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.