What is the purpose of a holiday?
Instead of trying to think of a one-size-fits-all explanation off the top of one’s head, the 20th century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has a suggestion: look at how we already categorize things in common speech to make sense of why we group them together. Immediately one will recognize how many holidays have a religious devotional practice associated with them, such as Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday in the Christian tradition; and Passover, Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, and Chanukah in Jewish culture. Other holidays are civic (July 4th, President’s Day), commemorative (Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, Labor Day, Casimir Pulaski Day), or secular celebration of values (Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day). Out of all the widely celebrated holidays in American culture, Halloween is without a doubt the strangest. The night carries a Christian name, All Hallow’s Eve, and yet contains no Christian imagery, but rather draws from pagan Celtic tradition, and various fictional archetypes from American popular culture. And unlike almost every other major holiday, there is no universal agreement as to what exactly is being celebrated, commemorated, or recognized. Despite this peculiarity, I maintain that Halloween is not only among a culturally-diverse class of Reversal Holidays, but it is a meaningful celebration, worth taking seriously, to have as part of mainstream culture.
The Reversal Holiday is a class of celebrations that encourage deviations from normal life and expectations, many features include costumes, role-swapping, defying gender and class norms, relaxing of sexual mores, and overconsumption of food & drink. Immediately one can identify Mardi Gras and the Carnival tradition as a reversal holiday, as one has a final celebration before the somberness of Lent. Jewish holiday Purim celebrates Esther’s outwitting the Persian empire, and famous includes the famous Mishnah prescription to drink until one cannot tell “Cursed is Harmon” from “Blessed is Mordechai.” Twelfth Night, traditionally celebrated on the last night of Christmas, January 5th, prior to the start of Epiphany, included celebrations, baking of king cakes, playing of tricks, and theatre performances. In Ireland, Twelfth Night is sometimes referred to as Little Christmas, and is a day for women to celebrate, while men take on domestic duties. December 26th, or Boxing Day, is celebrated in the Bahamas by Junkanoo parades, which incorporate many Igbo customs and imagery. This tradition of street celebration originated out of how African slaves used the freedom granted to them between Christmas and New Year’s Day, resulting in a powerful expression of creativity and memory of their traditions precolonial traditions. A recent example of the Reversal Holiday are Pride Celebrations, which gleefully embrace non-normative sexualities and gender expression.
Halloween, while seemingly a loose collection of youth practices and cheap commercialism, could be understood, and more meaningfully celebrated, as a Reversal Holiday. In a culture that is very afraid of Death, aging, failure, and more broadly, having a lack of control, Halloween is an embrace of the dark and the mysterious, the macabre and the grotesque. Suppose we very deliberately used Halloween as a night to set aside shame and guilt, and explore the things we wouldn’t find comfortable or polite in mixed company the rest of the year. In this arrangement, Halloween ought to be in bad taste, it should include a uncomfortable juxtaposition between morbid imagery and crass sexuality, along with an expectation of Bacchanalian indulgence. This deliberate suspension of the critical could prove to be very liberating, as it provides an outlet to question and reexamine one’s values, to make light of the subconscious fears and insecurities limiting us, and designate a specific time, place, and context for deviant behavior.
Halloween has the potential to be a life-affirming celebration, precisely because it is a celebration drawing from an acceptance of chaos and insecurity. We are compelled to re-examine life after we give death a visit and reception once each year.