A Fresh Look at Halloween

An African woman and American man stand leaning into each other on a beach My wife Marie and I are still trying to figure out where Halloween fits in our family culture.

In Rwanda, where Marie is from, Halloween is unknown.  Marie dislikes the ghoulish aspects of Halloween.  Rwanda has seen too much real blood in its recent past, too many real skeletons, for her to enjoy this part of Halloween.  Marie can’t fathom why our otherwise pleasant neighbors decide to dress up their lawns with skulls, tombstones, and spiders.

Marie and I have tried to meld our two cultures’ traditions within our household.

We lived in Africa and Europe for thirteen years before coming to the US in 2008.   In our years abroad, we had found it easy to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Rwandan culture has its own harvest festival, the umuganura.  It was easy to combine our cultures’ traditions centered on the idea of gratitude for life’s bounty.  And fundamentally, Thanksgiving is a family holiday – it can be celebrated anywhere where a family lives, where relatives gather together.

Halloween is different.  It’s a community holiday.  It can’t really be celebrated without a whole neighborhood of people who put on costumes, stock up on candy, and welcome dozens of children coming to their door.   So before we came to the States, Marie had heard about Halloween, but had never really experienced it.

The year we moved to the United States, we received the keys to our house on October 31.  I said to Marie, this is perfect.  We can meet all the neighbors by walking around to their houses trick or treating, and introduce ourselves.

I hadn’t counted on our new community’s enthusiasm for Halloween.

When we arrived at our new home, we saw that there were about a thousand costumed children and youth circulating in our neighborhood.  We tried to introduce ourselves to our new neighbors by going house to house, but realized that their witch and werewolf costumes would make it impossible for us to recognize them the next time we met.  And the relentless tide of children behind us gave us no time for small talk beyond “Trick or Treat.”

After a while we decided that the neighborly thing to do was to go back to our new house and sit and give out candy.  Unfortunately, we had totally underestimated how much candy we would need, and we ran out in fifteen minutes.  I made a quick trip to the store to buy as much candy as I could carry, but there were so many children trick or treating that this also disappeared quickly.  After this, we turned the lights off and hid in the kitchen until the crowds subsided.   The energy our neighborhood showed for Halloween was one of the most lasting first impressions we had of our new community.

Though we’re not crazy about the ghoulish parts of Halloween, it’s hard not to like the excitement of the kids in the neighborhood, and the way we all share in the event.  In the end, I think of Halloween as a night when the adults in the community allow children to do some scary but exciting things: to be out at night, to go to unfamiliar houses, to dress up in ways that aren’t normal – and to know that it’s all safe.

I’m still trying to convince Marie that Halloween is a wholesome part of American culture, and that it deserves a place in our family traditions.  I’ll keep you posted.

three alloween carved pumkins