In Defense of Halloween


There’s a funny article in this morning’s New York Times about the British reaction to Halloween. (Unfortunately, it’s behind their subscription firewall so I can’t link to it. It’s by the wonderful Sarah Lyall.) As far as I can tell, our neighbors across the Atlantic don’t at all care for this holiday which, it seems, involves hordes of demanding, poorly behaved British children, howling for candy, and roaming the streets, making ordinary citizens feel a little nervous. In Britain, householders cower in the back of their houses with lights turned out and just wish the whole thing would end.

A.N. Wilson’s grumpy response to Halloween is: “Trick or treat? I don’t know about you, but my answer to this question, if I’m honest, would be unprintable in a family newspaper . . . Let’s say it’s stronger than ‘push off.’ Yet the little beggars will soon be round, banging and ringing at our doors with this irritating refrain.”

Faced with this sort of grousing, I wish to write today in defense of Halloween. One objection to Halloween that got me thinking was the notion that the children aren’t doing enough to justify that candy. One citizen said something like, you’d think they’d at least sing or tell a joke or be charming before you give them the candy.

Good heavens. Has this woman never seen a child prepare for Halloween? Around here, weeks of strategic planning go into the preparation of the costume. It’s as much work as planning a Broadway show, or a wedding. After all, the point of that costume is to entertain or charm or seriously disturb the adult who sees you. When the door is opened and the person standing there clutching their bowl of Snickers bars looks you over, you do NOT want them to say, in a quizzical tone, what are you? That’s bad. You are stifling hot in the ghoul costume you spent a lot of time putting together out of old sheets and a flashlight and that cobwebby stuff that costs almost nothing and the idea is that they will shriek and say, my god, what has happened to children these days!? Or, if you’re the parent of the two year old child you’ve taken great pains to dress up as an M&M you want to hear how adorable before you take that Snickers bar as your reward for sewing the M&M logo on a pair of red sleeper pajamas, something that is not simple in a sleep deprived state. (I did this with twins, so I know what I’m talking about. I ate every one of those Snickers bars with great satisfaction over the course of the next several months.)

This year, in my house, one twin dressed up as his brother, a sort of homage to the skater, athlete, hip kid his brother is. He spent a lot of time figuring out just which items were truly representative of his twin, a process that actually brought the two of them together in a very nice way. The skater brother dressed up as a more extreme version of himself — pink hair goo, a ripped-up t-shirt that took as much work to deconstruct as it did to construct, mandella tattoos strategically placed to have maximum effect, converse all-star hightops, ripped jeans (carefully ripped to look accidental), safety pins through everything (except skin: I drew the line.) And the smallest boy dressed up as…. well, a general. He’s as militaristic as they come, and although it’s a little embarrassing to walk down the street with a small person dressed like a guy in the R.O.T.C., he looked more cute than fierce, because he’s seven and that’s his lot in life. Anyway, I’m used to his choices, which are instinctively transgressive choices for a child who lives in Berkeley.  Last year he was a cop.  Next year, I’m guessing he’ll be Dick Cheney.

The military costume was acquired after much looking around at a huge flea market held — where else? — at a decomissioned naval base. The uniform belonged to a guy named Strickland. He was, apparently, a short fellow because the shirt and jacket pretty much fit a larger than average seven year old boy perfectly.  There was a lot of speculation around here about whether Strickland’s uniform was for sale because he’d died (the uniform was carefully examined for evidence of combat death), or if it was for sale because he became a General. (He started as a corporal, so the latter seems as unlikely as the former.)

As for the candy itself, it doesn’t hurt a child to have a day of excess. In fact, Halloween reminds me of other holidays — European in origin, if I’m not mistaken — where the idea is that it’s good for people if there’s a day when all the normal roles are subverted. And so it is on Halloween. Children get to scare adults. Children get to decide what gets eaten. Children get to be out at night while adults stay home in their beds, afraid of what’s out there in the dark. Children get to wear weird and inappropriate clothing, which is to say they get to dress as adults. I honestly cannot see how anyone could object to that, but possibly it’s because they didn’t start life out dressed as an M&M or a bumble bee, like most American children, and so this wonderful ritual isn’t in their blood the way it is in ours.


