"What are you guys doing for Halloween?" I asked my friends Jeff and Bianca.
"I don't celebrate Halloween," Jeff said, rolling his eyes. "That's for kids."
"I hate Halloween," Bianca piped up. "All the adult costumes are so trashy. It's become a one-night slutfest."
Poor Halloween. It's turned into its own little Las Vegas, the city once known as Sin, then known as fun for the whole family, then back to the city of illicit debauchery ("What Happens Here, Stays Here," 2005), then on to the city you want to be seen in ("Your Vegas Is Showing," 2008). Of course, unlike Las Vegas, Halloween doesn't have a marketing campaign. There are millions of hands in this pot, hands that belong to us now, and hands that have been there since the first millennium.
Photo by AV Flox
Without a doubt, Halloween is a survivor; one that sticks around by absorbing the qualities of the culture in prominence where the holiday is celebrated. The truth of the matter is that Halloween is not a holiday for kids. The shift to kids is a very recent thing in its epic history, and I think the emergence of more and more sexualized costumes is both a reflection of our culture's attitudes toward sex and an attempt to take the holiday back.
Halloween, it is speculated, has its origins among the Celts, a group of tribal peoples who lived 2,000 years ago across a large part of Europe, and as far as Asia Minor. The Celts celebrated the new year at the end of summer harvest, on November 1, and began preparing themselves for the dark, cold months of winter. This time was associated with death -- a death of the earth that would eventually give way to its rebirth in later months.
The time was celebrated with great bonfires and the burning of animal and crop sacrifices to deities. This time also had mystical implications: on this last day of the Celtic year, it was believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead thinned, enabling spirits to come back to the world of the living, and predictions to be made about the future.
In time, the skins and other ceremonial costumes worn by the peoples celebrating the feast would take on a distinctly different meaning: some speculate that the frightening costumes that were adopted were meant to scare spirits who came among the living at this time, or at least convince the spirits that those wearing the costumes were also a spirit, so as to avoid harm.
By the first millennium AD, the Roman Empire had expanded into much of what had previously been Celtic lands and Roman celebrations had mingled with the Celtic festivals. The Roman commemoration of the passing of the dead known as Feralia and the feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and bounty, became entrenched in Celtic new year (which leads some to believe this is how bobbing for apples got its start).
Then came Christianity, of course, and the move of All Saint's Day to November 1, in an attempt by Pope Gregory III to turn the pagan festival that refused to go away into something more palatable for the Church. This celebration came to be known as All-hallows. The night before, then, was All-hallows' Even -- "even" being a shortening of evening. Slowly All-hallows' Even became All-hallows' E'en, which eventually became Hallowe'en, and then Halloween.
A couple of centuries later, the Church made the second of November All Soul's Day, to celebrate the dead and take in some of the other events relating to the original holiday that didn't seem to fit with the Church-sanctioned All Saint's Day. All Soul's Day was celebrated much like the original Celtic holiday, with bonfires and dressing up in costumes. As a way to curtail the more pagan practice of leaving offerings for spirits, the Church began encouraging the distribution of "soul cakes," in exchange for the promise that the recipients would pray for the giver's dead. It's very possible that the practice we know today as trick-or-treating began here.
And so it was that when Europeans began coming to America, their traditions came with them, meshing with one another, as well as those of North American peoples, in some colonies. Being largely agricultural, the harvest was prominent as ever in American Halloween tradition, and the focus on the dead and the mystical remained strong in the form of ghost story-telling. The mischief-making associated with the spirits in earlier celebrations took hold in American festivities, making it one of its more prominent features.
When Ireland's potato famine of 1846 brought more immigrants to America, the celebration of Halloween gained national popularity, and took on costumes and the tradition of going door-to-door asking for food and money. Some of the more mystical aspects took prominence around this time, especially that of divining a young woman's future spouse by means of apples and mirrors.
Come the 1800s, there was a movement in the country to shift the usual pranking and practices associated with "witchcraft" to a more community-centric event; as a result, the holiday became more about community and get-togethers. Costumes became less about terror and more about fun, and many games came into being.
By the twentieth century, community leaders had largely succeeded in removing the grotesque and superstitious from the holiday. A revival between the 1920s and 50s succeeded in bringing trick-or-treating back, which was a far less expensive way for the community to celebrate the holiday than by hosting large gatherings. By the 1950s, the holiday became almost entirely focused on children.
THE STATE OF AFFAIRS
Post-Sex and the CityAmerica is a liberated culture, we're told over and over. The suggestion of sex has sold a million things, and yet I've never seen a nipple or a penis in a commercial in this country. It's a weird sexual time. We're constantly told we are having incredible sex now more than ever and if we aren't, well, we really must -- all while simultaneously being censured for any real expression of sexuality.
Enter a holiday that involves costumes and has shown an incredible versatility and resilience. Finally, an excuse. Doesn't it follow that we would take it all back and make sexual expression ours again?
THINK OF THE CHILDREN
In order to write this piece I took a gig at a costume shop. People coming in asked me all the time what the most popular costume is -- you know what was really flying off the shelves? Those 15- to 24-inch petticoats, most often used to lengthen the skirts of costumes. Parents I encountered couldn't get over how risqué teen, tween and kids costumes were. And they weren't the only ones -- a lot of kids were dismayed that the selection of costumes they could wear to school was so limited.
There is a problem with the amount of sexy costumes on the market at the exclusion of all other costumes, and unfortunately, the companies that manufacture sexy costumes will continue to develop and sell these, in all sizes and for more and more groups (sexy costumes for pets, anyone?) until the demand disappears. As consumers, it's in our hands to effect change in this trend by refusing to buy products we don't find suitable and opting for putting costumes together ourselves instead of trying to modify what is available.
Don't get me wrong -- I don't think sexy costumes should disappear and my closet will gladly testify to how much I adore them. Sexy costumes can be very entertaining -- in the appropriate setting. And by that I don't mean an adult Halloween party. You see, the problem with Halloween isn't simply the sexualized costumes at what has become a holiday largely associated with children. The problem is that we really don't see it fit to express ourselves sexually at any other time and -- more importantly -- as ourselves. And that's the biggest tragedy of all.