1 Nov 2013
The power of Halloween and baking biscuits
One of my favourite Twitter follows, @TwopTwips, tweeted, on the afternoon of Halloween, with the sage advice “SAVE TIME and money this Halloween by always answering the question “Trick or Treat?” with “F*** Off”. While entertaining, it was disappointing, as I took my 11 year old and his friend Trick of Treating in the streets around my house last night, how many people seem to have taken that advice to heart.
The significant majority of houses had their gates closed, the lights at the front of the house switched off, notes on their front door saying “No Trick of Treaters”. Now, I can completely get the arguments that there are some people, usually older people, who feel threatened by Halloween, and some kids who use Halloween as the opportunity to get up to all sorts of mischief.
What touched me though, traipsing around with The Joker and The Crazy GP With the Machete, was what can happen when you do decide to open the door, to create a chink of possibility in your life that engaging with the children in your neighbourhood might actually be a good experience for both you and them.
If you are not a Halloween regular, there is a kind of Halloween ettiquette. You generally only knock at houses that look inviting. Usually if you want to be visited, you put a pumpkin in the front garden, or indicate in some way that you are interested. The houses with the lights off and the gates closed you just avoid. Everyone I saw out Trick or Treating respected that kind of unofficial Code of Good Halloween Practice. But seeing what happened when people opened their hearts to it was really touching.
On one street near me, a group of 5 older women had really gone for it, had dressed up in full witches outfits, with brooms and everything, and were sat in their front garden around a cauldron over a real fire. They were actually, I must say, just a bit on the odd side of odd, almost as though they spent the year looking forward to this opportunity. They were in their element. Every group of kids who approached were asked to tell them a joke or sing them a song before they were given any treats. My two companions thought, as we stood there in the cackling and the swirling smoke, that that all sounded like a bit too much effort, so we headed off to the next house with a pumpkin in the window.
In another street, a woman in full witch costume was sat outside her house, with spectral ghostly music playing, trying to psych out the kids who wandered past and thought twice about whether they would go in and ask her for anything. What was really lovely was the number of older people who had made a real effort. The Joker and the Doctor approached one house, knocked on the door, which was opened by a older man, delightful, really friendly, asking them about their costumes and how it was going, and gave them some treats. Just as they turned to leave, they jumped out of their skins. Right next to them, unseen as it was slightly out of the main lights, was a life-sized witch statue, leering down at them.
Some people had spent the day baking little skull-shaped biscuits. Some took the time to ask the kids where they lived, and were able to piece them into their knowledge of local families and geography. Some just had a big basket of sweets by the door and thrust it at each successive group that came calling. It felt like walking the streets from pocket of welcoming playfulness to pocket of welcoming playfulness, passing through a sea of “go away, leave us alone”.
It is of course entirely anyone’s business if they choose to take part in Halloween or not. It’s an odd festival, it’s silly, and yes, the kids get lots of sweets. And this is just in the UK, where it’s not such a big deal. In the US people have the pumpkins out and the decorations up for up to a month in advance of the day itself. Grist have the story of one woman in North Dakota who instead of giving out sweets, gave out letters addressed to the parents of what she determined to be “moderately obese” trick-or-treaters. The letters read:
Happy Halloween! You are probably wondering why your child has this note; have you ever heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child? I am disappointed in “the village” of [blank]. Your child is, in my opinion, moderately obese and should not be consuming sugar and treats to the extent of some children this Halloween season. My hope is that you will step up as a parent and ration candy this Halloween and not allow your child to continue these unhealthy eating habits. Thank you.
I mean, what a bloody miserable curmudgeon. She could have given them fruit, or something else. What a great way to totally bum out some kid’s experience of Halloween. As a psychologist interviewed in the article wrote:
“It’s just that kind of thing that, for some kids, if they’re vulnerable, might trigger major problems.”
What struck me was that part of the community seemed to be having a lot of fun, a lot of laughter, a lot of silliness and getting to meet and connect with local families, while the other half was hunkered down in their sofas with the curtains shut and the front lights off. Also, how much fun the people, especially the older people, who had opened their hearts and their front doors to the whole thing were having.
Whether it’s the tabloid press or whoever, people seem to have convinced themselves that Halloween is all about horrible kids throwing eggs at your house and demanding sweets, and of course if people feel vulnerable they have every right to drop out. But we can also look at Halloween as the opportunity to open our doors to our neighbours, to meet those young people we might never normally encounter, to feel more connected to those around us.
Rather than handing out sanctimonius notes to tubby kids, our friend in North Dakota could have given them fruit, given them cookies she had made, actually chatted to them and got to know them. Rather than shutting the curtains and hoping they will all go away, the delight of chatting to little kids dressed as witches, realising you know their parents or whatever, and helping to make it a fun evening seem to me far preferable.
Think of it as a street party, think of it as community-building, think of it as a way of meeting your neighbours every bit as valuable as Transition Streets or The Big Lunch. Out in the streets was the sound of laughter, of cackling, of a night that kids approach with a certain sense of the magic of the whole thing. The benefits to us all of taking a few steps towards that, getting into the spirit (if you’ll excuse the pun) of Halloween, seem to me to far outweigh the very slight risk of a misdirected egg or one rude Trick or Treater.
In a recent Guardian piece, one contributor asked “Is it OK to ignore trick or treaters? I can’t be the only person hiding in the lounge, hoping they’ll get the message fast and move on (some don’t, and knock twice: awkward)”. Well, of course it’s OK, kinda, but perhaps next year, having tried the “hunker down and turn the telly up” approach, you might carve a pumpkin, light some candles, make some biscuits, and welcome the little kids dressed as witches, ask them where they live, tell them you like their costumes, wish them a Happy Halloween and a good night, and then see which of the two approaches you preferred, and made you feel more part of the world around you. My money’s on the one with the biscuits.