Halloween morning on Holly Street. You can just feel the anticipation: tricking and treating, overindulgence, and vandalism just hours away. Late in the afternoon on the front porch, Kate and I carved pumpkins. Hers looked like something; mine looked like nothing you could describe. Then nightfall and the troops of costumed youngsters. Well, first we saw maybe a dozen kids make their way up the other side of the street who never made it to our side. Maybe they were scared of odd-numbered addresses. After that, infrequent visits by one or two kids at a time. One bigger group, including the neighbor kids, knocked at the door. By the time we realized no one else would show up, at 8:30 or so, maybe 15 or 20 kids had contended for the five pounds of candy we had (a jumbo-sized bowl was contributed by a neighbor a couple of houses down at whose door no one stopped, apparently).
An acquaintance on Facebook talked up a San Francisco neighborhood where residents get together to do a full-on trick-or-treat fest. Lots of decorations and the like. “Haunted houses, horror films projected on bedsheets, hundreds of happy screaming kids trick-or-treating with their parents. Real Halloween.”
Real Halloween? Maybe where he came from. But in that odd place and time I grew up–the suburbia of the American Midwest, 1950s and ’60s–the adults didn’t organize much beyond treats and defensive measures against kids who might not be satisfied with them. Unless their kids were very young, parents didn’t have much of a presence on the street. There were hundreds of kids out and about because there were hundreds who lived in any given half-mile radius, and just about everyone was out in search of loot. A generation later, when our kids were little here in Berkeley, that culture didn’t seem to have changed a whole lot. Bunches of kids out after dark, trooping up front walks to whatever welcome awaited them.
The latter-day neighborhood festival my friend talked about in San Francisco is very un-Halloween-like in those terms. I suspect it’s purely a reflection of a culture that has decided that fun is fun within bounds: organized and controlled. You wouldn’t want kids interacting with strangers on the scary night of all scary nights, would you? So if there were kids out anywhere last night, I think that’s where you’d find most of them–where the parents could make sure the program contained enough of the right kinds of entertainment, but not too much, and none leading in some unpredictable or untoward direction.
You could argue about the value of our old Halloween customs. It has never been a favorite occasion of mine, even with the candy. Maybe there are good reasons for that tradition of door-to-door greeting to die. But I think its disappearance is just one more bit of distance we put between ourselves and whoever else we chance to encounter–not just on Halloween, but every other day and night of the year. Another barrier, another measure of isolation. And it’s really too bad for the kids, too.
“Modern American life”–i.e., we parents and our fears, helped along by media that seize on the most lurid of crimes, paint them as the stuff of unversal reality, and suggest we’re powerless to respond rationally–has already killed pick-up sports, going to and from school without a chaperone, and free-style loitering, among other pleasures of youth. In addition to the sweets, Halloween night used to represent a chance to explore one’s surroundings (an impromptu geography lesson), a chance to judge neighbors by the goodies they’d offer (applied sociology), experience in dodging ne’er-do-wells and dealing with fear of the dark (survival training), and hands-on practice with negotiations and bartering (economics and entrepreneurship). All that on top of healthy exercise in the out-of-doors.
It’s all a shame. Almost as big a crisis as the tens of thousands of candy calories our household must now figure out how to consume.