Shanti Brien | Boo Humbug: Why we should reconsider Halloween

Last week, when I asked my fifth grader, Zach, what he wanted to be for Halloween, he said “a unicorn” without hesitation.

Apart from the non-traditional gender thing which I so appreciate about that choice, I also loved the fact that I wouldn’t have to buy another costume; Zach has been a unicorn for the past two years. He puts on the unicorn onesie, does a stone-faced lap around Havens school for the costume parade, and then runs around later gathering a pillow-case full of candy that I will give away or throw away behind his back a few days later.

This is what Halloween has become: a meaningless “Black Friday” for the candy industry, a pre-teen and teenage sexuality exploration of the “slut” genre (we actually own a slutty Alice in Wonderland costume); and another example of the insensitivity and offensiveness that has become the hallmark of our times. There may be places where Halloween is a fun, decent, creative holiday. But from my view, Halloween is soulless and we should at least consider alternatives, especially in our schools.

This is what Halloween has become: a meaningless “Black Friday” for the candy industry

First, there is the racism. Dressing as Pocahontas or a generic “Indian Princess” went out of style years ago, thankfully, although I’m sure many couples have a fall-back cowboy/Indian costume in their closet.  He puts on his boots and a cowboy hat and she braids her hair, throws on a beaded necklace and a feathered headband. Genocide, be damned! Still, this is one area of progress and #notyourcostume has become popular on social media. 

Yet as recently as a few years ago, there were elementary students in Piedmont dressing as Geishas. Also, border wall and ICE agent costumes (particularly the sexy ICE agent) have sold well online.  After a lot of hard lessons most of us have recognized how offensive “black face” is, but what about privileged white kids dressing up as Black Panther?  I’m not saying it’s the same as black face, but it should make us think about race, power, and the purpose of Halloween.

I also have a thing about guns and other weapons, especially in the hands of small children.  When we allow our kids to have toy guns, machetes, or “bloody” knives in the name of “fun” and “tradition” we disrespect the countless victims of violence in our country.  There is also a real danger in carrying fake weapons.  In October, 2013, a 13-year-old middle school student was killed by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy while walking down the street with a toy gun. For these reasons many schools do not allow fake weapons on campus for Halloween festivities.

Halloween is a soulless holiday and we should at least consider alternatives, especially in our schools

Finally, we should be concerned about inclusion. Many schools throughout the country have changed Halloween celebrations to harvest festivals, black-and-orange day, or Day-of-the-Dead events instead. The reasons for the changing climate in schools differ but most say Halloween does not include all students. Whether for religious reasons or financial burden of buying a costume, many students cannot participate.

Of course, many will accuse me of extreme political correctness. If by political correctness they mean sensitivity to the experiences of all of our residents and community members, the disapproval of violence, and the respect for different religious beliefs, then yes, I’m guilty. 

Shanti Brien, educator, consultant, writer and co-founder of Fogbreak Justice

But why dismiss those important and valid concerns for a holiday without any real importance or meaning?  It’s an excuse to get drunk for so many adults. (But I would never advocate for the closing of bars.)  It’s a fun time to decorate the house with plastic bats, gigantic spiders, and life-size rubber rats. (I don’t want to deny anyone the joy of rodent decor.) It’s a holiday for eating your weight in Reese’s peanut butter cups. (So guilty.)  But it’s not a holiday worth distracting students from learning, teaching stereotypes and bias, or making violence seem frivolous.

If our schools were to transition from Halloween to some other type of celebration, Zach may be disappointed he can’t wear his unicorn costume to school (again!), but I’ll propose he wear it to the grocery store instead. We can go together to buy a single pack of peanut butter cups.

8 thoughts on “Shanti Brien | Boo Humbug: Why we should reconsider Halloween

  1. I want to correct an inaccurate part of your article. The sexy outfits continue well on til middle age. Pretty sure woke society will eliminate all holidays pretty soon. Think of all those bunnies bullied on Easter. Bathe terrible treatment of little people on St Patrick’s day and of course the huge injustices that occur around Valentine’s Day.

  2. I appreciate the fact that some people read my articles and actually engage with them. Thank you for your thoughts on reducing some of the problems I’ve noted with the holiday and for expanding this thoughtfulness to other holidays. I find it interesting that people get defensive about this. It’s just my opinion and luckily I have very little influence! (So no, I can do nothing about the pumpkin spice madness!)

  3. Can we agree as a community to knock off the king size and full size candy bar distribution on Halloween? It’s just overkill when kids are already hauling around pillow cases with ten pounds of candy.

  4. Appreciate your thoughtfulness, Shanti. It’s never too late to reflect on our traditions and to ask whether they continue to demonstrate our values.

  5. Wow, this is wrong on so many levels. Halloween might very well be the best holiday of the year. Pure fun, kids and adults love it, completely secular, and practically a birthright for the people of San Francisco.

    People can decide on their own if they want to participate or not … and they won’t get shamed or excluded for doing so. You can always use your own judgement with respect to what outfit you want to wear … slutty doesn’t have to be a part of the equation.

    As for free candy … what is wrong with that one day a year. If you don’t want free candy, don’t go and collect it.

    This article isn’t political correctness, it is just preposterous … so sad.

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful article, but I disagree that the activity of going to school in a costume and being in a parade needs to change. The schools could have a teaching moment about what costumes are appropriate or inappropriate for school, and they may already be doing so.

    The onus for change sits with the parents, and I think it only takes some creativity to address most of your issues (assuming people agree with the PC rhetoric)

    I never purchased an expensive, pre-made costume for my sons. We would head to goodwill, and come up with costumes from what was available there or from what was already in our home. One year, I made a ninja turtle costume from a pillowcase. It was not the most successful costume (sewing is not in my wheel house), but it has served for some good stories since. For some, sewing a costume is a viable alternative.

    As for giving out candy, for some years I gave out change (mostly pennies peppered with some nickels, dimes, and quarters). I let the kids take fistfuls of change. They enjoyed it. When my sons were young, we had neighbors who had the kids come in and perform (a song or skit), before giving them a bag of popcorn.

    What I like about Halloween, is that is not religious and everyone can celebrate it. All ages, races, genders, etc. can enjoy getting into costume and either getting together with friends, a local party, or going trick or treating.

    So lets think out of the box, and as parents take responsibility for changing how we celebrate Halloween.

    • Very interesting perspective! Lots to think about how we can improve this fun celebration and make it more inclusive.

      I imagine there is plenty of resentment of other holidays as well, for various reasons. Christmas to many is a horror of waste and consumerism, and I imagine many non-Christians resent the school calendar being organized to enable Christians to enjoy holidays together as a family (ie Christmas 2-week break and Spring Break which coincides with Easter).

      And am I the only mom left in Piedmont who shamelessly lets her kids eat all of their Halloween candy?! Haha. Guilty!

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