Halloween: Our Night of Misrule
This essay was originally published with the Book Smugglers in October of 2015.
Historically, in the Western world, the festival of misrule was in winter. Its first face was Twelfth Night, twelve days after Christmas. On that day, your true love would give you such strange gifts as leaping lords and francophone poultry. With no work in the fields, laborers were free to cut loose with pranks, games, and parties that turned the entire social order on its head. Then, misrule’s last hurrah would sound months later, when spring was near, and it was time for the masks and music of Carnivale!
But history ain’t what it used to be.
The United States have a knack for upsetting what the Old World handed down to us. In the year 2015, we are not as connected to agriculture and the turn of the seasons. But we still need our fix. We still need that moment of merry chaos, that can help us to understand the world when we place it back to rights.
I say “We,” and of course I don’t speak for all Americans. We’re a famously regional bunch. For many, their period of “Misrule” will be Mardi Gras. For others, it may be Homecoming Week or Spring Break. But I think Lesley Ballantyne is on to something. I’d argue that for Americans, Halloween is our festival of misrule.
Take death, for instance. On Halloween, the dead rise up and walk among the living. Of course. That’s a primal fear, what “the darkest evening of the year” is all about. But then, those same walking dead don their top hats and tap-dance. Call it a modern danse macabre. We carry our fear to the point where it becomes a friend.
And that’s just the start of the mischief!
We festoon our house with all the things we usually flee – spiders, cobwebs, tombstones, and skeletons. Figures out of our imagination stalk the streets in search of candy. We surrender our identities to become what scares, delights, disgusts or thrills us. One of the seminal Halloween movies for my generation is The Nightmare Before Christmas, which tells the tale of a skeleton-king scheming to reshape Christmas in his own image. The two holidays are turned upside down, and misrule goes meta.
Death. Decay. Shapeshifting. Halloween lets us look at these ideas as though through a funhouse mirror. It’s safe. It’s only for one night.
And when the jack o’ lantern candles are blown out and the masks are put away, the holiday season has really begun.
The specters and spooks of Halloween naturally segue into Thanksgiving, when we brush the cobwebs off the pumpkins and celebrate the harvest. We surround ourselves with life and bounty, and reassert our national myths, both historical and culinary. With (theoretical) snowflakes and magic in the air come the solstice holidays – Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Yule, and many others. These festivals, in the true dark of the year, assert our American values anew: Family, love, generosity, belief in a higher power, and overwhelming consumption (I love Christmas).
Each holiday reminds us of how we celebrated it in the past. Where were we last Halloween? Who were we with? What did we dream? In this way, our ghosts come around and haunt us. They ask us what we’ve done with this year, what the time did to us. Our ghosts are memory, regrets, misunderstandings that will never be perfected, time past, people now departed. They crowd around us at holidays and anniversaries. We give them shape at this time of year. We clear them away when we give thanks for our present, and honor our past, and decide to make tomorrow better. And for the festival round of our time, it makes sense that what began with the shadows of Halloween should end with the fireworks of the New Year – for the Gregorian calendar, and the Chinese lunar calendar a little later.
When the holiday season ends in early January, we tend to feel sad but also a bit relieved. The holidays’ heightened artifice and cheer can be tough, especially when you’re in a long-term gloomy spell. But the holidays – starting with Halloween – serve a very important purpose, as a kind of mass ritual to clean the slate and gain catharsis. For catharsis, we need real fright. We need Halloween, to craft a counter-reality, where we can face our fears, and creep in new faces, and where the goblins will get you…
… if you don’t