The True Meaning of Halloween
Announcer: With Halloween just around the corner, commentator Philip Baruth has been doing some soul-searching. Or maybe All Souls searching is a better way to put it.
Notes From the New Vermont
Commentary #221: The True Meaning of Halloween
Don’t get me wrong: Halloween is one of my absolute favorite holidays. Like Christmas, it’s a long evening of tender, heart-warming ritual.
First, my young children dress up like rabbits or mice, or some other vermin, and then we go next door where my neighbor Nancy is dressed as a fresh corpse, and she offers us punch with a frozen green hand floating just beneath the surface; from there we go trailing from house to house in our neighborhood, saying hello to people we haven’t seen all year and threatening to do things to them unless they give us candy, and not just any candy but candy that we like, and certainly not apples, because once when I was a kid somebody said that somebody in some other state was putting dangerous things inside of apples, and so those we secretly throw in the woods if anyone is old-fashioned enough to give us any.
And then finally, once we’ve scammed everything conceivable from everybody conceivable, we return home, the girls dump their bags of individually-wrapped emulsified chocolate out on the floor, and then, after fighting over any full-sized candy bars, they eat enough to feel queasy and go to bed early.
Which gives my wife and me a chance to graze their half-melted candy piles, fight over any Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, eat enough to feel queasy and go to bed early ourselves.
It’s a beautiful thing.
But the last few years, something about it has begun to bother me. It’s come to feel like something crucial is missing. Maybe it’s the fact that the candy and the plastic pumpkins appear so early in the stores.
Whatever the reason, it’s begun to seem to me that in our rush to buy and sell and hype Halloween, we’ve forgotten what I call the reason for the season.
And the true reason for the Halloween season is not to fatten our kids with Gummy Worms or to dress them up like My Little Pony – it’s to scare the living bejeebers out of them.
But over the years, we’ve outsourced that part of the family tradition to our neighbors, treating it as their job, somehow, to frighten our children for us. And, in so doing, we’ve given up one of the best opportunities to bring our families closer.
Because no one wants to be closer than a couple of kids whose father has just jumped out from beneath the stairwell wearing a hockey mask.
Of course, they want to be closer to their mother, but that’s not the point.
The point is that we’re keeping Halloween all in the family this year. We won’t expect you to gorge and scare our kids, and we won’t be gorging and scaring yours. We’ll be inside, all night, with the porch light off.
With all the lights off, in fact.
And yes, that means I won’t be plugging in the robotic hand I got at Costco, the one that usually rises eerily from the flower bed just beside the front door.
I know it’s been a beloved neighborhood tradition for the last three years, but some things are more important than wowing the neighbors with a garish imported toy you got for six dollars. Like coming together with your loved ones, in the warmth and security of your own home, to terrify one another absolutely witless.
Now, that’s a real family Halloween, one the kids will remember long after their stomach aches fade away. In fact, they’ll remember it every October – for the rest of their natural-born lives.
[This piece first aired on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the commentary is available here.]