Trick or Treat! Re-imagining Halloween in the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Coronavirus continues its slow burn through my county in California like the longest slow dance of my high school tenure. With summer coming to a close, kids back in zoom school, and wildfires surrounding us, I need something to look forward to. I turn my sights to Halloween and my stomach drops. What if there is no Halloween this year?! As of this writing, they’ve cancelled trick or treating in LA county, and I’m just waiting for our county to do the same.

I’ve had to disappoint my kids over and over again throughout this pandemic; Barking at them to stay away from other kids, getting them outside only to see the playgrounds covered with tape, and saying no to seeing friends. I’ve played by the rules our health department laid out for us, and we celebrated three birthdays in a very low-key way, but cancelling my kid’s favorite holiday is just too mean. 

I ask around in a few online mom’s groups and neighborhood forums – and the overwhelming opinion is, “no, we will not be participating in trick-or-treating this year”. What? Even outdoors and with masks, people are hesitant to have kids come close enough to pass them candy, and many parents aren’t willing to risk the high-touch load of a crowd-sourced candy stash. My heart sank. You can’t trick-or-treat alone. It’s a community-lead thing. The only thing worse than cancelling Halloween would be to get our hopes up and our costumes on, and go out trick-or-treating only to have no one answer the door.

Rite of Reversal

Aside from Halloween being my four-year-old’s favourite holiday, it’s one that I know carries a lot of ritual importance in our society. It is what anthropologists have termed a rite of reversal.

A rite of reversal is a ritual in which the social order is reversed; the world devolves into chaos and then reverts back to order. These rites are important in human culture because they remind us why we have social conventions and rules in the first place. Sure, chaos is fun for an evening, but at the end of the day, when you crawl into bed, you’re happy that when you wake up in the morning, things will go back to the way they were. Trick-or-treating on Halloween night is an example of a rite of reversal.

On Halloween:

  • Children, who are usually only in public spaces in the daytime, get to run through the streets after dark, often without their parents.
  • Children get to go to stranger’s homes and rather rudely, threateningly demand candy (Trick or Treat!).
  • Children get to dress in costume.
  • Spooky and scary replaces light-hearted and predictable.
  • Children get to eat lots of junk food/candy.

Everyday I try to teach my children to be polite (say please and thank you and not be demanding or threatening), to dress appropriately (not go out in public in costume), to eat healthily (celery sticks not chocolate bars), and to not ever take candy from strangers. Yet, on Halloween, the opposite of these behaviours is allowed and encouraged. We literally send our kids out at night in a costume to threaten strangers to give them candy or they will play a trick on them.

Halloween is special. On Halloween you can break the rules. In doing so, it releases tension between child and parent and reinforces why we have rules at all. While Halloween is a fun night and some kids might wish it were Halloween every day, the fact that it isn’t every day is what makes it so fun and so special.

I care about Halloween for my kids for a bigger reason than their smiling faces covered in chocolate at 9 o’clock at night…I believe it is an important cultural rite that helps balance the adult-child or rule-maker/rule-follower relationship. So I’ve been wracking my brain trying to find other ways that we can celebrate Halloween in a way that fits in with the uncertainty of a pandemic, while upholding the spirit of the rite of reversal that it is. Ways that still reverse the order of things to blow off some of that pent-up steam. I know I need a release from our new-normal even more now in the midst of this will-it-ever-end can-I-hire-a-babysitter-yet pandemic.

The Year we went as a dog and a dog walker

Ghoul’s Dinner

I have wanted to host a Ghoul’s dinner for a while – a special dinner where for one night only, my family subverts the normal and throws out all the table manners that my husband and I have been trying to instill. Parents and children get to be excessively rude, having fun and doing all the things we aren’t supposed to do at the table: belching, reaching, gagging, eating with our hands, wiping our faces on our shirts, blowing bubbles in our milk, building castles with our potatoes, banging cutlery on the table, and throwing food on the floor. This night of chaos (and subsequent family clean up) reinforces why we have table manners all other nights of the year. People, and especially our children, are creatures of habit. We like to know what to expect. We certainly wouldn’t want a chaotic meal with spaghetti in our hair every day, so when you do a ritual of reversal for fun on a set day of the year, it reinforces why we care about correct behaviour. Life generally is more pleasant when we follow social conventions and we don’t have to clean globs of food off the floor – but once a year, it’s nice to let loose and remind ourselves of that.

