All right. Buckle the heck up, because I’m about to take you people to school. It’s time for me to settle the ultimate debate: which is the best holiday, Halloween or Christmas?
A few things before we start. Yes, I’m aware they’re both wonderful times of the year that provide a great deal of joy to many people, but this is America, and nothing has value here unless we make it defeat something else. Yes, I know Thanksgiving should be involved in this, but Thanksgiving is just a big amiable doofus sitting in the middle of this fight, unaware it’s going on, so I won’t bother it. And yes, I know that they play very different cultural roles and it doesn’t make sense to compare them apples-to-apples, but this post is not about making sense. It’s about winning.
I’m going to compare Christmas and Halloween by every metric I can think of, and at the end, only one bruised and bloody holiday will be left standing. And now, further ado.
Christmas might seem to have this locked up, right? It’s the music holiday. Only 4th of July has as many tunes instantly come to mind. But much like 4th of July, I mostly like Christmas songs because other people around me like them and I want to hang out. Because the fact is lots of Christmas carols are–as my brother likes to say–boring as schmaitz.
Sure, there’s some great stirring ones. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” never fails to get me hyped for Baby Jesus, “O Holy Night” and “Good King Wenceslas” are bangers, “We Three Kings” is goth AF, and while my favorite, “Do You Hear What I Hear” is controversial, I contend there’s nothing more rousing as long as you can find a singer, or singers, who isn’t, or aren’t, lobotomized.
Unfortunately, all that dies once your initial writing date gets on the wrong side of the “Silent Night” line. Then you wade into a minefield of what I call “boomer carols” or “songs that could put one to sleep even if one were currently riding a motorcycle.”
“White Christmas”? Get the cocoa, kids, Bing Crosby’s using all four of his notes!
“Jingle Bell Rock”? Has a less rocking song ever been recorded, possibly excepting “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”?
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”? Merry Christmas, children! Everyone in your life will ignore you for being different, until that difference becomes convenient for them!
And am I the only person who’s noticed that “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” are the same song? I feel like I’m shouting about Derek Zoolander’s looks every December with this one.
Point is, you have to compare the music of Christmas and Halloween along two avenues: classic and popular. Halloween puts up a good fight on classic, with Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Danse Macabre, Night on Bald Mountain, and Der Erlkonig, but they can’t stand up to all the pre-1900 Christmas carols–plus the secret designated hitter, Handel’s Messiah.
But there’s also pop. This is where Halloween truly shines.
“Thriller.” “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” “Ghostbusters.” “Music of the Night.” “The Time Warp.” “I Put a Spell on You.” “Somebody’s Watching Me.” “Spooky Scary Skeletons.” “Monster Mash.” “Season of the Witch.” “This is Halloween.” “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.” “Werewolves of London.” Tell me you wouldn’t rather listen to that playlist than the 85th cover of Frosty the Snowman.
Totally unbiased winner: Halloween
Another one that starts out obviously going one way and then veers another due to my vested interest. Everyone loves Christmas movies, right? You gotta! What’s Christmas without A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Love Actually, uh…Elf…
This is very hard for me to finish. Because I don’t like any of those movies. A Christmas Story is funny, but not the 46th time. It’s a Wonderful Life is a great 20-minute film with a two-hour prologue. Love Actually, as has been better pointed out in The Atlantic, is extremely unromantic, ignoring every part of love between lust at first sight and marriage (the whole movie should have been about Bill Nighy’s character anyway).
There are some gray areas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a classic, of course, but it’s like eight minutes long, and five of those are the song. A Charlie Brown Christmas, same deal, but every holiday has a Peanuts special, so Charlie Brown can’t be definitively claimed. Same with The Nightmare Before Christmas, which both sides get, so it’s a wash. And no, Christmas, don’t try claiming Jesus Christ Superstar–are you trying to take all Easter has left?
