Holidays in America: Part III

Ignore the irritating Margaret O'Brien--
this is a great holiday scene!
Holidays got considerably less boring for children over a period of approximately fifty to seventy years, from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. They plateaued at this stage in the mid-1950s and have remained there (sort of) ever since.

The problem with holidays for adults is the rowdiness (see Part I). When immigrants returned holidays to their pre-Puritan state (see Part II), that included all the drunken debauchery, which caused social concern. (Again, this wasn't cute drunken debauchery; this was smashing-windows drunken debauchery.)

About the same time, Victorians and Edwardians were capitalizing on the image and concept of the innocent child. Reforms to remove children from factories and place them in schools were on the rise. Corporal punishment would remain a controversy for years to come but the idea that whipping and birching were unacceptable teaching approaches was also on the rise (see Bronson Alcott).
Everyone in our family was SuperDog at some point.

In a sense, the Victorians created childhood as a stage of life. Children were no longer littler, dumber adults. They were different from adults. Turns out, the Victorians were right: children are physiologically different from adults. The creation of childhood as a stage had some unfortunate consequences--such as reducing fairy tales to "children's literature"--but medically-speaking, it was inevitable.

In Victorian America, getting rid of holiday debauchery became linked to promoting childhood. Possibly the best example of this is the Judy Garland musical film Meet Me In St. Louis (see above) in which during Halloween, the children are extended the remarkable freedom to start unsupervised bonfires in the middle of the street and go trick-or-treating by themselves.

This is more or less the childhood that *I* had--before the ridiculous razor-and-poison scares of the 1970s and 1980s (all razor-and-poison Halloween threats can be traced back to family members; there is NO record of an evil Norman-Bates-and-his-mother neighbor deliberately poisoning innocent liddle kiddies).

Childhood as a stage has become more restrictive. But the same impulse--the holiday is about children, not adults--remains.

Sort of.

Halloween parties for adults were common at the turn of the twentieth century. At the turn of the twenty-first century, they came back into style. Occasionally, my students will dress up for class at Halloween, and I've done it myself. Costumes for adults are no longer considered "childish" in the way they would have been a few decades earlier.

Part of this change from adults' holiday to children's holiday to everybody's holiday--with Halloween specifically--was the growth in the 1970s and 1980s of haunted and decorated houses (in response to the so-called scares): think of the Home Improvement episodes, one every season, involving Halloween scares, parties, and rituals.

A number of other holidays have mellowed to allow adults to have some fun. Children aren't the only ones who need breaks and change. Although adults often complain about the commercialization of holidays--and I can relate since whether or not I send out Christmas cards is entirely a matter of how much money I earned that fall--some type of cycle out of and back to routine is necessary. C.S. Lewis naturally said it best:
[God] balances the love of change [in humans] by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of a immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual year; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.  --from The Screwtape Letters

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