anthropology · behavior · children · community · creativity · Social

Halloween, the most playful time of year

Cute Kids in Children's Costumes
Kids in Halloween Costumes (Photo credit:

Ah, Halloween, originally considered the betwixt and between time of year when ghosts and souls past could pass over into our world and scare the crud out of their relatives.

But these days, Halloween is really a celebration of play. No, really! When else is it perfectly acceptable to dress up in funny costumes, stay up late on a week night running around banging on peoples doors, play tricks on people, and create food that looks spooky or gross but is really just lots of sugar?

The tradition of dressing up and playing for Halloween is alive and well in the tradition of Dia de los Muertos, for example. To deal with and make light of mortality, grown-ups and kids will put on make-up and costumes that represent death and the dead. They’ll make and eat sugary confections, parade down the street, play music, sing songs, and overall try to make a party out of a normally scary and sad phenomenon. Yes, there is some sadness involved, such as visiting relatives’ graves and setting up alters to reflect their passing, but for some even the act of creating the alter, i.e. being creative, is cathartic and helps with the loss of a loved one.

In the play deprived United States, Halloween has become one big kid’s night out for adults as well as kids. Children and grown-ups alike look forward to dressing up, pretending to be a character, and be silly with friends. Often the costume is a parody or commentary on something political, but that’s just as playful as covering yourself as marshmallows, although potentially socially sticky instead of just physically sticky.

That’s why it makes me sad that so many K – 12 schools have banned Halloween for fear of these socially sticky situations or fear of kids bringing weapons to school as part of their costumes, plus some religious groups find Halloween offensive. While I understand and respect all of these concerns, I disagree with the idea that we should just get rid of it outright. How are we going to learn to get along and get over differences if we just avoid them? Play and school are both supposed to be about learning, so why not turn Halloween into a learning opportunity?

As a proponent of play, I feel like Halloween is an important holiday, not because of what it originally stood for, but for what it stands for now. Being socially allowed to play and pretend, even for one day, is important for humans’ mental health. It also creates bonds between people who share in the activity, not just from sharing the experience but learning more about each other through their costumes.

I will definitely be buying candy and supporting Halloween this year, not for the sweet tooth but for the costumes. Play on!