34 thoughts on “In Defense of Halloween

  1. Hear, hear, Bloglily! This is such a fun day, and should be enjoyed as such. I’m still kicking myself for not making time to get a jack-o-lantern carved this year. But I am wearing my witch t-shirt, even at work, and I’m going to rush home to hand out candy, as well as the appropriate comments to all kids and parents who stop by tonight!

    The Inadvertent Gardener

  2. What is wrong with fun? Maybe we should all go around with black dresses and white caps and buckles on our shoes. Geez. Kids have enough crap to deal with — let ’em have some fun. And candy.

  3. LK — We’ll be stopping by your house tonight, baby! (You’ll know us: pink hair, ripped everything, and a very short American soldier.)

    Genie — One of the teachers at school was dressed as Little Bo Peep. She had a huge crook, and looked like she meant to use it. That must have been fun!

    On reflection, it’s likely that the offensive thing here, from the British point of view, is having a purely American holiday foisted on them. Possibly, it’s all the Halloween superstores that came over the Atlantic along with the holiday that are pissing people off. Imagine Guy Fawkes superstores.  (Actually, I rather like that idea.  It might amount to a national catharsis if we could do some effigy burning right before the election and then go out to vote, holding our pitchforks and howling anti-war slogans.)  Anyway, here, in the heart of Halloween land, it’s all about the candy, and how well you can do with the stuff you put together from flea markets, your mom’s closet, or if you’ve got a little cash, one of those cheap-o superhero costumes children love so much.

  4. Trick or treating is generally viewed with annoyance in New Zealand too I’m afraid. I don’t know exactly how it is in the UK but I was talking to some Americans with small children here who were saying the problem is that as it is a very recent importation here we simply don’t have the customs in place to give it some structure and to make it fun. Apparently (they told me) in the US it is clearly understood that you have the option of opting in. Kids go to the houses decorated with pumpkins etc. There isn’t any kind of appreciation of that sort of thing here. It is also not that widespread. So the reality of it here is quite far from the supervised bands of costumed little urchins going round their friendly neighbourhood and much more like unsupervised kids harrassing people they don’t know at 10 pm.

  5. A big disappointment in Bill’s and my lives is that we only have 20 kids come to our door, rather than the 150 that came when our neighborhood was people by young families. We stand by the door going ooh and aah and how cute or how scary. Good for you to stick up for the tradition

  6. I’ve always thought of Halloween as kind of a nice tradition. As you say, how many children go through so much trouble for a bag of candy? Holland doesn’t have Halloween and as far as I know never had. We do have St. Martins Eve (the eve of november 11th), celebrated in some parts of the country only, where children go from door to door carrying paper lanterns and singing songs. And collecting candy, of course.

    As far as I’m concerned, things like these are nice.

  7. I’m glad I’m not the only one left who likes Halloween! Your post is excellent. Kids and adults should have fun, and not worry about whether or not celebrating will turn us all into serial killers or something.

    Happy Halloween!

  8. I do not know about the UK, but in France, Halloween had never been celebrated in recent past (and certainly not the american way), until a few years ago, when marketing geniuses thought they could import the Halloween culture and surf this pre-christmas selling wave. We have had a lot of orange in our streets in october from 2000 to 2003, but the fad quickly died.
    We have no trick-or-treat culture whatsoever, our children even less. RIP french Halloween. I do not regret this, although I agree we could use some kind of automn carnival.

  9. I enjoyed your post, BL! Especially the bits about your seven-year-old general and his uniform. Thank you for explaining Halloween to us non-Americans – I like the fact that it presents kids with the chance of a little subversion. I would have taken the British perspective up till now, so it’s good to see the other side.

    Halloween is just starting to gain momentum in Germany (no kids here tonight, though), but unfortunately seems to be led by the superstores, with LOTS of plastic pumpkins. I think also since we celebrate Carnival here when both children and adults dress up and go a bit mad, there’s not all that much space for a second costume-ing celebration.