If you’re not keen on the mess and rudeness of a Ghoul’s dinner, you can still subvert the normative meal-time framework by serving a desserts-only or desserts-first meal for supper on Halloween night. I can imagine the look on my four-year old son’s face when he comes down the stairs to the dinner table and sees a table set with a huge cake, sides of ice cream sundaes, pie, brownies AND cookies. A Candyland dream come true! We might even play Candyland while we eat.

The year we went as the scariest thing you’ll ever see…Bay Area Traffic.

Trick or Treat

There’s something so exciting about walking around the neighbourhood after dark. Everything is quiet and still and there’s a small thrill that you shouldn’t really be out. Halloween night is even more thrilling with permission to leave the public space (the sidewalk) and go up to people’s front doors (a public-private space) and shout “Trick or Treat!”. In usual years, neighbors give our kids treats because they don’t want a trick played on them. But what if we went back to the original intent behind that phrase and played “tricks” on neighbors who aren’t handing out candy? Now I don’t mean mean-spirited, illegal or dangerous pranks – but perhaps we could leave some cards with tricky riddles or tongue twisters on them as “tricks” instead of receiving “treats”. I think that would capture the ritualized subversion of order as well, but from the opposite angle.

Halloween Treasure Hunt

One thing that I love about Halloween night is how well my kids sleep afterwards. Even if they’ve had 15 mini chocolate bars, they crash hard onto the pillow from the excitement of running around the neighborhood for three hours before bed time. By the time trick-or-treating is over, my kids have earned their candy stash. They worked hard for it, going door to door schlepping a heavy bag around while wearing an awkward costume in the dark. Part of truly enjoying anything is the hard work associated with getting it. How good does a cold beer taste after an afternoon of digging holes for fence posts? So good.

How could I make sure that candy, which is usually restricted in our home, is part of our celebration this year, but in a way that my kids still have to work hard to earn it (instead of just buying some and throwing it in a bowl on the counter)?

The year we went as the Caltrain engine, a princess commuting to work, and a Caltrain employee.

I thought we could order some halloween-themed plastic eggs (or we could put halloween-themed stickers or draw silly faces on our leftover plastic easter eggs) and hide them around the house and our yard, filled with candy. I mentioned the plan to our immediate neighbours on our block with kids and we decided to collectively make it an event for our street at dusk on Halloween night. A Halloween treasure hunt is possible to remain distant from others – after all, if you’re searching where someone else is searching, you will have to share the booty, so it’s in the kid’s best interest to search an area on his/her own.

While the Centre for Disease Control  guidelines indicate that there is not much evidence that coronavirus transmits particularly well on surfaces, it is easy to wipe down a plastic egg with an alcohol wipe before opening. And if multiple homes are packing the eggs, they can put the candies in the eggs a full three days before Halloween to give any potential virus particles on the candy wrappers time to die before the eggs are hidden, found and opened.

2020 has been an unbelievable and unforgettable year. I want our Halloween night to be unbelievable and unforgettable too, in a good way. A way that doesn’t stand out in our memories as the worst Halloween ever, but as one of the best in spite of everything else going on around us. Throughout so much of this pandemic, my kids have had to adjust and go along for the ride. I want to put them and other kids at the forefront this Halloween and make sure they know that their childhoods are still important, even in the midst of all this scary grown-up stuff happening. Maybe you will join me.

Some orange playdough! Stay tuned for this year’s family costume. It’s truly inspired and I can’t wait to share it with you!

