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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why I won't do Hallowe'en

I've just been reading a great post by Janet Lansbury about how we can help children take ownership of their art by backing off ourselves.  Couldn't agree more.

But it was centred around the American festival of Hallowe'en, and that made me reflect on my strong distaste for that celebration on the last day of October. A lot of people assume that I'm just anti-American, or something.  But that's not it.  Sure, I think that we have lots to celebrate in Australia without adopting other people's festivals, but that's not the real reason I feel uncomfortable about Hallowe'en. 

And it's nothing to do with religion and witches, either.  I'm not that straight-laced.

It's the modelling that worries me.  It's the behavioural undertones, and the hypocrisy of bad behaviour being amusing and acceptable for one day of the year and criminal for the rest. 

Let's take a look at the behaviour that's put up as okay at Hallowe'en, and see how it stands up for the rest of the year.

First you make lanterns out of pumpkins.  Okay, that sounds like fun; I have a few hesitations about wasting food, given that much of the world lives in abject poverty and starvation, but I guess pumpkins are cheap and plentiful in the US (as they generally are here), and it's only once a year.

Then you dress up. I have no problem with that, and I love Janet's plea that parents let their child choose their costume; that's an outlet for fantasy, self-expression, imagination.  These are all good things.

Then the adults buy a whole lot of lollies or make sweet treats. Again, it's only once a year... but it's once more, on top of all the peers' birthdays, Easter, local shows, Christmas, etc etc. In a world of increasingly obese children, I have my hesitations about introducing yet another excuse for eating garbage in the name of a celebration- and yes, particularly if it's not even our country's celebration. We don't do Thanksgiving; why do we do Hallowe'en? (I see a lot more value in Thanksgiving, actually.) Is it commercial influences playing us yet again?

But that's not the reason I flatly refuse to 'do Hallowe'en' in school or childcare; no, it's this last bit that makes my blood run cold. 

Children go out in groups, knock on doors and say 'trick or treat', expecting to be given lollies.

Sound innocuous? Let me rephrase that.

Kids are encouraged to form gangs, knock on strangers' doors (whatever happened to stranger danger?) with their faces often disguised by the costume, and threaten to do something nasty to a complete stranger unless they're bought off with lollies.

Yeah, sure, the tricks might be mostly harmless.  It's not exactly a major imposition to have to wipe raw egg off your windows (though it's a waste of a good egg)- they could probably do with a clean.  But I don't like blackmail.

Do we accept this at any other time of year? Is it good modelling of acceptable behaviour to encourage our children to do this?  If a group of kids with masks on came to my door and demanded something from me with threats of menace, any other time of year I'd slam the door, call the police and be terrified out of my wits.

Sorry, but to me, Hallowe'en is glorified bullying.  And I won't model that.

(I welcome my American friends to comment, because I'd love to know what you're thinking...)


  1. I've had some really interesting comments on this post via my Facebook and Google+ pages- thought I'd share them, as they add some great international perspectives on Hallowe'en.
    An Aussie expat in the UK says:

    "Interesting take on this - another great post!

    I was very surprised on moving to the UK to discover that Hallowe'en is really big here. And I have to say that the whole thing makes a lot more sense in a Northern autumn: you have the whole harvest-festival thing going on, a time of plentiful food, and the churches tend to be decorated with food at this time of year, so why not your front window? (and for some strange reason, "pumpkins" here are not food. Sure you have "squash" which is what we would call pumpkins, but apparently the jack o'lantern type of pumpkin is something people feed animals - so presumably, historically, the animals would still get the carved-out innards, and then later the de-candled rest of it.) And of course the days drawing in makes more sense too of the "things that go bump in the night" aspect which tends to be a bit ridiculous in Australia.

    I think I agree with you that aspects of it do not set a good example, but I do think that experiencing it from the other side of the world, at the time of year (seasonally speaking) it's supposed to be experienced, makes a lot more sense of the more subtle aspects of the festival, things which are just lost in Australia, in the same way that the Springtime associations with Easter become overwhelmed in just a wave of chocolate. Both these festivals have a lot more meaning from context here. Maybe we should be campaigning for a Southern hemisphere Easter and Hallowe'en all of our own at opposite ends of the year!"

    And a Canadian friend:

    "I'm Canadian, not American, and while I can understand why you wouldn't want to import someone else's tradition, there's lots to like about Hallowe'en. Up here many kids yell "Hallowe'en apples!" instead of "trick or treat". Jack O'lanterns are grown for decorations, not eating (they're woody), more analogous to a Christmas tree than dinner. As for the "gangs" of kids -- well, reframe that, and you have a giant community playdate. Even the police and the local media get in on the act, patrolling and handing out safety lights to the kids. Stranger danger? Hallowe'en is one time you get to suspend that and trust your neighbor (checking the candy carefully regardless), and that is a very good thing."

    I do find this all so interesting! My immediate thought is that Hallowe'en doesn't travel well and gets 'lost in translation' down under, where it seems to have been heavily commercialised without engaging the community at all unless you happen to be in a very small town like this friend:

    "Yep .. tis a weird day! I have no control over it! X already has his Scream costume and 20 inch meat cleaver (filled with blood)! Z won the best costume last year @ the local school! Luckily the village kids ... just want lollies ... strangely enough no tricks were committed last year?? :O "

    Still waiting to hear from my US friends- talk to us about your experience of this festival??

  2. Here where I am in the UK Halloween is an occasion for young children to get dressed up, and go around their neighbours (accompanied by their parents) trick or treating. I only allow my children to go to neighbours houses that we know and that have some form of decoration in their house, if a house has no pumpkin etc then we do not call on them. We are out for an hour maximum. Last year my sone came home with about a dozen chocolate bars or lollypops, he was allowed a couple that night, then the rest lasted him the next week (sharing a few with his Mummy and Daddy!) It is not an event for teenagers to try to get money out of people - though I am aware that in some areas this does happen.

    We love Halloween here, though this year we will be in Florida for 31st October, and I am really looking forwards to seeing how the US celebrate it!

  3. Sounds like you've got it all reined in to a sensible level, Francine- fun with respect and moderation. I have no problem with that at all!

  4. Here's another comment from my Facebook page, from Janet Lansbury:

    "The Halloween "negatives", like eggings, are extremely rare... The only downers I've found in the many, many years I've celebrated are the precocious (either sexy or scary) costumes some parents allow and even encourage. For example, one of my daughter's neighbor friends was a "dead bride" at 8 or 9 years old... Can you imagine?! But the big positive I see is the way children percieve the holiday as being about fantasy and magic. Those are things we can never get enough of, in my humble opinion. (Thanks for mentioning my post in yours!)"

    I TOTALLY agree about the precocious sexualisation of children- that's awful. It's good to hear that magic is getting a higher profile than mischief; like I said, some things don't travel well (or maybe the degree of supervision and moderation is just slow to arrive).


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