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This is a post 9/11 essay that seems to have renewed relevance today:

Rituals and the Restoration of the Social Order

When unexpected and unprecedented events destroy a society’s sense of security and identity, it often turns to routines and rituals to help restore the social order. Individual routines that step us through the mundane preparations for school or work provide a comforting structure when we are unfocused. Group rituals involving public ceremonies provide a sense of shared experience that can make the restoration of the social order seem more certain.

Since the terrorists attacks on the United States, both private routines and special public rituals have helped guide us through the confusion and pain of these events. While private routines are necessarily hidden, the power of shared public rituals was evident across the country, with public gatherings crosscutting religion, ethnicity and age and providing a sense of continuity and renewal.

At the time of these attacks, the Unites States was beginning to gear up for its annual cycle of fall and winter rituals that starts with Halloween and culminates in New Year’s Day. Stores were already stocking Halloween and harvest decorations and along with media outlets were providing movies, books, advertisements, costumes, greeting cards, games, toys, food, candy, videos and television programs about Halloween.

No ritual may seem more inappropriate that Halloween at this moment. As a celebration of the frightening, weird, and wild, Halloween must appear at best to be in bad taste and at worst to be replicating the horrors of September 11th. Yet it can be argued that more than ever, the American community needs to keep its ritual cycle intact by embracing Halloween this year as it does every year.

On Halloween, the boundaries we work so hard to maintain between good and bad, living and dead, fantasy and reality, and humans and non-humans all come tumbling down. On Halloween, the most basic categories by which we usually order our world collapse and for one night monsters walk, beasts talk, inanimate objects come to life, and males and females are interchangeable.

At any other time, such bizarre reversals or confused identities would be understandably terrifying and unbearable. At Halloween they are briefly embraced and then, most importantly, they are banished, controlled by our desire to restore the social order that we know keeps us human and real.

Halloween is the one and only day of the year across the United States where it should be appropriate to turn the world on its head and do the outrageous, ridiculous and horrifying things that are not acceptable the rest of the year. We not only enjoy such days, we actually need them. It is during such rituals of role reversal and simulated lawlessness that we see just what will tear our world apart and more importantly how we can safely put it back together again.

It can be argued that this year we don’t need to be reminded about what can tear our world apart. We have seen it in the countless photographs and videos of mass destruction in New York and Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. But the power of a familiar and popular ritual like Halloween is that it provides a structure to act out, in one day, what may take our society a long time to actually accomplish: a restoration and renewal of the society we want to live in.

Throughout history and around the world, human cultures have created ritual events during which people face those things that could make their society come apart at the seams. The most familiar examples are Carnival in Brazil and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. By highlighting the taboo and antisocial in an acceptable setting and designated time, ritual revelers affirm the values of society’s normal life in a vivid, powerful and convincing way that is a testimony to the power of the social order.

copyright 2001 Louise Krasniewicz