Editorial Comment

Halloween is Dying


Hallowe’en, or All Hallow’s Eve, in other words, the night before All Saints Day, is a rather odd special time in our culture’s year. Like everything else in our society, however, it has sadly fallen victim to hype, over-protectiveness and excess. Curiously, the special day has, for centuries, been set aside for what, on the surface, may appear to celebrate all things evil. People roam the streets dressed up in frightening, bone chilling costumes; monsters, ghosts, devils and even Stephen Harper. Children go door to door, or now, more frequently, from shopping mall retailer-to-shopping mall retailer, mumbling a sanitized version of the extortion threat; “Trick or treat!”. Kids today don’t have many arrows in their quiver for dealing with folks who won’t cough up candy. There are no outhouses to tip over (sometimes occupied ones) as there were in days of yore. Soaping windows, too, has fallen out of favor with the younger generation, as there is no app for it.  Perhaps some traditions are best left behind, anyway. 
The somewhat strange custom of trick or treating has been around for centuries in this country. The earliest published mention of costumed kiddies gadding about the neighborhood, shaking down strangers for sweets, anywhere in North America, appeared in a Kingston, Ontario newspaper in 1911. At the time, the activity was called “guising” and had been brought to Canada by Scottish immigrants where it had been practiced at least as far back as the 1800’s. The great Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, even wrote an epic poem about “ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night”, named, appropriately, “Hallowe’en”, in 1785 and we still conjure the same spooky images. (You can read the full piece at http://www.djmcadam.com/halloween.htm but it’s not for the faint hearted.  The archaic words, Scottish dialect and preponderance of apostrophes make it read like a Newfoundlander sounds after a dentist freezes his mouth.  Here’s a sample:
“Wi' merry sangs, and friendly cracks,
I wat they didna weary;
And unco tales, and funny jokes,
Their sports were cheap and cheery;
Till butter'd so'ns, wi' fragrant lunt,
Set a' their gabs a-steerin';
Syne, wi' a social glass o' strunt,
They parted aff careerin'
Fu' blythe that night.”
See what I mean? Burns may have been big in his day, but his stuff hardly translates well in our modern era.  Just sayin’.
From quaint beginnings with children carving baskets out of turnips, beets, in fact, all manner of vegetables for collecting homemade sweets, (precursors to modern “Jack o’lanterns”) Halloween has become the second highest retail spending event in Canada, with Christmas, of course leading the way. Generating $335 million in annual Halloween-related retail sales, not even factoring in dentist bills, it is big business. Entire sections of stores are made over for the panicked rush, with displays of costumes, candy, scary masks, plastic bloody appendages and a seemingly endless array of decorations. These can range from small window hangings to inflatable coffins and monstrous pumpkins for your front yard.
If this amount of money seems a bit much, it could be that Halloween, within my lifetime, appears to have shifted its demographic focus. From little kids, out to get enough candy to tide them over to Christmas, to young adults, who now use the holiday to “par-tay!” Going into a Value Village, dollar stores, Second Glances or any number of Halloween stores that pop up a couple months before the big day, it’s not Moms with kids you see in there so much, but young adults looking for just the right character they want to be for a night. Like video games, animated television shows, and expecting a big deal on their birthday, dressing up for Halloween is something the new wave of adults are unwilling to part with as they leave their childhood.
Yet, just as these newly minted men and women cling to their Halloween habit, the new generation is moving away from the trick-or-treating tradition. Part of this is due to parent’s being far more protective of their children than they have ever been in our past. Another factor is the growth of immigration from countries that have never experienced this strange custom. It must be somewhat bizarre for these new Canadians to be met with such an odd tradition.  One more facet to the drop in “guising” is the health concerns related to the consumption of too much sugar,. which makes some parents develop healthier alternatives to the annual candy grab; home parties and the like where the treats can be controlled.
As more and more houses keep their lights off, fewer and fewer kids come around. When fewer and fewer kids come around, more and more lights are being left off. It is a sad, downward spiral to a once joyous time.
So who is to blame for commercializing Halloween? Retailers who are making all the money off the macabre masses say they are simply responding to demand, which, of course, is true. Nobody is forcing you to buy that candy bowl with the battery-operated skeleton hand that pops up to frighten the unwitting. Unfortunately, this over-monetarization has spread to other less popular holidays and events. Valentines, Mother’s Day, even “back-to-school” has become a bigger deal than I recall it being in the past. Only Easter seems to have been spared the worst ravages, although we won’t even talk about the super-hyping of Christmas for retail gain as we know the problem lies with us.
It’s sad that the ancient, culture-steeped tradition of trick-or-treating is dying an awful, gruesome death. Fitting, really.

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