Monday, October 26, 2009
American schoolchildren are taught that the Pilgrims—those noble, buckle-hatted fathers of the country—fled England to seek “religious freedom.” This makes them sound like unfairly persecuted free-thinkers who were opposed to religious dogma. It's more accurate to say that after being persecuted by the dominant religion in England, they went across the ocean to establish their own, equally dogmatic religion and be the persecutors instead of the persecutees for once. After all, once they got to America the Pilgrims set about banishing anyone who didn't agree with them (including those who actually preached freedom of religion), and burned witches whenever it wasn't Sunday—that day being set aside exclusively for prayer. A good day for a pilgrim involved several hours of prayer, several more hours of back-breaking labor, a short break to taunt the sinner placed in the stocks at the center of town, more labor, more prayer, and finally falling asleep on a hard bed while admonishing oneself for sinfully sexual thoughts. These were not fun-loving people, and for the most part, neither are modern Americans.
As a country, we're like that painfully high-strung, hard-working student we all knew in high school—the girl whose every project was an extraordinarily serious undertaking, the tie-wearing Christian passing out pamphlets outside of school in order to save the souls of the world. Americans work endless hours at our jobs; we go out jogging and count calories so we can live forever; we play the lottery because hey, you never know when God will reward you; we create professional sports leagues and treat them as seriously as church; we treat church as seriously as work; we are shocked, shocked, every time a public figure cheats on his spouse; and we invade other countries so we can export all of these virtues. Just as the serious students are too busy building dioramas to go to the keggers, Americans' virtuous schedules don't leave much room for fun.
Even our holidays aren't fun. The big celebrations on our calendar are always celebrations in the service of a higher ideal. July 4th is all about patriotism, Easter is all about religion, Thanksgiving is about family, the Super Bowl is about football, and Christmas is about religion, charity, and materialism (not always in that order). Besides New Years, just about the last true, pure, Bacchanalian party we have left is Halloween.
In a culture that has a strong tradition of ancestor and spirit-worship, Halloween might be a sombre holiday. (The South American equivalent is a more serious deal.) In America, thankfully, we don't give a shit about the ancestors and have turned what might have been a somber day into a day to dress up and break the rules.
Both parts of that equation are important. Breaking the rules is obviously the main ingredient in having fun, and people of all ages get to break the rules imposed on them every October 31. Smaller children get to go to strangers' houses and eat more candy than is normally allowed, older children get to throw eggs at things, throw toilet paper at other things, and generally act like hoodlums (this is not officially sanctioned, which makes it more transgressive and exciting), and older people get to dress scandalously, drink large quantities, and hook up with one another. Dressing up allows us to hide behind our costumes, to say, “Hey, I may not normally act like this, but tonight I'm Spiderman/Michael Jackson/a Sexy Witch!” The Romans had Saturnalia as a festival where social norms were broken, Americans have Halloween.
And thank God we have Halloween! For one night, nothing really matters. We step outside of the normal state of things and manufacture a public spectacle. Everyone is parading up and down the street in bizarre clothing, everyone is drunk—some on candy, some on alcohol—strangers look like friends, friends look like strangers, everyone is wandering about excitedly behind their masks, and for once it's obvious we're wearing them. Were we to link this festival to some larger religious or political undertaking, the modern-day Pilgrims would be threatening to take it over—the same way they are constantly threatening to turn Christmas into an austere celebration of Jesus and July 4th into an austere celebration of the Revolutionary War. Halloween is nonsensical. We don't serve any higher principles by trick-or-treating or partying, and with those high principles fallen away, we can actually have some good old fashioned hedonistic fun.
The Pilgrims would have disapproved of every aspect of Halloween. But they would be awful, awful people to hang out with. You know who is fun to hang out with? Almost anyone you meet on Halloween. So this Saturday eat candy, egg houses, chug whiskey, and yell at the moon. Let's forget, for one night, that this country was founded by people who were so boring, even the English didn't like them.