  10. It’s really only the English who never celebrated Halloween. Here in Scotland we have always done so. When I was a child we would go out ‘guising’ for which we had to dress up, usually in home made fancy dress, carrying our turnip lantern which my mother carved out with great effort for us – turnip is a lot harder than pumpkin! We had to have a party piece prepared – a poem or a song – and people who tried to go guising without doing so were considered little more than beggars. We would go round all the houses in the neighbourhood four or five of us in a group, by ourselves. We would get an apple or an orange or sweets, and very occasionally sixpence. Some of our neighbours would have traditional Halloween games prepared – dooking for apples, (trying to grab an apple from a bucket of water with your teeth) or treacle scones where you had to eat a scone smeared in treacle hanging from a piece of string. Inevitably you got treacle all over your face. Great fun.

  11. My son has in fact been on a trick or treat spree this evening, dressed as dracula with cape and teeth. His friend, in a rush of political feeling, had made himself a George Bush mask… We do Halloween in this English household – pumpkin and all. But it is a very recent tradition, and one that has come about from importing American TV and having chocolate firms that will leap onto any public holiday bandwagon. When I was a child there was no trick or treat – just a spooky ghost story if you were lucky. So it all feels very recent over here, and like something that big companies have told us we want to buy in sweets for. Am I right in thinking that Americans don’t do Bonfire Night – 5th November? You see that’s our tradition – dates back to 1605 and an attempt on the houses of Parliament – and we have bonfires and fireworks to mark the date. I’m very happy for everyone to have their traditions, but they don’t always cross cultures without at least a transition period, which is what we seem to be in. All too often older children see Halloween as an opportunity to pelt stranger’s houses with eggs, and there are no fun costumes involved. Perhaps Americans would like to have Bonfire Night too? I don’t think we’ll ever be persuaded towards Thanksgiving, however.

  12. Your little general sounds adorable, and you must be proud of the twins coming together over the costume.

    Halloween always seemed like a fun tradition to this girl, looking on from Australia. As with so many of the countries already mentioned, it is only recently that Halloween has been observed here (more as a result of commercial interests rather than any investment in the idea of Halloween itself) and as a result it appears to be, from the trick-or-treaters we’ve had knock on our door, all about the candy and not at all about the fun of dressing up and subverting the normal ways of doing things.

    That said, I’d love it if it did catch on properly here. We’ve nothing similar of our own, not even Bonfire Night.

  13. Your boys sound so cute. I can just imagine the small general marching around the houses!

    I remember Hallowe’en in Scotland (in my case, Shetland) exactly as Cas describes. We would carve out a turnip lantern, dress up and go guising. Unfortunately me and my friends were usually the little beggars who didn’t prepare our party pieces very well! I remember hoping the neighbours would just say: “Oh, how cute!” and give us sweeties so I wouldn’t have to humilate myself by telling lame jokes.

    But even back then there was anti-Hallowe’en feeling. I remember when I was about 7, my friend and I dressed up as witches and knocked on the door of a neighbour we didn’t know very well. He said to us: “I’m not going to give you anything. Do you want to know why? Because you’re dressed as witches and I’m a Christian. Jesus doesn’t like you dressing up like this and joining in this heathen celebration. If you came back dressed up as angels, it might be a different matter.”

    We said: “Oh OK,” to him and left. I remember thinking: “If we came back dressed up as angels, would he really give us sweets?” and then concluding: “There’s NO WAY he would whatever we were dressed up like!” Now, when I remember that guy (who, incidentally, had a 70s Jesus beard), I think: “Whoa! Chill out, man!”

  14. I heard today on National Pubic Radio from a Scottish fellow at a conference in Glasgow on halloween that the holiday was brought to America by the Irish and then embellished by the Scots. The Scottish do have the children sing or dance or otherwise perform for the candy, but they don’t say Trick or Treat. Maybe someone closer to it has a more detailed description based on first hand info. Wikepedia says about the same thing. The news is rarely accurate.
    I did take your advice to compliment the children on their costumes. That made quite a difference, especialy to the parents who were nearby. I offerred the parents some candy, but they were holding mugs of, uh, something.

  15. I grew up in the UK, now live in Canada. I don’t much care for this holiday either. A.N. Wilson had it right imo. The old English idiom of “Children should be seen, not heard” isn’t quite right – they shouldn’t be seen or heard. Bah humbug. :p

  16. Both my wife and I enjoy Halloween, perhaps all the more so since we don’t have kids. I actually said to one beautiful little girl dressed like a fairy standing shyly at the door, “Would you like a candy, sweetie?” Sounding a lot like my grandmother.

