Like Christmas and to a lesser extent Thanksgiving, Halloween has come uncoupled from its roots. There's probably something liberating about the experience for somebody, but I don't get much out of it. I won't pretend this is due to the outright influence of harvest festivals and paganism or whatever. I just don't get much reward from doing up a costume. Or let me put it this way: it's hard for me to distinguish the good feelings I get in costume from the good feelings I get just schlepping to a friend's party at all. Unless it's a big group activity it doesn't seem worthwhile, and my friends by and large aren't the types to go for it. And I by and large am not that type either.
Here's the thing for me: you know what a 'wassail' is? If I remember correctly from some reading I did a few months ago (thank you Commonwealth Books!), a 'wild wassail' is what happens when a mob of servants go from rich house to rich house singing threatening songs demanding gifts, raises in pay, fair treatment, &c. (which the masters would sometimes ignore but sometimes not, shockingly enough). It's a meaningful Christmas tradition by which 19th century servants would be allowed to run freaky and free. Picture the best and most sinister Halloween revels you can imagine, slipping from door to door in terrifying masks, knife-edged songs in the air. Fill the glass or the door comes down and worse, lord.
The word itself refers to a spicy drink, according to Wikipedia. Which as far as I'm concerned only adds to the creepiness of the image, not detracts. A class-conscious Carnival evincing the most jovial, the most sincere, the friendliest murderous intent you could possibly imagine, and a happy Christmas to you sir and you, and would you care for a drink? It's Christmas after all.
I bring up the wild wassail to make a point about Halloween, which is this: it's a pretty toothless holiday. People get a one-day frisson from dressing up as harlots or vampires or Joan of Arc (who had a personal relationship with God), but that's about the extent of it. The sexual perversity of it is downplayed in popular representations, the seasonal importance is gone, the unwillingness to recognize the personal presence of the dead - by which I mean the weird way of the deaths of real people at arm's length by playing out silly abstract comedies of the undead, mere urban legends. Americans seem to have a strained relationship with the past, and some amount of guilt or displacement undercuts a fuller understanding of what we have been and done, as individuals and as a nation. So on Christmas we pretend to remember our religious roots, but are encouraged not to think too hard about them; on Thanksgiving we might mention but don't consider exploration, religious persecution, the complex entanglements of two cultures (and in the blind spot, a wee bit of genocide); every Halloween we drag the dead from their coffins and claim not to know them; and on Easter we definitely don't talk about a cornerstone western myth involving a man dying for his community and rising from the dead a few days later, even as it forms the center of the liturgical calendar. Easter is hard to sell, and to market Thanksgiving we've turned it into 'go home and have a big turkey' day.
And maybe all of this is actually fairly simple: there's money to be made, and people will always be up for making and spending money. Imagine, though, children making their own Halloween costumes, or Christmas without the expectations of a lamentable 'Christmas shopping season' (which begins tomorrow I believe)! It's just hard to shake the feeling that we do our holidays wrong in this country. In each family the holiday takes a personal form and that's good, but the net effect is at an absolute limit of sheer tackiness, edgelessness. There is no threat in Halloween, no recognition of those veins of perversity and monstrosity that run in and between each of us. Children can imagine their way out of it, but that's what it is to be a kid, I guess.
[All of which is obviously just an explanation of why I missed all the Halloween parties this weekend, and I'm sorry. I did have a nice weekend at Chez Justice, thanks, which included the mysterious appearance of a bottle of bourbon in our kitchen (go Ray!) and our Internet connection dying an awful death (go Comcast! or Saurabh's computer!), and some extraordinary writing by Joan Didion who might be my new favourite more or less everything (go Joan!). Her essay 'The White Album' is perfect. Plus I got no small amount of writing done, and tomorrow I can look forward to NaNoWriMo knowing, if not what I'm going to write or about what or how or in fact why, then that I will sit down and write with a number in mind and a mood, and no matter the outcome on December 1st I'll be able to say I spent some time doing something I'd been meaning to do for a long time, and that's OK, thanks.]