will have to rush home from work to dress kids in costumes, fill bowls with candy and head out into a spook-filled night. But if Halloween became a national holiday, celebrated on the last Saturday of October, kids and parents alike could take the time to actually celebrate. Then, a much needed and nationwide meditation on mortality and memory can finally flourish.
Yes, for all of the candy and commercialism, Halloween at its core is about more than giving kids a few hours to terrorize their neighborhood in ghoulish costumes. While modern Americans might see it as a children’s holiday, or a masked bacchanal for adults, the jack o’ lanterns, trick or treating, witches and reapers have deeper cultural significance. Each bit of Halloween fun has roots in death rituals that span continents and centuries.
Parts of Halloween are linked to Celtic rites connected to Samhain, a time when spirits were thought to walk the earth. Other traditions, like giving food to those spirits flocking door to door goes back to ancient Greece. The characters of the skeleton and the witch are pulled from the Dark Ages’ Hallow’s Eve and the Latin American Day of the Dead.
All of those ancient traditions had one thing in common. The recognized death in the changing of the season. As days grew shorter and crops were harvested, thoughts turned to the fleeting nature of life. We took time to remind each other or the mystery that waits for us all in the end.
For all of America’s nationally recognized holidays, we fail to commemorate death. Sure, there are holidays that are solemn and speak to death, like Memorial Day and to some extent Patriots Day. But those holidays commemorate death linked to heroism, war, and tragedy. What we lack is a holiday specifically related to recognizing our own ordinary mortality.
Allowing ourselves to have a Federally recognized day where we, as a nation, wrestle with our inevitable end while caring for the memory of those who’ve already passed could prove incredibly unifying. Death is, after all, the one thing that every single American will experience. It is a grand unifier. We’d do well to take a moment to address the reality en mass.
Halloween is obviously already set up to offer us the opportunity, but not in the way it’s currently celebrated. Because for all of the spooky buildup, the actual day is truncated and harried. There’s no time for mediation or storytelling. There’s no time to tend to the graves of our loved and feast together.
Halloween should be given the same due as Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. It’s no less important.
And how much better would it be for kids to actually have meaning behind their traditions? How much better would it be if, in the fun of dressing up and begging for candy, kids also took a solemn moment to remember their ancestors and think about the legacy they hope to leave?
With some thought, death doesn’t have to be scary. And it might be far less frightening If we decided, as a nation, to take time to acknowledge that none of are her forever.