The last of the neighborhood children are dribbling in, ready to reach into the proffered bowl of candy and stuff a few more unhealthy calories into their sacks. As the end of October approaches each year, I go through the same mental gyrations. Should I fight the fakery of Halloween and leave the front lights off or should I give in and play into the hands of Mars and Hershey, and bribe the kids with candy? Candy usually wins because I enjoy seeing the kids who show up; they are usually gone off to school before I take my morning walk. We still live in a suburban neighborhood, holding out as long as we can, while watching our peers move into condos and even more foreboding places.
Like other of our holidays, Halloween has a very long history dating back perhaps as far as 2000 years ago. Its origins are somewhat hazy, but most claim it was originally a Celtic ceremony, held in the Fall as the days shortened, to mark the return to earth of the dead, an event that was momentous and used by the Druid priests to foretell of coming events. The Celts apparently built bonfires to mark the period, creating a special image. As their influence died out, Halloween later became a Christian holiday. In the Eighth Century, Pope Gregory III declared the holiday to honor all the saints and martyrs. It underwent a few more alterations over time, but always honoring the dead in some way or another. In England, upon All Soul’s Eve, as this holiday was called for a time, the poor trooped through towns begging and were given “poor cakes” in return for a promise to pray for their benefactors dead family members.
The costumes worn on Halloween have been attributed to Celtic times when folks were afraid of the rising spirits and may have donned outlandish costumes to frighten them off. My modicum of research failed to turn up anything definitive on the present custom of “trick or treat,” except that it appears to be of rather recent origin in the United States, dating back to the late 19th century. Given, that in our modern society, very few believe in the return of the dead or actively celebrate the Christian martyrs, what does Halloween mean now? Wishing people “Happy Halloween” is completely off the mark.
While I did some cursory Internet research to come up with its meaning, the more authoritative source would be the children that go house to house. So I asked them. Amidst the giggles my question roused, I, not surprisingly, got only strange looks. Like so many rituals and routines today, Halloween has little meaning other than the contributions to the bottom lines of the companies that provide the paraphernalia and consumables. Do we eat enough pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving to support pumpkin farmers or would they vanish without the tradition of scary jack-o-lanterns? I did a web search for Halloween costumes and had no trouble finding a huge variety costing anywhere from $10 to well on the way to $100. The same goes for all the candy. Not only is it unhealthy, but symbolically it accentuates the connection of some kind of consumption with many common rituals, now virtually completely divorced from their meaningful roots.
Every year I go through the throes of a battle. Do I cave and bring home a bunch of bags of candy or do I turn off the front light and play I am not at home, braving the threat of tricks? I have to admit that wanting to be a part of the neighborhood always wins. Given that I rail against consumption, especially mindless consumption such as Halloween most clearly exemplifies, am I guilty of hypocrisy or caught in a kind of ethical dilemma? It makes a difference. I can find some arguments for this kind of consumption in my authentic desire to be a part of my neighborhood. I do care about the children that show up. I am the consumer in the economic sense because I bought the candy. The kids are recipients of a gift from me. But I also contribute to the process of eroding meaning and promoting consumption for its own sake. As the King said to Anna, “It’s a puzzlement.” Maybe next year (always next year) I’ll buy a crate of apples instead of candy bars. I will still be exalting and reinforcing inauthentic consumption, but at least I won’t be rotting their teeth.