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Five reasons why Halloween has become North America's biggest spiritual celebration

By Pieta Woolley

Seeing zombies lurching through downtown. Shelling out $80 for mini Kit Kats. Scanning marthastewart.com for elaborate bevvies, with names like "Ghost in the Graveyard" and "Elixir of Doom,” to serve at your costume party.

October 31 wasn't always like this. But you've probably noticed Halloween creeping up in your consciousness, getting a little larger each year. Now, judging by spending levels, Halloween is North America's second biggest holiday of the year — second only to Christmas. Millions are drawn to this event that fuses together Pagan, Christian and secular traditions. So clearly, we're sorely in need of a vital collective holy day, as the traditional ones slowly fade away.

Easter, the historically most important religious holiday under Christendom, has been crushed in the public’s imagination by the decline in church attendance and the rise of the Easter Bunny. Without the cross, Easter is about, well, nothing.

Christmas, the most important salute to religion in the public sphere, is at war with itself. On the one hand, there’s Black Friday. And on the other, there’s a most repulsive defender in the form of U.S. President Donald Trump, who recently launched a rather bizarre "Merry Christmas" campaign.

So if you celebrate them as religious holidays, Easter and Christmas together do a great job of expressing hope and love while drawing out the dark and deeply human themes of death, fear and faith.

Still, 21st century Halloween plays on those dark themes, too, along with the all-too-modern spiritual complexities of sex and money. And through its costumes, celebrations, books, movies, food and much more, the celebration offers some balm if not the richer promises of hope and love.

Here are five reasons why Halloween has become North America's most important spiritual celebration.

1. Death

Why we need it: With hospitals, morgues, cremation and effective vaccine programs, we’ve become so good at removing death from everyday life. But spiritually, we’re paying the price for it. Today, a burgeoning movement to re-embrace death’s lessons as part of living a fuller existence has grabbed hold of the popular imagination. 

How Halloween gets it right: Death has always been Halloween’s thing, from the old Pagan celebration of Samhain to the Catholic All Souls Day November 1. Now, the holiday invites us to invoke death in costumes: ghosts, dead brides, and of course, gory zombies. October 31, you literally look death in the face, all day.

2. Sex

Why we need it: Compared to nearly every other culture on earth, over any period in history, we are so deeply conflicted about dressing to show our sexuality in public. Especially women. Somewhere between bikinis, second-wave feminism, The Pussycat Dolls, rape culture and Quebec’s burka ban, sloppy jeans, runners and t-shirts have become the uniform of choice for most of us. The triumph of Mountain Equipment Co-op chic symbolizes how sexually mute we now are. The clothing is functional, but it’s nothing Lady Gaga would wear. 

How Halloween gets it right: For one night, you can be anything. Halloween encourages adults to set aside confusion and lean into full-on fantasy. Sexy cat, sexy nurse and sexy zombie really aren’t bad things. Even Psychology Today condones it.

3. Money

Why we need it: Vast consumer debt. Ethical consumerism. Growing inequality. How we, as individuals, earn and spend money is at the very heart of North American spiritual malaise.

How Halloween gets it right: You buy oodles of candy, and you give it away to strangers — no questions asked. Trick or Treating is a perfect allegory for the generosity that we’re so desperately missing.  

4. Fear

Why we need it: The apocalypse has loomed large in 2017. Several times, it seemed that a nuclear war with North Korea was imminent. Climate change-related forest fires consumed the Western continent, as hurricanes bashed the East and South. Unprecedented numbers of refugees roam Europe, Africa and Asia. And yet, we scurry around, grocery shopping, going to work and mowing the lawn. Indeed, dread and distress are important motivators for collective change. But when do we get to feel or express these things?

How Halloween gets it right: Dread, distress and fear are the very heart of the holiday. Seeing the film, It (2017), and visiting haunted houses really get the adrenalin going. So my predictions for popular costumes this year? Trump, Kim Jong Un, a missile, Hurricane Irma and fentanyl. Sure, they’re totally tasteless. But they’re also right-on-the-money.

5. Faith

Why we need it: What happens to you after you die? Do humans have a soul? Are the departed, who we loved, still with us in some way? As North Americans show up to church less and less on Sunday mornings, the big questions often remain unanswered or simply ignored. But that’s no way to live.

How Halloween gets it right: The spiritual-not-religious have grasped onto the celebration, holding remarkable spiritual events, such as “A Night for All Souls” at Vancouver’s Mountainview Cemetery or the “Festival of the Dead” in Salem, Mass.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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