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Opinion We’ve forgotten why we celebrate Halloween: to acknowledge death

Daniel Richler is a writer and broadcaster living in London, England.

For 50 years now, I have been offended by children dressing up at Halloween as sugar-plum fairies, ballerinas, cutesy Pokemon and the like, but no one's ever taken my rantings seriously and now look: society's knickers are in a knot, quite unnecessarily, over yet another fun and healthy tradition.

I was brought up with a respectful understanding of other peoples' cultures and religions. I was taught the true meaning of this festival before it was appropriated by Cadbury, Wal-Mart, timid parents, identity-politics watchdogs and snowflakes across the land. And so, though I'm not a pagan (a closet goth, perhaps), I feel compelled, once again, to deliver my lecture.

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The trouble began, I believe, with the dropping of the apostrophe. As with other attempts to address cultural clashes by exorcizing the lexicon, the Americanized "Halloween" has lost sight of both "Hallows" and "evening." As we fret over whether kids should be allowed to wear sombreros, we forget that this was the night when a portal was briefly opened onto the dark side; when we welcomed the souls of the dead into our homes; when troubled, mischievous and evil spirits were let off the leash, not unlike letting your children tear about the garden to release some steam before bedtime. Think The Purge, for revenants.

Like the word itself, Hallowe'en is a mishmash of Scots tradition, Byzantine litany, Gaelic folklore, ancient Roman superstitions and a good old-fashioned fear of the dead. Pagans tend to give it a solemn reading, citing Samhain and the harvest season, while atheistic pedants may insist it's another instance of Christianity hijacking the cyclical holidays of earlier cultures. It's probably never really had just one meaning.

In England, where I grew up, we still played the old divination games – bobbing for apples, scrying, leaping over bonfires – and bundled it all up for good measure with the equally morbid Guy Fawkes Day. We conflated Nov. 5 with Hallowe'en, setting off fireworks to imagine Fawkes had successfully blown up Parliament, but had it both ways by burning him like a heretic, too; he was actually hanged, drawn and quartered, but throwing a dummy on the fire had been done since the 13th century to drive away evil spirits, so we torched him anyway. An ecumenical mess, for sure, but what larks!

Similarly, we set newspapers alight up drainpipes to make ghostly shrieks, went mad doorbell-ditching and threw eggs at buses for, well, no good reason at all. One friend made a costume from 20 green Ping-Pong balls on the ends of wires: a fart molecule.

In my teens in Quebec, we got a jump on the 31st with Mat Night, dressing up fiendishly the night before, co-opting the idea of the impish undead as an excuse to raise hell. There and elsewhere it got a little carried away – residents of Detroit will remember Devil's Night arson in the 1980s without affection – but the essence was consistent, indulging in the one thing we all share, an unease about the afterlife, dipping our toes just briefly into the wintry waters of the underworld.

That "Halloween" has now become a site of conflict for the politically correct is, I suppose, just the latest in centuries of appropriations, but I do wish we could get back to its roots: an acknowledgment of death, with all its threats and thrills, a reminder that we're only here for one slight flicker of the candle. Oct. 31 after sundown should be for the banshees and bogies, the monsters and the nightmares, the soul cakes and roasted nuts, the turnips and mangel wurzels, the real and proper danse macabre.

Forget the ballerinas, the Mexicans and the fat suits, please. Stop dressing up "hilariously" as O.J. Simpson, Caitlyn Jenner and Ku Klux Klansmen. In fact, forget the living altogether. We'll all get along much better that way.

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