Dressing up for Halloween

NOVEMBER 5 — Since when did Halloween become such a big deal?

When I was a kid, and I’m showing my age now, I don’t think it was even a “thing” at all.

In the United Kingdom in the Seventies and Eighties, the only event worth paying any attention to at this time of year was Bonfire Night, when the attempted treachery of would-be parliament terrorist bomber Guy Fawkes is celebrated every year with fireworks displays on November 5.

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November” (yes, that’s today see, I still haven’t forgotten) was among the highlights of the year, spanning that awkward gap between the start of the new school year in September and the eagerly awaited Christmas holidays in December. But Halloween? If it existed in my childhood, I don’t remember it.

Now, though, in the space of a few short years (alright, decades), Halloween is everywhere.

Earlier this week I was busy telling my children, aged nine and 12, they shouldn’t expect too much from Halloween where we live in Spain, because the event is — I confidently asserted — primarily an American and British phenomenon.

But it turns out that wasn’t quite true, because Tuesday night was actually quite a big deal in Spain too, and not only for children.

Halloween is, I’m sure most people don’t know (I didn’t until I googled it), originally a pagan festival which, like most pagan festivals, was gradually adopted by Christianity as All Hallows’ Eve, the night before the All Hallows’ Day — better known as All Saints’ Day — celebrations.

All Saints’ Day is not a celebration of the 1990s girl pop band (sorry, no more facetiousness, I promise), but a solemn occasion to mark the deep spiritual bond between the souls of the living and the souls of the dead.

Children out trick or treating during Halloween in Lima, Peru on October 31, 2017. — Reuters pic
Children out trick or treating during Halloween in Lima, Peru on October 31, 2017. — Reuters pic

And the night before — that’s Halloween — is an opportunity to drive away any evil spirits who may be tempted to ruin the following day’s serious proceedings.

Hence the ghosts and ghouls, vampires and goblins, witches and scarily lit pumpkins — they are the evil which must be overcome and driven away, leaving All Saints’ Day to proceed as a pure, cleansed and solemn celebration.

That’s my understanding of it, in any case, but let’s be brutally honest here: very few people really care about that sort of stuff anymore, and don’t even know why the tradition — if such a new thing can be a tradition — exists in the first place.

Along with dressing up in scary costumes, the most important modern Halloween tradition is “trick or treating”, where children roam their neighbourhood and knock on doors with the threat of performing a nasty evil trick unless the homeowners provide a nice little treat — generally of the sweet variety.

This party piece was relatively unheard of outside America until recently, but from Tuesday night’s experience I can confirm it is now rapidly spreading across Western Europe and probably much further afield as well.

So where does this sudden explosion in popularity for Halloween come from?

To a significant extent, it’s the normal case of America leading and everyone else following.

Whatever the trend in the US happens to be right now, you can be pretty sure that kids all over Europe will be doing the same before too long. And so it is with Halloween.

But there’s obviously some kind of appeal greater than a simplistic “well Americans do it so we want to do it too” dismissal. There’s obviously something about Halloween that grabs hold of people and attaches itself to their psyches — something about it that people enjoy for itself.

Another common explanation is that Halloween has become commercialised, and that the growth of the celebrations has been largely manufactured by corporate giants who want us to give them our money.

But I think that’s the wrong way round. This is an instance, more so than Christmas, of the demand creating the supply rather than the reverse case.

Commercial organisations are discovering they can make money out of Halloween because it’s something that people want to do, rather than people wanting to do it because commercial organisations are throwing it at them.

And interestingly, it’s not just children. After the kids had gone home on Tuesday night, holding tight their bagfuls of “trick or treat” sweets and attempting to prevent the witches’ hats from falling off their heads, the grown-ups came out to play — and they joined in the fun with just as much gusto as the younger Halloweeners.

The theme for these revellers was simple: costumes. Generally scary costumes, but it was apparent that anything would really suffice (since when did Spiderman become frightening?) for those who didn’t want to ghost it up.

And perhaps this, underneath it all, is the real appeal of Halloween: it’s a great opportunity to dress up.

We humans love dressing up. We do it all the time, from religious garments to office wear to sporting allegiances to the latest fashion trends, from tattoos and make-up to fancy haircuts and expensive accessories. All over the world and in different guises, getting ourselves into some kind of costume appears to be a universal ritual.

We wear things to tell other people — and ourselves — who we are. I am a Manchester United fan; I am smart and sensible; I am Muslim; I am at the cutting edge of contemporary culture.

What we choose to wear sends out a powerful message, and on Halloween perhaps the message is: I’m a little bit crazy. I’m fun.

So perhaps the modern-day attraction of Halloween really has nothing to do with ghouls and witches, souls or the after-life. Perhaps it’s really nothing more complicated than a good excuse to put on a silly costume.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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