COVID-19 Halloween, Feasts, and the Need for a Societal Pressure Safety Valve

I thought there was a high probability that Halloween 2020 was going to be the worst Halloween ever. With COVID-19 restrictions and genuine fear in the community, my prediction was for few trick-or-treaters, cancelation of activities, and a general feeling of disappointment. I was wrong.

While the traditional Halloween parade was cancelled (and my little kids got to avoid fighting off teenagers for single Tootsie Rolls) the community held a drive through “trunk or treat” where local businesses decorated their vehicles and families could drive through and check it out and get a big sack of candy at the end.

Trick-or-treating in the neighborhood was a huge success. The kids loved every minute of it and, anecdotally, they were not alone. For the first time I recall, we ran out of candy to hand out at home (in individually wrapped, sanitary, candy sacks). The neighborhood was electric with masked kids running from house to house experiencing sheer joy. I heard one little boy dressed like Iron Man shout, “this is heaven!” while sprinting with a nearly full bucket of candy.

Ready for trick-or-treat.

I think that the pleasure of Halloween 2020 is related to the restrictive pandemic existence that these kids have experienced for the last seven months. Holidays, vacations, and most other forms of outside the home fun have been cancelled. They have had to deal with stressed parents and teachers without much of a break and without an end in sight.

While the COVID-19 restrictions are good and necessary in that the are saving lives, they have restricted people in a way that is unprecedented in American history. Living with strict rules leads to an increase in psychological pressure that eventually can necessitate an outlet to keep functioning. This is why the military has learned that it cannot keep soldiers in a war zone indefinitely. Without a break, the weight of control can lead to burn out or just giving up on following the rules. The key is to find a safe non-destructive way to let off steam.

The restrictive societies of the past understood this. Charles Taylor theorized that past societies needed an anti-structure to allow these restrictive societies to continue to function and maintain compliance with their rules. In mediaeval Europe, these anti-structures were in the form of feasts and Carnivals. These celebrations allowed people to set aside there normally highly ordered and controlled existences for a few days and just have fun. As Taylor explained:

Even at the time, the explanation was offered that people needed this as a safety valve. The weight of virtue and good order was so heavy, and so much steam built up under this suppression of instinct, that there had to be periodic blow-outs if the whole system were not to fly apart.

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

The lesson is that humans can deal with a lot in the short term, but eventually need to be able to regroup and experience some freedom to remain in a difficult situation in the long term. Halloween was a perfect break in the storm of COVID-19 for the kids as they could appropriately social distance and, at the same time, have a great time experiencing the freedom of roaming the neighborhood demanding candy.

Social distancing.

Likewise, if you live with limitations in your life, whether imposed externally or internally, it makes the times when you set aside those limitations particularly sweet. In Sigrid Udset’s excellent novel, Kristen Lavransdatter, the protagonist’s father, Lavrans, is an upright and dependable man in his village in Norway in the 14th century. As Udset described:

She thought back to her childhood, to the banquets and great ale drinking on feast days, when her father would roar with laughter and slap his thighs at every jest—offering to fight or wrestle with any man renowned for his physical strength, trying out horses, and leaping into dance, but laughing most at himself when he was unsteady on his feet, and lavishly handing out gifts, brimming over with good will and kindness toward everyone. She understood that her father needed this sort of exhilaration from time to time, amidst the constant work, the strict fasts he kept, and the sedate home life with his own people, who saw him as their best friend and supporter.

Sigrid Udset, Kristen Lavransdatter.

In contrast, the protagonist’s husband, Erland, was a man who tended to never pass up a pleasure that came his way. But Erland came off as a surprisingly moderate man, even at feasts, because he put so few restrictions on himself and “regularly gave into his impulses, without brooding over right or wrong or what was considered good and proper behavior for sensible people.” While Lavrans would let loose at societally sanctioned feasts, Erland just enjoyed himself whenever he felt like it and had no need to let off steam at feasts.

We can deal with restrictions but to maintain these restrictions for the long term, we need a “safety valve” to let off steam. This is as true for children as it is for adults. Humans will actually enjoy the humble pleasures of holidays such as Halloween more than they typically would because it is a break in their unusually limited lives. For me, watching my kids enjoy Halloween was more than just the yearly time when they collect unseemly quantities of candy, it was a much-needed break.

When the restrictions matter, it is important for societies to make sure the restrictions can be sustained so the whole system does not fly apart. COVID-19 restrictions do matter, which makes it even more important that we find ways for people to enjoy themselves safely and let off steam. The alternative, and I think we are starting to see this, is that people will burn out on restrictions and ignore even the simplest limitations, particularly if the pandemic continues for another year or more.

For COVID-19 restrictions to succeed it is best to not cancel holidays and, instead, figure out what is the maximum amount of activity that society can tolerate without assuming an excessive risk. Some guidance and media reports are advocating skipping holiday gatherings. While it is sensible to take precautions with any type of gathering during COVID-19, there is a burnout risk if people do not have opportunities to escape isolation and celebrate holidays. I think that Halloween 2020 in my community succeeded by balancing necessary precautions with much needed freedom and is a good example of how to handle holidays going forward.

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