Is There a Trick to Making Halloween a Treat?

Our columnist takes a nostalgic look at our most kid-centric holiday and why it has so many of today’s parents crying "boo."

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Halloween is upon us once again, holiday of candy and costumes, pumpkins and (mock) mayhem. As I do every year, I find myself both looking forward to the fun my son will have trick-or-treating (one sweet measure of his growing up is that each fall he roams a little farther, hitting more houses) and looking back at what the holiday meant to me as a kid.

In my old neighborhood, kids went out without any adult supervision at an early age. We lived in a subdivision nowhere near any real traffic, and we travelled in a pack. A few families on our block hosted homemade haunted-house setups—one would invite us in to feel the cold spaghetti they pretended was a bucket full of guts, another ended with the opportunity to bob for apples. Once we got a little older, around 10, we’d wander one neighborhood over and knock on the doors of richer families, who handed out full-size candy bars, coupons for tacos, and—memorably, one year—dollar bills.

(Because my hometown was also home to a producer of educational films for schoolchildren, there’s a 1977 movie about Halloween safety starring many of my classmates.)

Holidays always change with the times, even while proclaiming themselves to be immutable touchstones. Christmas, which once dominated a few days, has become a month-long season (one Thanksgiving increasingly focuses on shopping for), and Easter has gone nuts (have your kids asked when they’re getting for Easter yet? Mine have. When did this become an occasion for gifts?).

Similarly, Halloween has ballooned. “I don’t understand the creep of all the pre-Halloween festivities,” said Jennifer, a mom of three in the Boston suburbs. “I feel like it used to be a one-night-only affair and now there are parties pretty much every weekend in October. Not only is it hard to manage three times the level of candy, but I think it takes away from the glory of the main event itself!”

And then there’s the arms race of house decorating, crafting, and homemade-costume creation. Think one or two hand-carved pumpkins is enough? I do (although I do believe they MUST be hand-carved), but there are plenty of Halloween-iacs who doll up their places with skeletons, spider webs, gravestones, ghouls, and goblins. Some sport lightshows that rival any Christmas display. At least a few are kind of funny. This one has a soundtrack.

On the other end of the spectrum, some don’t mess with Halloween at all. Mostly these objectors refuse on religious grounds. “When I was about 8, our rabbi devoted his pre-Halloween sermon to insisting that Jews shouldn’t participate, since in some countries the holiday was an excuse for pogroms,” says Brooklyn mom Debbie. “I didn’t trick or treat again until college, and I will hate my parents forever for banning Halloween.”

Halloween is rejected by people of many different faiths. There are many opinions about Halloween among Jews. Some Christian denominations, especially those on the fundamentalist end, warn against the holiday’s pagan roots. Some pagans hate it, too. “My son’s preschool discouraged costumes,” says Cecilia, a mother from Baltimore, “because they said that Wiccan families felt the typical iconography (witches with pointed hats, broomsticks, etc.) mocked their neo-pagan religious beliefs.”

There is agreement on one matter. When I asked a diverse group of parents what they hate about Halloween, one answer dominated: candy. It makes sense; we’re all trying to eat better these days, and as parents most of us are far more concerned than our parents were about keeping our kids’ bodies more or less junk-free. That said, there’s a strong opposing viewpoint, voiced by many, that going nuts about candy one day of the year is a perfectly okay safety valve. If we have made candy a forbidden fruit, doesn’t that make Halloween even more truly transgressive and fun for the kids?

On the other hand, what does it say about how safe we’ve made our kids’ lives that candy is the most dangerous thing we can expose them to?

What I love about Halloween is its focus on magic, creativity, and neighborhood, its openness to allowing kids to explore those liminal spaces of fear and danger, its tension between sweetness (candy) and bitterness (death). At its best, Halloween can make a kid feel like she’s temporarily inhabiting a fairy tale—and not a sanitized Disney one, either. When my mother was little, Halloween was actually scary—the older boys in her neighborhood would hide in trees and throw rotten pumpkins down upon the younger kids as they ran (unsupervised) through the woods. I can only imagine the thrill, the racing heartbeats of those kids.

Now, some parents think even supervised trick-or-treating is too dangerous for their kids. Towns increasingly sponsor “trick or trunk” events, daytime affairs where kids walk through parking lots picking up candy from the backs of Subarus. I guess they’re spooked by those old urban legends of poisoned or weaponized candy, or the newfangled version in which Colorado parents freaked out about possible weed-laced goodies in their kids’ treat bags.

None of these are real dangers.

The only truly awful aspects of Halloween, it seems to me, are those that reflect larger problems in our society: competitive parenting (in the form of extreme crafting and stay-up-all-night handsewn costumes), commercialization (the push to buy more candy and decorations and deploy them all month long), and those twin pillars of evil, racism and sexism.

Parents, if you do anything this Halloween season, do this: resist the urge to buy costumes that sexualize or overly gender your young child. Not because a girl is going to be targeted by pedophiles, but because it affects how she sees herself. And – not coincidentally—the sexy little girl costumes are skimpy and cold, less comfortable and less realistic than those made for boys. Do real female firefighters wear miniskirts as part of their uniforms? No.

Finally, enough with racist costumes. Enough, enough, enough. What is a racist costume, you ask? I am glad you asked, because it’s been very nicely explained already, here, here, and here.

Now go forth and get candy!

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