Monday, November 12, 2007

Begging for Candy Makes for Strange Holiday

(From the November 8, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

Last week Wednesday I came home to a familiar and yet strange sight. Familiar because I have seen it before. Strange because, well, it’s strange.

Cars were parked all over my neighborhood. Children (and not a few adolescents and teenagers) were dressed in all manner of costume. They traipsed across lawns (and sometimes shrubbery) going door to door, seeking candy.

Of course, I’m talking about Halloween.

I wonder how many people really think about Halloween beyond the concept of dressing up and getting free candy.

There’s quite a history to Halloween. The Druids, who were Celtic priests, celebrated New Year on November first to mark the transition from the period of light to a period of darkness, stemming from their worship of the sun god. Their festival was called Samhain, and the three-day affair involved people dressing up in costumes made of animal skins and animal heads. Hmm, I hit a deer the week earlier. Had I done my research earlier, I could have saved the carcass for my own ‘traditional’ Halloween costume. Maybe not. I’m glad the little kiddies marching through my neighborhood have costumes made of nylon and polyester.

In the first century the Romans introduced a holiday to Europe known as Pamona Day, named for the Roman goddess of fruits and gardens. It also happened on November 1. It was blended with the Celtic celebration, making the annual event even bigger. Pamona? Don’t we have a park by that name up in Fruitport? That’d make a nice location for a Halloween event every year. Maybe all these people who show up in my neighborhood begging for candy could head there instead and beg for fruit. I mean, why not return to the roots of this annual ritual.

Later, in the year 835 AD, the Roman Catholic Church made November 1st a church holiday to honor all the saints—and possibly to counter the pagan rituals on November 1. This day was called All Saint's Day, or Hallowmas, or All Hallows. Years later the Church would make November 2nd a holy day. It was called All Souls Day and was to honor the dead. It was celebrated with big bonfires, parades, and people dressing up as saints, angels and devils. I wonder how the church could condone dressing up as devils, but I get the saints and angels part. It’d be interesting to ask the “little devils” going through my neighborhood, “who’s your favorite saint?” If they answer with the name of a bonafide saint, I’d give them an apple. Or maybe a wafer.

Of course, the Protestants also tried to co-opt this ancient tradition. They celebrate Reformation Day near the end of October. It hasn’t broken into the Halloween tradition of “trick or treating” however. If it had, these children would dress like John Calvin or John Wesley and show up on front porches reciting catechism. I’d give out king size Snickers bars if that ever happened. Or maybe Wilhemina peppermints and windmill cookies (inside joke to those of the Reformed persuasion).

In any event, many of these influences have blended together today to give us an event exploited by candy makers, greeting card companies, and of course, children. After one of my typical 10- or 12-hour days, I find it odd to have youngsters dressed as cats, athletes, ghosts, and what looks like Brittney Spears on a bad day (that one scared me most) flocking to my neighborhood. Even understanding the ancient past of this tradition, I wonder if it makes sense now for modern times.

For one, we have an obesity problem in this country. Should we really be co-conspirators in this plot to give the next generation a sugar addiction? What lesson comes from a plastic pumpkin full of calories?

Also, isn’t “don’t take candy from strangers” a well-known mantra that parents tell their kids? So, what’s with the carloads of total strangers coming from remote corners of distant townships to seek smarties and gummy bears from me and my neighbors, whom they’ve never met? If you’re going to ask for candy, it seems to make sense to keep it among families and friends.

Finally, the door-to-door begging thing has me stumped. These days, I hear again and again from employers that the younger generation has no concept of personal responsibility, initiative, or self-sustainability. Kids today, so I’m told, have too much of an “entitlement” attitude. Maybe we should think about the consequences of sending them out like beggars to collect candy.

Well, maybe I shouldn’t take so much time thinking about the odd nature of well-established social norms. I’ve got other things to do. In fact, there’s a fake pine tree in our storage room that needs to be placed in our library and adorned with lights and a collection of balls and knick-knacks.