On October 31, each year, children across America are shrouded in masks, blankets, makeup, and other household supplies, and pushed out the door to solicit strangers for high glucose corn syrup and modest thrills. Door to door they walk, all evening - some carrying pillowcases, others with orange buckets - to ring the doorbell of an adult, whom they've likely never met, to demand a treat - with the potential penalty of a "trick" if the request is not acquiesced.
We call it Trick-or-Treating, but many foreigners view it as lunacy.
"So, if the stranger doesn't offer candy, you can get revenge?!" asks one exchange student from Japan.
“Trick or treat? I don’t know about you, but my answer to this question, if I’m honest, would be unprintable in a family newspaper,” said one British man when asked how he would respond in a "trick-or-treat" scenario.
While most Americans don't really even understand the history of Halloween or the ritual of trick-or-treating, you would be hard-pressed to find an individual raised in the U.S. who is unfamiliar with the custom. In 2016, it is estimated that Americans spent $8.4 billion in Halloween-related expenditures - nearly half of which is spent on candy alone.
But how did trick-or-treat become a thing?
Trick-or-treating origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages, with the tradition of mumming on certain occasions. This involved people dressing in costume, and travelling door-to-door, performing short plays or songs - known as mums - in exchange for food or drink.
Additionally, many historians credit an ancient Celtic tradition of dressing up as evil spirits at the end of the year as an origin of modern Halloween rituals. The pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated on the night of October 31, when it was believed that the dead returned to earth. People would gather to light bonfires, offer sacrifices,and pay homage to the deceased.
These traditions died out in practice, but not in lore. According to the knowledge website, Today I Found Out, the adapted custom of trick-or-treating in North America can be traced back to a reference in a Canadian newspaper. The November 4, 1927, edition of the Blackie (Alberta, Canada) Herald:
Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.
Even in its origins, people were confused - and annoyed - by the practice. As the Great Depression unfolded, tricks were more commonplace than were treats. Halloween "mischief" often devolved into vandalism and violence. In response, many communities organized trick-or-treating activities to ensure that candy and gifts supplanted the mayhem. Organized trick-or-treating, however was put on the back-burner in the mid 1940s, as America's involvement in World War II necessitated sugar rations, thus - no candy.
With the end of the war - and sugar rations - candy manufacturers used Halloween as a springboard into the foodstuff marketplace. New candies emerged, old candies resurfaced, and were all marketed toward children utilizing the fall holiday as an entry point. This, combined with the baby boom and the migration of American families from urban areas to newly-formed suburbs fostered the environment to build trick-or-treating into the ritual it has become today.
Playing tricks with treats
Fear struck trick-or-treating Americans in the 1970s and 1980s as urban legends about tainted or poisoned Halloween candy emerged. Media outlets throughout the nation reported as fact these word-of-mouth stories of candy with needles, or candy that had been laced with drugs or poisons, being distributed to children. In response, many communities discouraged the practice of door-to-door candy solicitation, and set up controlled Halloween events or Haunted Houses, as a precautionary response. At the height of the fear-mongering in 1985, an ABC News poll found that sixty percent of parents believed that their children were susceptible to death or injury from tainted candy.
In reality, these news stories emerged as tall tales. Between 1970 and 2001, there were five deaths of American children that had been attributed to tainted Halloween candy. And the number of those deaths that were found to actually be candy-related: zero.
I repeat - zero.
In three of the cases, the deaths were attributed to pre-existing medical conditions. In one case, a child had accidentally found and consumed his uncle's supply of heroin, and the parents invented the poisoned candy lie as a cover-up. In the final case, it was the child's father who tainted candy with cyanide as a life insurance scam.
So, why is trick-or-treating still a thing?
That's a good question.
Now that poisoned candy myths have been largely disproven, and foodstuff packaging is more tamper-evident, Americans have begun to trust that Halloween candy is largely safe, especially when examined by an adult.
But how many of the over-protective helicopter parents that have emerged in American culture would allow their children to eat all of this processed sugar and artificial flavoring? In an age where parents are often afraid to put their child in the same room as a peanut or soy bean, they will send that same child down the street - at night - and in disguise to snag as many Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Almond Joys, or loos handfuls of candy corn as possible.
Halloween is also the exception to two major societal rules that we engrain in children at a young age: "don't talk to strangers" and "never take candy from a stranger." And yes, some parents only allow their children to solicit homes in their own neighborhood, and where they know the home's occupants. And sure, many parents supervise their children's Halloween activities from a safe yet non-invasive distance. But these seem like two odd exceptions to pretty important rules.
Neither of these issues really address my concern over how trick-or-treating is still a thing. But the following does.
With the passage of time, humans - much like galaxies in the Big Bang - have drifted farther apart from one another. We avoid human contact at all costs, and when given the option of human interaction or solitude, very few would choose the former.
Don't believe me?
How often do your friends pick up the phone to call you? Probably rarely. And when they do, you probably ask yourself, "why didn't they just text?"
Or, now that many take-out or delivery restaurants offer online ordering, how often do you call-in for a pizza? I bet never. And I will double down and bet that you would be inclined to opt-out of a restaurant that doesn't offer online ordering in favor of another that does - regardless of quality.
Or finally, walk into any supermarket. You will see about 20 check-out lanes - 15 manned by employee cashiers, 5 as "self-checkout." By choosing one of the 15 human-powered check-out lines, you will have a person - for free - scan your groceries, bag your groceries, place the bags in your cart, process your payment, and likely quickly exchange pleasantries. In the self-check option, you need to scan your own items, enter in the PLU# for produce, and bag the groceries yourself.
One option seems much more laborious than the other, but the easy option involves actually talking to another human being, and allowing them to see a glimpse of your life and what types of purchases/decisions you make. But also take note of the lines. While 12 of the 15 cashier lines are empty, American consumers will line up six-deep to scan and bag their own items, all to avoid a brief, but potentially awkward social interaction.
I am not breaking news or going out on much of a limb to say that we have become a society of isolation. We prefer screens to reality. We value our privacy on paper (though many of us will dump our purse out on social media on regular intervals). We teach our children to fear - rather than embrace - the unknown, and to distrust - rather than grow to understand - those who act/think/believe differently. America in 2016 has become a person screaming at a mirror. Mad at the world, yet unaware of its existence beyond the reach of its arms.
But somehow, on one magical night, we send out our children to break down these walls, to trust our neighbors, to request a show of benevolence through miniature candy bars. We put on masks over their faces, but those masks serve the purpose of unification. Politics are taken off the stove, differences are put aside. We become a community of neighbors and friends, all living vicariously through the joys and spoils of our children.
This is why we trick-or-treat.
And regardless of what happens to our country or in this world, you will see me on my front porch every October 31, with a big bowl of candy - and an even bigger smile.
- Kevin Aherne
Kevin is the host of Cobblestone Press on 990WBOB.com
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