Thursday, October 30, 2014


Hallowe'en is often portrayed as some ancient pagan ritual.  In fact, in the form we know it now, it was created as a twentieth-century American ritual--and I do mean ritual, with very strict rules you have to follow.  And these rules must be taught to the young.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, on the eve of All Saints' Day ("All Hallows," November 1), when supposedly uneasy spirits roamed, young men and boys found it hilarious to do "tricks" like tipping over outhouses or rubbing soap on someone's window, tricks that could be blamed on the uneasy spirits.

But starting in the 1920s, there was a slow but concerted effort to make the holiday more about fun, especially for children, and less about nasty tricks.  By the early 1950s, it adopted the form it essentially has now.

Hallowe'en is a "backwards day."  Many cultures have a backwards day, where normal strictures are reversed, as an opportunity to let off steam but also to reinforce the norms, as the "opposite" version is recognized as unsustainable, indeed ridiculous.  One has to wear a costume to indicate that one has moved out of the normal into some strange alternate persona.

Normally children are shielded from death.  "Grandpa is sleeping.  That's why he can't come for Thanksgiving this year."  Yet on Hallowe'en children are exposed to skeletons, ghosts, and ghastly creatures rising from the graveyard.

Normally children are not supposed to be out after dark and are not supposed to approach strangers, especially not to take candy from them.  Yet on Hallowe'en they are supposed to go up to strange houses, in the dark, and ask for candy.  Candy of course is something that normally children are supposed to have only in small amounts, yet now they are expected to accumulate a whole bagful.

You would think that if parents wanted a child to have a big pile of candy, they could go to the store and get a lot of Hershey bars and just give them to the kid.  But no.  This would not fulfill the ritual.

The ritual requires that the child don a costume, go to a stranger's house, say the ritual phrase, "Trick or Treat," and receive the ritual object, the small wrapped candy bar.  People in those strange houses will insist on the ritual phrase before handing over the candy, "So what do you say?"

Small children must be taught the ritual.  A toddler, wearing an adorable ladybug costume that Mom spent a week making, which he has already wet through and will never wear again, is tired and cranky from being out after his bedtime. "No, Daddy, I'm scared, I want to go home!"  No matter.  The child must go to a stranger's house, must be induced to to say the ritual phrase ("Tickum tweet" is probably close enough), and receive a candy bar that will doubtless be confiscated later by the parents.

The ritual object, the small wrapped candy bar, is by definition bad food, not something good for you.  (This is part of backwards day.)  If nice old Mrs. MacGillicutty gives the child (say, a twelve-year-old) an apple or an oatmeal cookie, something actually wholesome, the parents are instructed to throw it out at once as dangerous.  Newspapers, radios, warnings sent home from school all insist that apples and oatmeal cookies are full of razor blades and needles.

In fact, there is not a single documented case in the US of apples and homemade cookies being tampered with like this on Hallowe'en.  It is an urban legend.  Like all urban legends, its purpose is to reinforce certain behaviors.  In this case, the behavior is to acquire only wrapped candy bars.  (But think about.  Wouldn't it be easier to conceal a needle in a candy bar's wrapper than in a crumbling cookie?)

If you're interested in my take take on this holiday's rituals, wait until you see what I have to say about Christmas.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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