A local charity held a kids' Halloween party a few days ago, offering families storytelling, costume-judging, pumpkin carving and oodles of sweet treats, in exchange for a donation. It sounded wholesome and positive, yet I couldn't think of any in our circle who would let their children participate. Being Jewish, many of them think Halloween sends a counter-religious message.
Not me. I'd defend Halloween as a secular American diversion--not a real "holiday" but a year marker, pleasantly unique in its lack of real meaning, hidden agenda or malevolent purpose. Every elementary public school classroom in the land boasts fat construction-paper pumpkins, arching black cats, prancing oversized spiders, and for the older grades, skeletons, warty witches and ghouls. I've yet to meet kids who take the festivities as something serious--for them, it's a chance to indulge fantasy through costume, and, of course, collect a sack of chocolate. No child means "Trick or Treat" as a threat to the smiling neighbors who willingly open their doors bearing platters of sweets; instead, most think it's a single word sounding like "triggertreat," as in "these syllables trigger my getting a yummy treat!"
The way we celebrate is clearly American, even if you somehow make the precarious link to its supposed origins. Those who condemn it point with disdain to the Celtic holiday of Samhain 2,000 years ago, when ancients, worried about winter, hoped the dead might give their priests a weather warning. It morphed dramatically, though, when the Romans invaded and combined it with two of their goddess holidays. When Catholics came along in 800 AD, they put their stamp on it, turning it into All Hallows Eve.
But there was no Halloween in Protestant colonial America--clear up to the mid-1800s, when the Irish potato famine brought Catholic immigrants, whose observance of the day was already pretty benign.
Americans immediately made sure the festival was stripped of any deathly associations, and observed mainly in community get-togethers. Trick-or-treating didn't start until about 1930, and didn't really catch on until the Boomers turned the nation kid-centric. Now the holiday is seen as a chance to carve jack-o-lanterns, take the joyful kids around the neighborhood, and sneak a few pieces of the stash you've bought to hand out at your own door. College students consider it one of their thousand excuses to party.
Some people glean their smiles from ookey costumes of ghouls with fake blood, but even more choose to dress up as princesses, cats, pirates and cowboys. Vampires have made a resurgence due to the popularity of "Twilight" and its ilk. In every case, the purpose is enjoyment. The pickle-people who frown upon it are certainly free to keep their porch lights off.
Aside from the fun re-connecting with neighbors, our economy gets a big boost from the holiday, with happy revelers choosing to spend an average of $56 this year, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation, down $10 from before the economy tanked. That's the second biggest spending occasion, behind Christmas. You may want to return or recycle your yule gift, but nobody takes back his extra candy.