Kids look forward to Halloween, to dressing up as their favorite monster or super hero or pop star. As I am officially older than dirt, I have seen my share of Halloween nights, both good and bad, and I have watched the holiday evolve, or perhaps regress. In any event, the pure fun of dressing up and being rewarded with candy has become, like so many other things in society, overcome with rules and regulations. Parents no longer only worry that their kids can see clearly through masks and makeup, but concern about the political correctness of costumes comes into play. The new and improved, socially conscious, Halloween experience is actually the first taste our children have regarding the restriction of their free expression.
Back in the day, trick or treating was an activity in your neighborhood, among people who at least knew you by sight. The younger children would probably only go door to door on their own block, and usually with a parent or teenager in tow to make sure that they didn't run into the street. Most of the pre-school set and the primary grades were off the street completely by dark. Strange how nobody had to post that in the paper, set hours, or even suggest that these little ones have adult escort. It is just the way things happened.
The older kids left school later. There was still the matter of donning the costume. The older you were, chances are, the more involved the guise. Middle school kids would be hitting the streets at about 4:00 PM, just as it was starting to get dark. They might have a range of one or two blocks in any direction. And they traveled as a group, usually divided up by girls and boys. The adult supervision wasn't as essential. These kids crossed the streets daily to get to school or the bus stop, and they were in a large enough pack to deter "stranger danger". Usually somebody from the police came to the school to speak at an assembly about safety. As they were out after dusk, most kids had reflective fabric or tape on their costume somewhere, and many carried flashlights. A few lucky ones had flashlights with skull or jack-o-lantern lenses. Middle school kids are a bit more hardy and durable, but usually cold and hunger drives them home by 6:00 PM or so. Ironically, I don't recall anybody eating goodies from the bag until we got home. This wasn't something that we were told directly. Maybe it was due to parents who would skin us alive if we didn't eat dinner. Eating the loot was not done on the road.
About junior high, the whole complexion of Halloween changed. News reports of candy being tampered with, drugs, foreign objects, razor blades and needles. At first, the concerns revolved around homemade treats like popcorn balls, caramel apples, and cookies. It rapidly extended to candy that wasn't sealed. (Remember Hubba Bubba and Peanut Butter kisses with just the twisted wrappers on both ends? Or Jolly Ranchers?) Suddenly if it wasn't hermetically sealed, it was suspect. Parents insisted on full inspection of all booty before we were allowed to begin negotiations for our favorites with siblings and friends. Mountains of candy found its way into trash bins, untouched. And as junior high kids had the potential to go beyond the familiar neighborhood, as well as stay out later, I think parents were doubly cautious about what items were brought home. After I left trick or treats behind, the news would tell parents which hospitals were willing to X-ray treats for safety. But even with a larger territory and later curfew, the oldest kids were off the streets by 8:00 PM. Parents wanted you home for a hot meal, bathed, and in bed at the usual time despite the occasion.
There were certain universally understood practices and guidelines for Halloween fun. What I have noticed in recent years is that instead of teaching our kids how to enjoy the holiday safely, we are relying on the police, city hall, and the schools. There was a shift towards having kids celebrate with supervised parties, games and activities which were awash in sugary treats instead of the trudging through the neighborhood to collect goodies. This supposedly eliminated both tampered candy and "stranger danger" in the minds of parents. Schools, churches, park districts, scout troops all hosted events where kids could dress up, have fun, and indulge in the once yearly sugar orgy. But even that evolved over time as churches started to question whether Halloween was promoting Satanism....(to all the Pastors out there, for those kids under the age of 12, it has always been about the candy). In their concern, many stopped hosting events or changed the focus to a harvest festival, until somebody pointed out that harvest festivals have pagan roots as well.
There so many rules about acceptable and politically correct costuming, that the parties were no longer fun and kids no longer wanted to go. You couldn't be a superhero, because that glorified fighting. You couldn't be Porky Pig because that made fun of people who stammered (even though it was a cartoon pig). You could no longer be a gangster because props such as guns and candy cigarettes and bubble gum cigars were considered as promoting violence and smoking. The costumes couldn't be too revealing, nor could they be too concealing. They couldn't contain gang colors.....even the appropriated bed sheet from home to be a ghost might be misconstrued as supporting the KKK. Exactly what is left? Movies like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street were so graphically violent, characters from those were also taboo as costume themes.
The upshot is that you now have bands of kids roaming the streets without any costume effort at all. Somebody might buy a rubber mask, but it is usually jeans and a hoodie and some makeup smeared on the face, dressed all in black to wander in the dark. Communities post designated hours for trick or treat activity. Households are instructed to have a porch light on and perhaps decorations to indicate that they wish to participate in handing out treats. And now, the kids coming to your door might well reside miles away, as parents load up minivans, (which means that they are not participating in their community and passing out treats to their neighborhood), and cruise the more pricey real estate. They will drop kids at one corner and meet them at the next. If the haul isn't good enough, they drive to another neighborhood.
And the kids don't follow the rules. They are pounding on doors and ringing doorbells on houses in complete darkness. I know, as I work midnight shift. I was trying to sleep, shower, and eat before having to go in to work. I didn't choose to participate this year, because there are no young kids in our neighborhood any longer. My porch light was not on. There were no decorations. There was nothing to indicate that I was passing out treats. And oddly enough, more than 75% of the people on my street were the same, yet the carloads of kids kept coming, and were still coming long past the 7:00 PM curfew. Not answering the door did not deter them. They would continue to pound and lean on the doorbell, driving my dogs insane.
I am thinking that the whole innocence and fun of Halloween has been subverted to the point that we need to rethink celebrating it at all. Parents don't seem to want to help or host the safe parties. Society doesn't condone giving children sweet and sugary things because of obesity, diabetes, ADHD, and host of other reasons. Schools and churches want to distance themselves from the activities. The greatest complaint heard this year was that the price of candy treats had spiked, and the treats were much smaller, as well as being more costly. At this point, if you cannot follow tradition, the rules that served many generations of trick or treaters, perhaps we should just encourage parents to buy their kids a bag of their favorite candy and be done with it. It would probably be cheaper. The greatest complaint heard this year was that the price of candy treats had spiked, and the treats were much smaller, as well as being more costly. How desperate are we to have our kids consuming mounds of processed sugar and artificial flavorings and colors?