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.
- 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.
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.
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.