Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween: EEEEvil or Happy American Tradition?

Every year I debate my husband on the merits of Halloween.  He says it's a destructive excuse to get drunk, and teaches kids to beg.  I say it's family fun and brings communities together.

And I don't think the truth lies "somewhere in the middle:"  Halloween is definitely a positive thing.

From an financial standpoint alone, it's a shot in the arm to a tired economy--administered painlessly.  Seventy percent of Americans report they'll give out candy; half of the populace says they'll even decorate their home or yard, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation.  The 148 million of us who celebrate Halloween will spend $5.8 billion this year, with families cheerfully parting with an average $23 for costumes, $20 for candy and $19 for decorations.

Even supposedly selfish trick-or-treating can be for the good.  The owner of a candy company called into the radio show and said he lets kids trade in their less desirable loot, gives them their choice of what he makes, and then donates the take to our soldiers overseas.  A neighborhood where I live asks trick-or-treaters to bring canned goods for the local food bank.  Myriad parents trailing their eager little ones--including me when my kids were younger--take the opportunity to re-connect with neighbors, building community cohesion.

Those stories about nefarious householders lacing candy with poison and razor blades?  Never happened. At least two national articles this season cite the study proving it, arguing for less parental fear and more joy in the holiday.

Maybe in the 1940s things got nasty, with mean teens inventing the "trick or treat" theme, but by the '50s, the term became a single syllable little kids intone with a smile, as willing homeowners offer their individually-wrapped sweets.

Critics say Halloween has pagan beginnings, and the truth is, nobody really knows its origins.  Some claim it derived from the Roman festival for Pamona, a goddess of fruits and seeds; others insist it was a different Roman fest, "Feralia." Some trace it to a Celtic holiday, Samhain, that noted the coming of the darker part of the year, and was occasion to honor dead relatives.  In the 800s, Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 as a day to honor martyrs, All Hallows Day, hence, All Hallows Eve.

In any case, there was no Halloween in America until the 1800s, when Irish immigrants started coming en masse, and it wasn't much at that.  Celebration only picked up speed in the 20th Century, and then only in its latter half, when boomer kids enjoyed little parties and neighbors started leaving their porch lights on and carving pumpkins into faces.

What would school classrooms look like in the fall without the Halloween decor of jack-o-lanterns and black cats?  Even the scarier symbols of skeletons and ghosts don't faze kids--most elementary schools have to warn them not to wear gory costumes, because otherwise fifth-grade boys want to.

Costumes are a creative, positive aspect of the holiday.  Making or buying them becomes a parent-and-child bonding activity.  It teaches kids that reality may be different from appearances, a subtle but useful lesson. And it gives kids an opportunity to indulge their imaginations, to become characters or change their looks beyond their normal selves.

This year, the top children's costume is--the same as the last six years--princess.  Next is Spider-Man, followed by witch (not Christine O'Donnell), pirate, Disney Princess, and "super-hero."  Doesn't sound so scary to me.

I had a great time surfing the web to find internet meme costumes.  Sad Keano is a tough one to duplicate, unless you're not planning on moving off a bench for the whole evening.  The Double Rainbow guy, however, is a possibility (see photo above).  My favorite is The Panda (you can't say no to Panda) because it's do-able and the cheese commercials are so hilarious.  Apparently there's a list of costumes people least want to see--with Sarah Palin the winner.  Personally, I think I'd be most frightened if Nancy Pelosi came to my door seeking a handout.

In any case, it's a beautiful day here in the Northwest. I'm going to go carve our pumpkin, look through our bags of costumes, and put our little packs of m-and-ms out on a tray.  If that's not your style, that's just fine--nobody has to celebrate, and any way you choose (or not) to acknowledge Halloween, from church harvest parties to herding the little ones to candy-proffering merchants at the mall, fits into the American tradition.  And of course, if you're a real curmudgeon, you can just turn off the porch light and go to bed.


  1. I like your attitude. Halloween is fun and a great time to light up the little ones' eyes. They love it. Noah was so sad to come home tonight even with wet pants his diaper leaked on...he cried to keep going. Hope you had fun too.

  2. Though I'm inclined to take the male side of an arguement, in this case I have to say to Michael; "Lighten up!" Halloween is totally benign and fun for kids. I have some of my fondest and most vivid memories of my childhood around Halloween in our Ballard neighborhood: gatherings around a bonfire at the local park, hanging out with my best 'buds', dreaming up outrageous costumes and contests for the most candy. BTW, for one of our costumes we decided to wear our underwear outside of our street clothes with a swipe of Hersheys down the back side for effect. Pretty classy, huh? What do you expect from 13-14 year old boys?

    Here in our new winter retreat in Maricopa, AZ, the local kids were polite, orderly and were most often accompanied by parents. They almost always said "thank you" as they were leaving. One little todler made the night for Donna and I as she greeted us with "happy 'ween". Halloween under the stars at 70 some degrees - different. So... besides having to get up from the book I was reading way to many times, I had fun too.

  3. The days of the innocent trick or treat sound of young children at Halloween are long gone. It has become a celebration of evil, a holiday of Satan. I see no positive value whatsoever in it. Since when is it OK to teach your children to BEG for candy, which certainly does their teeth no good? And the time spent on it in school classrooms is a waste of valuable instruction time. Why not concentrate on Thanksgiving?

  4. I love it, this debate between Mr. Medved and his wife is too great.