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In Praise of Halloween’s Ability to Connect Neighbors

The High Holy Days are upon us. No, not that one. The high holy days of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

And with that, come the culture wars again. Some pundits — Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc. — issue annual statements about the pagan origins of Halloween, and why their community should not participate in it. Certain Christian preachers like Pat Robertson opine:

“The whole idea of trick-or-treating is the Druids would go to somebody’s house and ask for money and if they didn’t get money they’d kill one of their sheep, that was the sheep and it was serious stuff. All this business about goblins and jack-o’-lanterns all comes out of demonic rituals of the Druids and the people who lived in England at that particular time.”

In my own community, many Muslim leaders are politically quite progressive (against racism, against empire, against wealth disparity) but somewhat culturally conservative. In a widely circulated blog post by Imam Zaid Shakir, the charismatic American Muslim leader who is often favorably compared to Malcolm X, he offered a dismissal of Halloween:

“One the tragedies of our times is found in the easy willingness some Muslims accept practices, rituals or cultural symbols that have their roots in demonic or occult practices.”

This is not going to be one of those columns.

I find myself in a different space. I have zero interest in endorsing or rejecting Halloween on the basis of fitting in, assimilating to, or rejecting mainstream culture. I couldn’t tell you anything about the Druids without going on Wikipedia. My concern has nothing to do with the historic origin of Halloween because, let’s be honest, many of our religious traditions (and even buildings) have pagan roots. It has to do with what Halloween does for our community, or at least for my neighborhood.

A teenage girl tries on a Halloween costume in Miami, Florida. Halloween is now the second-largest commercial holiday in the United States according to National Retail Federation. Americans spent approximately billion on Halloween in 2013. Image by Joe Raedle/© Getty Images..

Yes, I struggle with certain parts of Halloween. I struggle to see 10-year-old girls dressed up in ways that project a type of precious sexuality. It breaks my heart to see the girls’ costume aisle look like something out of a sick, perverted male fantasy. Rape culture, indeed.

Yes, let’s just stop with the sexy Ebola nurse outfits, please. Or the female ISIS-fighter costumes.

Yes, I struggle with the 365-day monster, the Market, conquering yet another corner of our lives. I struggle with seeing parents — by which I mean my own family as well — walk into these seasonal stores and put down 30, 40, 50 dollars per child to purchase something that the kids will wear for two hours. For families with multiple children, the burden is considerable.

Yes, I see the cultural appropriation of different traditions in ways that I find offensive. For some of us, it’s our heritage, not your costume.

So why praise Halloween in spite of those reservations? Because it’s about neighborhoods.

I love the fact that this is the one day of the year in many neighborhoods where people open their doors and receive one another as what we can be all along: neighbors. And how I wish we would live like this every day, like a real community. And I wonder what it says about us when we feel comfortable going up to our neighbors only when we are wearing masks.
How did so many of us get so alienated from our neighbors?

We live in a nice neighborhood in the South. Lovely trees. Middle-class families. Kids play on the street, and in each other’s homes. And yet most adults would struggle to name the adults who live three doors down from them. Halloween breaks the rhythm of suburban anonymity.

Culture warriors talk about how Halloween’s evil is that the undead walk the Earth. I don’t see that. What I see is that people get to walk together, with their kids, to their neighbors’ doors, and the neighbors open their doors to them and greet them warmly. It’s magical, truly. There is something beautiful, redemptive, and transformative when we as human beings come to encounter one another face to face, heart to heart. We move for a few magical hours from being people living in houses next to each other to being a community.

Community does not descend down from Heaven. We have to shape community each and every day here and now. And somehow, for a few hours on Halloween night, we shape community.

The kids go trick-or-treating. For us as lonely adults, there’s another treat: getting to see adults that usually we only see riding in their cars or jogging with headphones on. Maybe not every neighborhood is like this. But ours is. During Halloween, it’s not so much that the undead walk the streets. It’s the people — tired, exhausted, and, yes, alienated human beings — who get to walk the streets and go door to door.

We get to see the tired, exhausted single parents. We get to see the gay couple who always has the best Halloween decorations. We get to see the elderly empty-nester couple. We get to see the exhausted parents with kids who spend most of the year running them to this activity and that activity, people who love their kids enough to do so much for them but don’t love themselves enough to say enough is enough.

Beautiful and messed up, we get to see each other. For a few minutes, we get to catch up not with people who happen to live on our street, but with neighbors. And in a world where I often feel more connected to my social media friends than to my neighbors, connecting with my neighbors is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

I am not afraid of Druids. And if I dare say it, I am not afraid of Satan-worship, or the undead walking the Earth. I am afraid of consumerism, of market-as-religion, of alienation, of exhaustion, of soullessness, of segregation. I crave love and community. And truth be told, I have no moral opposition to candy.

And if Halloween can bring us together for a few hours, and maybe give us a taste of how we can be living together as a community, I say bring it on.

Happy Halloween, y’all.

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