A Look Back at One of America’s Biggest Halloween Festivals

What’s the most popular American holiday? Christmas? Thanksgiving? No way! Based on what I’ve observed for the past two years, I’d have to say that it’s Halloween for sure! Many people take Halloween very seriously here. They start preparing far in advance and spend lots of money on getting all the stuff they need to make Halloween unforgettable. There is even  a chain store near my school, called Halloween City, which is open just a couple of months a year, selling decorations and costumes specifically for Halloween.

Like a lot of foreigners, when I thought of Halloween I imagined people dressing up as devils and black cats, drinking beyond all measure, and misbehaving in the streets. Well, from what I’ve seen most of it is true, except for dressing up only as devils or black cats. The variety of costumes people wear is amazing. You can see not only evil creatures, but also all sorts of characters featured in popular movies like Avatar, or music stars like Lady Gaga.

Some costumes are created as inside jokes between friends, or even meant as a prank. For instance, one of my friends was wearing a cardboard house on his head that said “For Rent,” which had something to do with his colleague’s last name. A joke intended for insiders only. However, even one of the insiders confessed that it took them a while to figure out the meaning of that costume. So, as you see people don’t limit their imagination when it comes to creating a Halloween costume.

However, the holiday actually has much deeper origins, combining pagan and Christian traditions. It plays on ideas of magic and spirituality, and in Christian tradition was seen as a day when the dead would seek vengeance on their enemies before moving on.  According to Wikipedia, “To avoid being recognised by a soul, Christians would wear masques and costumes to disguise themselves, following the lighted candles set by others to guide their travel for worship the next day.”  I think it’s a pretty beautiful legend, few people know it.

I was lucky to experience much of what contemporary Halloween offers to its celebrants, since Athens, Ohio, where I’m currently living, hosts one of the biggest Halloween festivals in the country. The party dates back to 1974 when it first took place on Court Street in downtown Athens. Since then it’s undergone multiple transformations from total chaos to a relatively organized event endorsed by the City Council. To help maintain safety and control, police forces from surrounding counties are brought to Athens for the day. The city’s population, which is slightly over 20,000, doubles over night as guests from different states throng the haunted town.

Though Halloween is October 31, the festival is celebrated on the weekend closest to this date. This year, it was October 29. From early afternoon the downtown area was closed down for traffic to get the city. Two stages were set up on Court Street for bands to perform and entertain visitors. Bars also attracted party-goers, providing dance spots and selling tons of alcohol to anyone with a valid ID. Actually, many people started celebrating at home, and Court Street was their final party destination.

I didn’t want to be an exception, and so I paid a visit to two very welcoming parties. It was a lot of fun! Half of the night was spent on just checking out all sorts of costumes and taking pictures, and the other half on talking, drinking, and eating “bloody” snacks. When we finally got to Court Street, the Block Party was in full swing. Though it was freezing cold, many people were literally half naked, wearing very skimpy costumes. I couldn’t help but think, “How much did they have to drink to be comfortable wearing almost nothing when it’s around 40 outside?!”

This was, briefly, my Halloween. I’m sure many of you have a story, similar to mine, to share. Some people may be obsessed with this holiday, some may hardly tolerate it, but for us foreigners, if we happen to be in the States at the end of October, it’s kind of a must to get this experience of celebrating Halloween, which has a special haunting charm about it.

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