Elf, The Polar Express, (except for the part with the evil Christmas hobo) Miracle on 34th Street (except for the part where Santa clubs a guy into unconsciousness) and the others are all fine, I guess, but I’d never watch them anytime other than Christmas. And that’s the main point here. I can think of only two “Christmas movies” I’d want to watch for reasons other than celebrating the season: Die Hard, and Hong Kong kung fu classic It’s a Drink! It’s a Bomb!
“But Sam,” you say, like the hypothetical strawman you are, “maybe Christmas movies are a weak bunch, but I don’t like horror movies. How can Halloween win this one?”
All right, listen up, because this is central to my argument. Not all Halloween movies are horror movies, and vice versa. If you don’t like horror movies–and I don’t either!–you can watch any number of horror-themed movies that aren’t actually scary.
Once you realize this, practically every genre opens up. Want a film that captures the spirit of Halloween without frightening you? Check out ParaNorman, newcomer The House with a Clock in its Walls, or my favorite that I watch every year, Over the Garden Wall (which is actually a miniseries). Feel like an adventure? There’s The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Romantic sorts are especially in luck–they get Sleepy Hollow, Let the Right One In, Ghost, Corpse Bride, The Shape of Water, or hell, Twilight if that’s what you’re into. Would you rather laugh? Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Scream, Young Frankenstein, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hocus Pocus are all season-appropriate. Sci-fi nut? Alien, Predators, and Pitch Black are all right there. There are even musicals–The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, and Wicked–that’ll make you forget all about White Christmas.
Many of these movies are ones I’d call my favorites any time of the year. But if that enormous cascade of great cinema didn’t convince you, consider two other points. First, Halloween-appropriate movies have been considered great art throughout the history of film: Psycho, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Get Out are all milestones. Can you name any Christmas movies with the impact of any of those? Didn’t think so.
And second: modern Christmas traditions were heavily popularized by Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol.” A story about–can anyone tell me?–ghosts. The original Christmas story was actually a Halloween story.
Obvious winner: Halloween
One thing that’s true about both of these holidays: if you love them, you love decorating for them. Halloween fanatics can’t face the season without their jack-o-lanterns, fake cobwebs, and spiders; Christmas lovers go nuts on the lights, fake snow (assuming their area doesn’t get real snow), and inflatables.
It’s all great. Both in different ways, of course. The key to Christmas decoration is extravagance: it’s a celebratory festival, and light displays are a fantastic way to display your joy. I myself remember many happy evenings on the Trail of Lights in Austin, and there’s even a TV show, The Great Christmas Light Fight, where people compete to greet the season using numbers of gigawatts that would make Doc Brown tell them to settle down a little.
On Halloween, the best decorations come from ambience and performance: being the star of a terrifying scene. Halloween tends to come in stories, which is probably why I gravitate toward it, or would if I weren’t a perfectly impartial cage-match referee. A Christmas village is a static thing, but a Halloween haunted house, or even a well-decorated trick-or-treat destination, involves you in an unfolding scare.
All that said, it’s hard to weigh the breadth of Christmas against the depth of Halloween in this area. So I’m declaring…
Holidays don’t appear in a vacuum, as I’ve already alluded to. Which holiday has the coolest origin?
Christmas has gone through a lot of iterations over the years. Yule celebrations are as old as human civilization in temperate climates, at least in Europe: celebrating the moment when the days become longer again makes perfect sense. Many people know that the birth of Jesus Christ wasn’t celebrated by Christians in the first few centuries that was a thing you could be, and that the Pope chose December 25th as Jesus’s birthdate so it would coincide with the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia.
Disclaimer: this next argument is lifted almost wholesale from Jamie of the British History Podcast, and I’ll pay him back for this theft by telling everyone reading this to go listen to an episode before you keep reading.
You back? Good. Halloween went through much of the same process as Christmas: a pagan harvest holiday, scheduled due to the natural rhythms of the year, re-branded into a Christian occasion by a church powerless to stop the heathen revelries. In Halloween’s case, All Hallows’ Eve festivities were said to just be the prelude to All Saints’ Day on November 1.
