I always get a little thrill when Halloween approaches. A holiday devoted to costumes, kids and candy — what's not to like?
Yet increasingly I've also come to anticipate the day with a tingle of foreboding. This feeling has nothing to do with ghosts, and it's not because the weather in Southern California has been hotter than a witch's caldron.
Rather, this twitchiness is because Halloween, like all our holidays, is increasingly given over to crass commercialization and overindulgence.
Consider this recent statement by the president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, which predicts spending on Halloween to reach $6.9 billion this year: "Consumers are ready to take advantage of promotions on candy, decorations and costumes, and retailers are ready to serve them."
Or ponder the thought, promoted in a trade publication, that declining sales of fresh pumpkins, which has occurred despite the proliferation of "pumpkin-flavored products," should be countered by a campaign touting the health benefits of the big orange squashes.
Think, too, of the extra effort by merchants to find ways to exploit the occasion. I'm referring to such concepts as Petco's Halloween Boutique, which sells themed toys, treats and costumes for dogs and cats. This year it's very big on "Star Wars" theming, with Yoda, X-wing pilot, Ewok and R2-D2 costumes heavily promoted. Imagine your pet's delight at wearing one of those get-ups in 85-degree heat.
And someone please tell me when it became a thing to send Halloween cards to friends and loved ones?
Yes, this kind of naked calculation has become a hallmark, er "Hallmark" of our holidays, and I can't help feeling a little sad about it.
I know I'm being a bit of a curmudgeon. After all, Halloween is all about having fun, and I'm certainly not opposed to some good-natured, escapist pleasure. Every Halloween, I gleefully decorate my house, hand out gobs of candy and lavish praise on all the tiny princesses and superheroes who come calling.
And who am I to begrudge retailers from capitalizing on such obvious merchandising opportunities? They have businesses to run and profits to make, so of course they're going to do what they do best — convince us to buy stuff we don't need. It's the American way.
My objections might also call to mind a satirical Onion News Network segment a few years ago that featured a mock panel discussion on whether we've lost sight of the true meaning of Halloween, which is to frighten away demons. Some of the "panelists" lamented the abandonment of such time-honored Halloween practices as animal sacrifice.
Indeed, it's not as if Halloween's origins are naturally evocative of wholesomeness and family oriented fun.
Halloween's beginnings date to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (don't even try to pronounce it) in what is now Ireland, England, Scotland and northern France. Every Nov. 1 marked the fall harvest and the beginning of winter, and it was believed that the night before the ghosts of the dead would return to wreak havoc and damage crops. Huge bonfires were lighted to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the deities, and costumes were worn, often made from the skins and heads of other unfortunate beasts.
Today's Bichon frise might not fully appreciate being dressed up as an Ewok, but little does it know just how good it has it.
Aspects of Samhain melded into festivals celebrated by the Celts' Roman conquerors, and by 1000 A.D. the Catholic Church had made All Souls Day a day to honor the dead. The traditions of the night before persisted, with bonfires, costumes, and — I'm just guessing here — probably some imbibing involving other kinds of spirits. It was called "All Hallows' Eve," and later "Halloween."
After the European colonization of America, Halloween developed its own particular style here, with parties and ghost stories. By the end of the 19th century it had become custom to don costumes and go house-to-house asking for food or money, and in the 20th century Halloween morphed into a community-based event with neighborhood get-togethers and children's parties. By mid-century, it had lost almost all of its early religious tones and had become mainly an inexpensive way for kids to indulge in pretend.
Today, "inexpensive" is no longer a word that we can associate with Halloween. True, that $6.9 billion is still a pittance compared to the $630.5 billion in holiday sales in November and December that the National Retail Federation expects this year.
But there's still something slightly unsavory — and not in a ghoulish sense — about the way Halloween has become just another means for huge corporations like Disney to cross-promote their blockbuster characters.
That effort now has even more help from social media, with sites such as Pinterest helping drive demand for costumes from millennials, who seem to have a disturbing penchant for any kind of dress-up that features "sexy" in the description.
And It has fueled interest in nights out at Knott's Scary Farm and other venues that have also learned that capitalizing on the Halloween craze can be lucrative.
None of this is end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it stuff. But it would be nice for once to feel as if we can engage in the ritualized scaring away of demons without a heavy dose of manipulation.