I don’t remember exactly when I started feeling uncomfortable about Hallowe’en; I think it was when adults wrenched the holiday away from the children.
As a child I loved Hallowe'en. Costumes were by and large homemade: by parents for the youngest, then by parents and children working together, then by the children themselves. Our elementary school had a costume parade for parents and neighbors, with judging and prizes. Creativity was high. I was by no means the most inventive, but some of the costumes I remember making were a cuckoo clock, a salt shaker (my friend from across the street was the pepper), a parking meter, and a knight—complete with a wooden sword my father and I made together, and which was a favorite plaything for many years thereafter. The hours of creative activity and of parent and child working together were priceless.
Enter Corporate America, ready and willing to “help” busy parents by reducing the Hallowe’en costume adventure to a credit card purchase, robbing children in one stroke of parental bonding, learning opportunities, and the creative impulse. Add a risk-averse and lawsuit-prone culture, producing Hallowe’en safety tip gems like this one from our local paper: Be certain that all parts of costumes are flame-retardant, including wigs, beards and capes. Since homemade costumes tend to be made of highly flammable materials—cardboard, paper, paint, cloth—parents now face a new Hallowe’en fear: that they are risking their children’s lives by allowing them to create their own costumes.
Trick-or-treating was a big deal, because candy and other sweets were much rarer in those days than now. It was a family affair, with young children travelling with older siblings or being escorted by parents who enjoyed the opportunity to talk with the neighbors. There was plenty of commercial candy, sure, but also cookies, candy apples, and other homemade treats.
Enter a cruel hoax that would forever change the face of Hallowe’en: the thought that our apparently kindly neighbors were secretly hiding razor blades in apples and poisoning the candy. Fear ran rampant; hospitals volunteered to x-ray the children’s goodie bags; all candy was subject to parental inspection before a bite could be eaten. (Note: this is not the same as candy being subject to parental sampling, which has always been the case.) Years after this paranoia was proven to be based on an urban legend, newspapers continue to print dire warnings: Don't eat candy until it has been inspected at home, and Don't accept – or eat – any treat that isn't commercially wrapped.
In fact, the whole trick-or-treating adventure, with flashlights in the dark, scary shadows, and the occasional squeal turned into a tame business overrun by rules, such as Set a definite route and timetable for trick-or-treating; Try to complete the route before dark; Make certain that costumes fit well to prevent children from tripping; Wear makeup and hats rather than masks, and check to be sure the makeup uses FDA-approved colorings; Costumes should be appropriate for the weather so that trick-or-treaters stay dry and comfortable; and Trick-or-treat bags should hang from children's shoulders so that hands are free. Are the kids visiting the neighbors or climbing Mt. Everest?
Thus the stage was set for a complete takeover of the holiday. How could such a potential money-maker be left in the hands of children? First adults began organizing and scripting parties for children, and then for themselves. As Hallowe’en became more adult-oriented, a G-rated holiday became R, or worse, with costumes becoming violent and raunchy.
It’s no wonder that some well-meaning churches gave up on the traditional Hallowe’en, and started organizing their own events. However, I think many of them unintentionally contributed to the problem, some going so far as to ban as Satanic what was once a legitimate church festival, the eve of All Saints Day. Here’s an excellent article on why this is a mistake, by James B. Jordan, whose name I recognized from our days in a very conservative Presbyterian denomination. [H/T Peter V.]
I’ll admit that for years I expressed the desire to forget about Hallowe’en altogether. All the commercial hoopla of Hallowe’en and Christmas squeezes out Thanksgiving, which I consider an important and sadly neglected holiday. Then I realized that the fact that Thanksgiving still retains the elements of giving thanks, innocence, and family togetherness is due largely to the fact that the commercial interests have not yet figured out how to exploit it.
So instead I say, let’s give Hallowe’en back to the children. Refuse to buy commercial costumes. Help your children if they need guidance, but don’t take over the project. Help them carve a pumpkin and put a real candle inside, then roast the seeds for a delicious snack. Let them help you bake pumpkin cookies and pumpkin bread. Drink apple cider and splurge on some doughnut holes to go with it. Spend less money; have more fun.
Trick-or-treat in your own neighborhood. If it makes you nervous to let your older children go out on their own, make a resolution to get to know your neighbors better in the next year.
Don’t have kids of your own? Take a courageous stand: skip the adult parties with too much drinking and too little sense. Stay home and answer the door with a smile, a friendly word, and some commercial, FDA approved, wrapped candy. (We can only liberate ourselves, not the entire world.)