What I find interesting is that, before both were Christianized, Saturnalia had many of the same characteristics we associate with Halloween today: masks and costumes, general revelry, and the reversal of traditional social rules. At Saturnalia, masters waited on their slaves at table; on Halloween, children demand treats from adults and are indulged instead of punished.
Anyway, the exact argument I’ve stolen from the BHP is that while Christmas has been wholly sanitized by 1,500 years and the work of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, Halloween never lost its pagan edge, no matter how hard the priests tried. It’s Samhain, the night the world of the spirits is closest to our own. A night for the superstitious, the credible–for those who refuse to accept that the purpose of existence is to avoid fear and discomfort. A night when the oddballs, the outsiders, can be hailed as just another part of the masquerade.
Of course, Christmas plays a different role. While Halloween is about letting madness into our brutalist lives, Christmas has come to represent kindness and generosity as people share what they have to help others make it through the long night. But that will score it points in a different category.
Christmas’s current incarnation can sometimes feel like an invention of the modern world. Halloween feels like a message sent from long ago: a magnificent standing stone, or barrow for a great king, that nobody can move no matter how hard they try. Which one do you think Susan Cooper’s biggest fan is giving the edge to?
Winner on points: Halloween
Tradition, tradition! Having examined the trappings of the two titans of festivity, we now dig into the marrow. What actually makes Halloween all-hallows’ eve, and Christmas the celebration of nativity? Let’s review them point-by-point.
Costumes: For one night, city streets and genteel suburbs are transformed into the dealer room at Comic Con. However, the pressure to wear something cool and creative can stress out those who don’t enjoy it.
Trick-or-Treating: This is a sad one for me. I still remember that feeling of having the freedom of a neighborhood at night, even though I had parents tagging along. It was beautiful, testing those limits, so of course everyone now wants to destroy it.
If you only read one paragraph of that article, read the one about the researcher who has been updating his study on Halloween sadism since 1981, and hasn’t seen a single instance of any child being fed a razor blade or murdered on Halloween by anybody they didn’t know. Halloween is supposed to be about letting fear into your life; instead, we’re ruining one of its most hallowed traditions because nobody wants to be scared. A. and I didn’t get one child at our door this year.
Haunted Houses: I love these. Even more so because my friend who works in one has given me a direct line to all the backstage drama. Sure, they can be cheesy, but the performers put their hearts into it, and I’ve seen some great effects and well-staged scenes. And if you don’t like being freaked out, an escape room can give you the same feelings in a safer environment.
Candy: I still love it. But growing up has taught me about all the horror in the chocolate supply chain, so I can’t stand to buy it anymore.
Ghost Stories: In recent years, this has become one of my favorite ways of celebrating: gather with friends in costume and trade scary tales. H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe are mainstays, but I tend to bring either “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or my abridged version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Pumpkin Carving: Why don’t we do this year-round?
Other: I’ve talked before about the reasons my completely unbiased self prefers Halloween, and this is another. I don’t honestly love many of its traditions in themselves. I love the potential for weirdness this holiday always holds. One year I wore a Captain Hook costume on a tall ship and had a sword fight with Peter Pan on the boom. Another I spent on a friend’s roof, dropping a fake corpse whenever anyone walked by. Then there was the year I got menaced by Stupendous Man in my calculus class. Or wandered the neighborhood as a mummy with my bandages realistically unraveling.
Nothing weird ever happens to me on Christmas, in other words.
Presents: Xkcd has pointed out that at some point Christmas became our most meta holiday, entirely about discovering the meaning of itself. Personally, I think that came about because everyone feels awkward getting presents and decided to collectively pretend we don’t care about them. But screw that, because presents are great, both to give and to receive–you get the warm fuzzies of watching someone open something you know is perfect for them, plus then you have a bunch of cool stuff you didn’t pay for.
