The Value of Halloween as a Tradition

Photo by seungju lee on Unsplash

As a favorite holiday for many children, Halloween is an opportunity to get free candy and to dress in a cool costume. Beyond that simplistic interpretation of the night, is there any value to be found in the tradition of Halloween? For many devout followers of religions, Halloween can be seen as devil worship or promoting witchcraft. For many, tradition itself holds no value and should simply be cast aside in the name of progressing away from superstitions. I don’t see things this way. I believe that Halloween provides much value to our society as a whole.

Let’s get the basic out of the way first — Halloween is a holiday. This means that, any generic benefits of holidays should apply to Halloween. Holidays give people something to look forward to as an escapism from everyday life. They teach kids how to follow societal practices — a skill that can be abstracted into everyday life. Often, and especially in the case of Halloween, holidays push people to shop which, while not always best for the individual, helps the economy as a whole as it gets money moving. They also help the community as a whole come together. Think of the conversations you’ve had in your life with strangers about a nearing holiday, and think of the practice of trick-or-treating. These are just a handful of the more obvious benefits of holidays. Halloween specifically has some incredible qualities.

Fundamentally, Halloween is a day (or night) about normalizing fear and scary things. This is true for all ages as well, not just kids, so allow me to explain. The benefit to children is incredible if you think about it. We dress the world up in horrifying decor that would often send kids away crying in a normal situation. However, we explain to them that this is a holiday, it's fun, and they get free candy. It’s almost as if we’re forcing them through some psychological treatment to improve their response to scary phenomena. Children get the chance to see how far they can go without getting too scared. Not only that, but we tell them they get to dress themselves up in a costume, and they can be scary! They are exposed to ghosts, skeletons, and other omens of death as well as strangers nearby. Despite the fear, kids adore this holiday and who knows the effect it has on an entire civilization over decades. Consider the fact that it helps familiarize the concept of death with children — something they cannot escape in life.

Not only does it help kids, it also helps parents and, by extension, grandparents. Consider the fear parents face when walking around with their child at night, going up to random people’s houses to feed them candy. There is major risk involved. Your kids might drift off and get lost — or abducted. You often walk in the road during trick-or-treating, so maybe a car could hit you or your kids. Strangers could hide lethal things inside the candy they hand to your kids. All of this worry is amplified for a parent’s first Halloween when their child is extremely young. However, it helps them work through this fear, just as it does for children. It is a socially accepted — and socially agreed upon — night for people to experience fear safely. Most of these worries are not truly that large, but always exist. All of this is especially amplified in the age of Covid-19 where, assuming you have trick-or-treating at all, your kids or yourself might catch Covid.

For teenagers and young adults, there is still some value to be had. Often, teens will try to pass off as kids to gain candy. If they get caught, they don’t get candy. So, there is some fear involved of failure and of being caught breaking the social agreement. It is a part of teenagers’ development to need to push and bend societal boundaries, so this also aids in that. Otherwise, teens and young adults often have Halloween parties. This often pushes them to make romantic gestures that are absolutely horrifying — but, it’s Halloween, so why not. Parties often also push people out of their comfort zones when a crowd urges you to do something such as dance or bob for apples. I’ll admit, I’m kind of grasping at straws for the benefits towards teenagers, but I think they still hold up to some extent. If nothing else, it helps reinforce the fact that teens are not children anymore, but not adults yet. That is also something that can be a terrifying feeling.

Photo by Sabina Music Rich on Unsplash

Traditions are a strange thing. Most of them have downsides, even Halloween: the sheer volume of candy consumed by children. The purpose of this article is to get you to think about holidays in general in a different light. The flaws of society’s practices are self-evident in modern day. However, the benefits we risk throwing away with the flaws are often subtler. It is crucial, in any decision, to create a list of pros and cons to then weigh. If you fail to even attempt to create a list of pros or cons, then you are dishonest about your endeavors. In this context, I primarily listed only pros; however, I am not trying to argue that Halloween should remain as is and should never change. I’m simply stating that there exist pros to the tradition, and we don’t know to what extent they accrue benefit to society.

I suppose we could compare cultures with a Halloween-like tradition with those without one; however, it would be very hard to attribute certain benefits of a culture with a single tradition. There are too many confounding factors at play. It would require an extremely careful analysis to determine the quantitative effect of a holiday. I think we throw away traditions such as these at our peril, because we cannot measure the benefits they provide. For all we know, a day like Halloween is effectively essential for our society. For now, we should just continue watching and seeing the benefits and drawbacks. Also, traditions can change over time. If you don’t want to pass out candy to kids, you don’t need to. These things can be modified, but they must be modified democratically — that is, society must agree with you on your change. I think, looking at societal change as a democratic process, it's no wonder some people want to bypass the system entirely and push a dictatorial edict on society. Social agreements are a strange thing that we don’t really understand that well.

This Halloween, even if your city or town has banned trick-or-treating, be sure to celebrate if you do. I personally will be listening to creepy-pasta and watching lets plays of horror games. Let yourself feel some fear, so you can improve your overall fear response. We feel anxious and fearful of the simplest things now that our species is no longer in a nature setting, and it is often the cause of great discomfort and distress. So, give yourself some pre-allocated time to feel afraid and become more accustomed to it. After all, you never know what kind of monster lurks around in the darkness…

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David MacDonald

Developer, Mathematician, and Introspective Thinker. Learn to become smart, but live to become wise.