Halloween as a Rite of Reversal

Halloween, in California, is bigger than Christmas. People go all out here with parties, costumes, trick or treating, and house decor. “Graveyards” line front yards, ghosts haunt every corner, cobwebs aren’t swept away, but embraced. Back home in Canada, very few people hosted parties (or at least none that I was invited to), costumes had to fit over snowsuits (hello fat-Cinderella, hello fat-Power Ranger, hello sumo-wrestler), and Halloween decor was minimal. We would put out Jack O’ Lanterns and maybe a few cutouts of ghoulish faces in the windows – but other than a couple haunted houses in each neighbourhood, people did pretty much the bare minimum. Upon moving to California, I learned that outdoor decor is a competitive sport, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is a feasible costume and you can’t carve your pumpkin until the day of because it will rot if it’s not -20C outside (who knew?!).

In spite of the love of all things Halloween-ey, I was surprised to learn how down on candy many Californians seem to be. Nuts/Sugar/Gluten are almost considered obscenities here and I was stressing about what kind of treat to give out at my door on Halloween night. Some of my mom-friends are going the non-candy route, to be respectful of allergies, but honestly I dread a shit-ton of rubber bouncy balls entering my home more than I dread a sugar-inebriated child.

The thing about Halloween is candy is a major part of the celebration. Halloween is what we anthropology -nerds (yes, many moons ago I graduated with my MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology) call a Rite of Reversal.

A Rite of Reversal is a ritual in which the social order is reversed; the world devolves into chaos and then reverts back to order. These rites are important in human culture because they remind us why we have social conventions and rules in the first place. Sure chaos is fun for an evening, but at the end of the day, when you crawl into bed, you’re happy that when you wake up in the morning, things will go back to the way they were. Trick or Treating on Halloween night is an example of a Rite of Reversal.

On Halloween:

  • Children, who are usually only in public spaces in the daytime, get to run through the streets after dark, often without their parents.
  • Children get to go to stranger’s homes and rather rudely, threateningly demand candy (Trick or Treat!).
  • Children get to dress in costume.
  • Spooky and scary replaces light-hearted and predictable.
  • Children get to eat lots of junk food/candy.

TRICK-OR-TREAT

Every day I try to teach my child to be polite (say please and thank you, do not be demanding or threatening), to dress appropriately (not go out in public in costume), to eat healthily (celery sticks not chocolate bars), and to not ever take candy from strangers. Yet, on Halloween, the opposite of these behaviours are allowed and encouraged. We literally send our kids out at night in a costume to threaten strangers to give them candy or they will play a trick on them.

Untitled presentation (2)

Halloween is special. On Halloween you can break the rules. In doing so, it releases tension between child and parent and also reinforces why we have rules at all. While Halloween is a super fun night and some kids might wish it were Halloween every day, the fact that it isn’t every day is what makes it so fun and so special.

So yeah, I don’t care if my neighbours are giving out rubber bouncy balls. I’m giving out candy that will rot your teeth. And I hope when my son has enough teeth to chew, that he gets candy that will rot his teeth (and learn how glorious it feels to brush your teeth after an over-indulgent night of sugary snacks) because that’s the one night per year where eating candy for a bedtime snack is okay. It’s part of the rite.

Someday, when my kids are older, I hope to extend this Rite of Reversal to include a Ghoul’s Dinner on Halloween night before Trick or Treating. At the Ghoul’s Dinner, table manners don’t matter. The intention is that this fun night of belching, eating with our hands, wiping our faces on our shirts, blowing bubbles in our milk, building castles with our potatoes, banging cutlery on the table and throwing food on the floor will reinforce why we have table manners all other nights of the year. People, and especially our children, are creatures of habit. We like to know what to expect. We certainly wouldn’t want a chaotic meal with spaghetti in our hair every day, so when you do a ritual of reversal for fun on a set day of the year, it reinforces why we care about correct behaviour. Life generally is more pleasant when we follow social conventions and we don’t have to clean globs of food off the floor – but once a year, it’s nice to let loose and reminds ourselves of that.

Of course, I have a 15 month old, so every meal for me is currently a Ghoul’s Dinner. First I need to teach him table manners before I can reverse it to chaos, so consider that a parenting goal for the future.

Happy Halloween-ing!