    I enjoyed the description of your kids getting ready a lot…


  17. I think if I lived in suburbia again I would enjoy Halloween a lot more, but as it stands I don’t and to be quite honest, I abhore the “holiday.”
    Here in the City, it’s a night for grown women to dress like tarts and for grown men to binge drink and puke on my stoop. It’s a night for parents to hog the sidewalks even further with their giant triplex baby carriages and 3 toddlers in tow. And it’s a night for me to curl up on the couch with some takeout food and a good bottle of wine. It really brings out the old crumudgeon in me….
    But, like I said, suburbia would probably change that, I’d just LOVE having a big yard to decorate with pumpkins and scarecrows and stuff… that would be awesome!

  18. Hey Sis–Sounds like the boys had a great time. The “little general” fits W and I’m sure it wasn’t difficult for him to act the part. I live on the border with Mexico — got one “trick or treater” last night–might be more a function of where I live up on the mountain and fact that there are not many families near the house. Great holiday for kids!

    I enjoyed the comments from your diverse group. Found it interesting regarding the limited or lack of celebration–the roots of the holiday come from Europe–of course the Church had its hand in it. In an effort to continue to convert the masses, the Church had a habit of timing/naming christian holidays during a Pagan celebration. For example, today is all saints day–a day for the “Hallowed”–last night was “Hallowed Eve”–say it quickly and you get the gist. Tomorrow is Dia de los Muertos–Day of the Dead–which was added later. In the wisdom of the day, honor the saints on the first day and all other dearly departed the next day.

    Pagan/Christian influences aside–it is a great holiday.

  19. I’ve just returned from an epic round of trick or treating (well, last night, but it took me foreever to post this comment) and man, all I can say is that perhaps Andrew has something there! If we’d only had those mugs of uh, stuff, that Smokey refers to.

    Helen & Cas — I think the Scots had a very fine idea about the ritual of being pleasing when you come to the door of a home where you’re going to cadge candy. I just don’t think “how many?” would work over there. But then you are a people who can carve a TURNIP into a face, so I’m just guessing standards would be far, far higher than they are here. Cas, guising is such a good name for it. Helen — That’s a great story about the Jesus guy.

    Kerryn and Dorothy — The General was pretty much beside himself with joy all night (until the very end when he could almost not bring himself to climb another set of stairs, no matter how good he believed the candy to be.)

    Bonfire night! Litlove, if only we did have that tradition. I’d think effigy-burning would be a great thing to do on Election Eve (which is right around November 5). There are so many effigies that could be burnt.

    Happy Halloween to you too Nicole. I’m glad you’re back!

    Charlotte– Those superstores are such a drag. Every once in a while, our children go to them, but everything they ever buy breaks or malfunctions. Plus they’re full of weird adult fetish costumey things. So I’m sorry that’s what made it to Germany. Fasching is so much better.

    Thank you for the French perspective Mandarine. It sounds like the European experience of Halloween has lost a lot in the voyage over. I suppose that’s inevitable, but I’m glad to hear the plastic version didn’t take in France — or in England — or in New Zealand (as Ms. Make Tea points out!)

    St. Martin’s Eve sounds lovely Edwin. It’s a little like caroling, isn’t it? I’ll bet it’s a wonderful way to spend an evening.

    Bridget — I think you’re in good company. Many Americans have really good memories of trick or treating when they were children. It can be so much fun, in the right circumstances. What’s interesting is how many cultures have some version of this — it must answer some need for a festival that’s a bit crazy.

    Nancy Ruth — 120 children? Wow, that must have been a fun neighborhood. My children would love to live in a place where there are so many people you’d always have enough to field two baseball team for a game. I think Ann should live in your neighborhood.

    Fencer — It sounds like your grandfather was a lovely man.

    Hi Tom — I’m always amazed and thankful to run across so many thoughtful, interesting people in this internet neighborhood. William’s class has a Day of the Dead altar and does a lot around the holiday, which I like for its color and thoughtfulness. We miss you! Love, L

  20. Oh, I know I’m a day late but I thorougly enjoyed this post! Your description of your youngest especially has me smiling, which makes me wonder about rebellion and all things related. Lovely. Hope they brought hoards and hoards of candy home.

