Is Halloween good or bad for civil society? As a mother and a vice president at a think tank that seeks to strengthen civil society, I have wrestled with this question for years.
What do I mean by civil society? I refer to that "web of relationships and associations that mediates between the person and the state." My colleagues say this web includes everything from "families to chess clubs, from soup kitchens to the PTA, from labor unions to the shop around the corner to the business downtown, from Wednesday night prayer meetings to Saturday morning softball leagues." Thriving families, lively neighborhoods and rich, child-centered, non-market activities are vital parts of a healthy civil society.
I have moved many times over the years, experiencing Halloween in rough urban neighborhoods, affluent leafy suburbs, and the stable, middle-class block where I live now. And no matter where I have lived, much of what I see troubles me. "Here lies the Avon lady, ding dong dead," announced one plastic, decorative gravestone planted in a humble front yard --i n precisely the kind of neighborhood where kind-hearted women might try to supplement their family income by selling Avon products. A second story window sported a life-size stuffed "bride" hung by a noose around her neck. Last year, a neighbor treated us to bloody plastic severed limbs -- the hatchet still embedded in the fake flesh -- hanging from the tree in front of her tasteful Victorian home. This year, another neighbor is again featuring severed heads dangling from trees, the goggling eyes in my line of sight whenever I try to enjoy the last of the autumn leaves. In Whole Foods one year a woman dressed as a zombie bride with blood trickling from her face processed stone-faced through the aisles, causing young children to scream. When my niece, a sensitive child born with a chromosome defect, was very young, her parents could not risk taking her out of the house this time of year. It is estimated that Americans spend about 6 billion dollars on Halloween -- many of it on plastic depictions of horror made by factories in China. How on earth is any of this good for our civil society? (And, what must those Chinese factory workers think of us as they box up all this crap?)
And yet... Halloween is the only time of year that dozens and dozens of children knock on my door. The only time that I see or meet many of my neighbors. The only time I've ever gone walking with neighbors through darkened, child-friendly streets, accompanying our children door-to-door. The only time, in short, that thin skeins of that web of civil society can begin to form in conversations, shared activities, a kind word and a treat handed out, an open door and a willingness to trust, a porch light left on.
What do you think? Should we ditch the whole, rotten holiday called Halloween, or should we try to retrieve and build upon the best of Halloween, welcoming neighbors, giving treats to children we don't know, and leaving our light on the other 364 days of the year, too?