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MASQUERADE IS OVER; IT’S NO LONGER A TREAT

Times Arts Editor

Despite the best efforts of Charles Schulz and UNICEF to give it a good name, Halloween has become a dreadful and corrupted event, and I will gladly entertain a motion to have it abolished.

It is our annual celebration of extortion, greed and mean-spirited prankery, only slightly redeemed by the imagination that goes into the homemade get-ups and the innocent glee with which the small fry seize enough sweets to rot their teeth forever.

The engine that drives the night is by now commercialism at its most rampant. It is a sort of pre-Christmas tuneup.

Short of abolishing Halloween, which is of course unlikely anyway, the best course would be to make it a national holiday. That way it would lose almost all sense of its originating meaning, as Labor Day, Armistice Day and President’s Day have done, and would become just another breather from work. (Only the media are strict in their observances.)

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Parents would be too busy planning outings to the desert or the snow to doll the kiddies up for their dangerous and mendicant after-dark quests for the indigestible.

What Halloween really requires is its own equivalent of Bah humbug! (Boo humbug?)

Beady-eyed and commercial as it is, Mother’s Day in all its calculated sentimentality does at least honor mothers. Halloween is not even an eve any longer; which child in a million could say it’s the night before All Saints Day? Which adult in a thousand? The night long since stopped anticipating dead saints, or dead sinners.

At that, the surviving spirit of Halloween seems to double back to pre-Christian times, when Oct. 31 was New Year’s Eve on the Celtic calendar, and witches, warlocks and the spirits of the dead were said to reappear to kick the gong around for a night.

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That’s obviously where the tradition of mischief came from, and the mischief, sometimes mean but mildly inventive, is what I seem to remember from yesterday’s Halloweens. Historians may be able to pinpoint the period at which treat took over from trick; I dare say it is timed to a huge increase in the PR budget of the Candymakers Council of the Universe.

Come All Saints Day in the years of my youth, the maples and elms that shaded the main drags, both of them, were festooned white with toilet paper, a feat of extraordinary patience and energy that must have taken half the night. Store windows were soaped opaque (that was the principal sport), and there was usually a littering of tin cans and splattered pumpkins. Razzle-dazzle stuff, all of it.

One year--and memory hesitates; I can no longer remember if I heard it or saw it, although the image is clear in mind--the senior boys took an entire automobile apart and reassembled it on the roof of the old schoolhouse, where it was discovered by dawn’s early light. I have a suspicion that the idea may not have originated in Hammondsport, N.Y., but it was such an imaginative ploy that for once it made an unanswerable trick or treat.

Even the lesser tricks in those days were more imaginative, if still mean-spirited. There were the match sticks wedged into doorbells to make them ring continuously, and the lengths of twine tied to the hinges of shutters, pulled taut and rubbed with resin, a technique said to produce a fearful resonance indoors. It was probably better than having your windows soaped.

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The idea of collecting for UNICEF on Halloween does give the night a purpose and a lift it has needed. And it may be that my own mean spirit about Halloween derives from a feeling that more than other calendar events it suffers from the swelling of the cities and the decline of the community.

It’s not the same in apartment complexes or on streets without sidewalks. If there was an innocent charm about trick or treating, it was a function of the neighborhood, the small ghosts recognizable behind their oversized masks. What’s left is a ritual, oddly and disappointingly impersonal.


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