Christmas Morning: This is much like defecating, in that no two people seem to do it in exactly the same way. Do you open presents the night before? Do you make a big deal out of stockings? When do you have breakfast? How long do you torment the children for? To church or not to church? But it is hard to beat the extraordinary feeling of peace. Looking back, that’s what I loved most, even though there are other places to get it.
Stockings: Like trick-or-treating but your feet don’t get tired, the food is better, and your parents let you do it.
Trees: I have been hard on Christmas for letting go of its pagan roots, but this thing where you put a tree inside your house for no reason, and enough people do that to maintain a year-round industry, has me like bottom-picture Drake.
Family: It could be said that Halloween is a holiday for friends, Christmas for family. I’m very lucky–my family is full of strong personalities that inevitably clash when you put them in a house for a week, but by and large, we all love each other and look forward to the togetherness, especially since we don’t see each other much the rest of the year. However, it’s hard for me to rate this highly given that I think the general idea of “family comes first” is toxic for people who don’t have families as kind as mine.
The result here is our first victory for Christmas, with qualifications: my love of Halloween is personal, as I’ll discuss more later, but too many modern issues are dragging it down right now.
This will be a fast one. Halloween has got candy and apples, pretty much. Maybe roasted pumpkin seeds if you’re into that. If it’s being celebrated right, as a harvest festival like its origins demand, you can have a feast, but those functions are largely handled by Thanksgiving now.
Christmas demands a feast. Several, usually. While the nature of the food is less circumscribed than on Thanksgiving, the only requirements are that it be hearty, ample, and shared with the less fortunate. Christmas gets the win since Halloween just isn’t a food holiday.
Here’s a really intangible one that nonetheless makes or breaks how much I enjoy a holiday. How does it feel to be out on the streets this season?
At Christmas, everyone is bundled up, scarfed and hatted. Their breath clouds as they hurry from door to door with their hot cocoas and peppermint teas. People carry stacks of brightly-colored bundles to their cars, while on the next corner, some singers in Dickens garb are absolutely crushing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” There’s some lights on the underside of a bridge and you have no idea how they got there. Everybody seems dedicated to making life slightly nicer.
On Halloween, the spirits of dark netherworlds and fae realms are conjured by hanging bats, fake tombstones, and spider webs. People wear cloaks outside, linger in cemeteries, mix food coloring into everything. There’s organ music coming from somewhere you’re pretty sure doesn’t have an organ. Everybody seems dedicated to making life slightly more interesting.
Let’s remember what I said before. Festival days are about stirring up life so it doesn’t settle into boredom, even if you’re required–like most of us–to follow a routine. On Christmas, we are kind and generous because our culture doesn’t usually incentivize that. On Halloween, we court fear because our culture is otherwise built entirely around avoiding it. What this means–for all of us–is that the true meaning of these holidays is what we get out of them.
And ultimately, that’s why Halloween is the victor on atmosphere. Because it’s a personal decision, and Halloween, as I have discovered by writing this post, is just the one that I’m better at. Halloween is about coming to terms with the enormous things: death, the size of the worlds, the massive sweep of our ancestral history and the ghosts it left. Understanding those things breeds generosity like mold on a jack-o-lantern.
But I haven’t really found that it goes the other direction. For all that I love about Christmas, it has a way of shrinking the world until it’s small enough to be cozy. Halloween expands the world and tells us that in the end, we are the ones that keep each other warm, shoulder to shoulder around the fire.
Who wins this cage match? For me, Halloween. For you, who knows? This took me longer to write than I expected. It was a process of learning that festivals give us a chance to examine what’s important, and that will never be the same between two people. Here’s my goal, though: remember why we celebrate, and not just in the classic meta-Christmas way.
For as long as there have been festivals, they have marked the passage of time so that we can feel connected to the universe. They are about the sun and stars, the crops and snow, the dead and the ones we love, not just about “generosity.”
That said, Halloween movies really are better. Fade out.