  21. If cute kids in costumes came round asking for candy, I’d be waiting by the door with the biggest basket of sweeties in London. I’d LOVE it. Unfortunately, in my part of London, the only ‘kids’ we get are teenagers, some of whom have, admittedly, put masks on, throwing eggs and flour at front doors. And sometimes, stones and dog-mess. I’d love Halloween to be celebrated either American or Scottish style here. It’d be so great. But, like AN Wilson, as it is, I’d be deeply weird and masochistic to enjoy being attacked by drunk adolescents.

    We cower indoors.

    ‘Dick Cheney’, I laughed out loud. Brilliant. Your family sound wonderful. I am glad they had a good time. And I am looking forward to the bonfires and fireworks next weekend (toffee-apples! My teeth will HATE me!)

  22. Reed, I’d be cowering too. Drunk adolescents are not cute. (As for the Vice President, one of my older children reminded me last night that our youngest was, in fact, a spy last year. He was a cop the year before. An impeccable record.)

  23. Halloween is absolutely my favorite holiday, and I’m glad to hear the Scots describe their wonderful traditions. After all, the holiday has a fascinating history, and most of the rituals of the American Halloween celebration have evolved from old Celtic celebrations of the day when the “hole” from the spirit world into ours was opened. Good spirits were wanted and welcomed into homes, and gourds were painted and carved to keep the bad spirits out (if I’m remembering correctly. Someone else may know more about this than I do). Then the early Christians came along, and as they were wont to do in those days (so unlike what those who call themselves Christians are wont to do in America these days), hoping it would help them convert the pagans, rather than just shunning everything they did, they adopted a lot of the customs and traditions, and folded it all in and around the notion of what’s now known as All Soul’s Day.

  24. Great defense of Halloween! I love the holiday and have since childhood. I probably spend more time today planning for it then I did when I was a kid.

    Speaking of, have you seen the Halloween scene in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis? I think it was edited out of the original versions because it was deemed too scary or some nonsense. It is the kind of thing that I think would scare Halloween opponents even more. I recommend it.

  25. I love Halloween, I always have and always will. It was a sad sad day for me when I finally was “too old” to trick or treat. So now I hand out nice chocolates and admire the costumes. I love to compliment the truly creative. And my friends and I tend to have a Halloween party every once in a while where we all get dressed up in costumes. It is good to play.

    I loved your description of the General. He sounds like a lot of fun. It made me remember the year I went out as a sailor dressed in my Dad’s old Navy uniform. NO ONE recognized me, it was a blast.

  26. I love the descriptions of your kids and their costumes.

    There is no Halloween here, but we did see a little girl dressed up as a flower on the sidewalk – green dress and a halo of huge pink felt petals around her face, holding a plastic pumpkin. I wanted to follow her to the party. I ate a Toblerone bar while trying to teach the boy the Monster Mash, but it’s really not the same. Maybe next year.

  27. I love giving out candy! My one regret this year is that I didn’t get to see my grandsons, since they’re 3 hours away–one dressed up as a horsie and one as a cowboy.

  28. Now you’ve gone and made me feel even more curmudgeonly! And really I do love to see children enjoying the holiday. (Mine always have.) I just think we could find a safer, less commercialized, more “community building” way to celebrate it–and one that wouldn’t make those who can’t or don’t want to participate feel threatened by vandalism.

  29. Oh Patry, You’re not a curmudgeon! I can see how icky Halloween has become in all sorts of places and think it’s not the holiday it should be when that happens.

    Lucette — They sound adorable, those grandsons. Did they decide together to represent the wild west or were those individual decisions?

    Hey Ella, The toblerone sounds fab — and really it is indeed the responsibility of american parents to make sure children aren’t ignorant of the monster mash. Good for you.

    Ms. Magic Hands — the general is a huge piece of work, but we love him madly even so.

    Carl — No, I have never seen Meet Me In St. Louis, much less the Halloween scene. Sounds like a netflix queue choice, right now!

    Dear Emily — How do you know so much stuff!?? Almost every bit of useful knowledge lives in the messy back closet of my brain. I’m so glad you exist, is all I can say.

  30. I loved reading the description of your children.
    Halloween is my favorite holiday. I adore costumes: wearing them, seeing them, helping others put one together…and I delight in interacting with children on this fun day.

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