Part 1: American Halloween
If one were to try to pick just one American holiday to best represent the quality of American life, the goodness of our people, “Americana” at its greatest, one would probably think of Independence Day, or maybe Thanksgiving, or Christmas. However, for me, the holiday that comes to mind is Halloween.
Before our recent move to Denmark, I spent the last eight years in a cute, little town in Northern Colorado. My mother always says it reminds her of”Mayberry” (a.k.a. quintessential pleasant, safe, small American town). And in this Mayberry-esque town, we happened to live in a hundred-year-old house in the charming “Old Town” sector. There are tree-lined streets, front porches with swings and white picket fences. It is, I like to feel, small town America at its best. And our its best night of the year? Halloween. Orange lights festoon the porches, twinkling jack-o-lanterns line the stairs, and a front porch light left on after dark beckons to all, “Come on over, we’ll welcome you here..and we have candy :).” Packs of children roam the darkened streets: glittery fairy costumes, a trailing ghost sheet, a pointy witch’s hat peeking above the crowd. Excitement fills the brisk fall air–for this one night of the year, the neighborhood is Open.
It is only as an adult, accompanying my young children trick-or-treating that I have discovered what I believe makes a traditionally celebrated Halloween so special, and it’s a little deeper than fun costumes and free candy. We live in an old, established neighborhood in a small town, and yet it is pretty incredible how little we manage to interact with those we share this space with. I barely knew my next door neighbors, much less random people a street over. We wanted privacy. We respected the privacy of others. We were busy. We had no reason to introduce ourselves to random people. There are plenty of excuses as to why we never interacted with most of the other people .living in our neighborhood. On Halloween, however, the barriers are broken down, and we have the perfect, socially acceptable excuse to interact with one another. We knock on random doors, we converse, we are jovial. Little old ladies compliment us on our cute children and take the time to make conversation. Costumed children run haphazardly across property lines that any other day they are cautioned never to broach.
As neighbors we may have more or less avoided each other all year long, but suddenly we are embracing interaction. And it is my thought that Halloween is the only night of the year where this will happen–not even at Christmas-time do we see such prolific community interaction at the personal home-level.
It is a core belief of mine–and one that allows me to get out of bed in the morning, face the day and raise my children in an uncertain world–that people in general are Good. I find myself disagreeing with so much that I see on the internet, on social media, on the news. So much is Bad, evil, or at best disheartening, dumb, or shallow.
But Halloween…Halloween, as it is traditionally celebrated in the United States is a defiant celebration of the belief that people, in general, are Good. Our neighbors are Good. (The irony of course being that Halloween thematically is a celebration of all things mischievous, evil or Bad, but who doesn’t like some good irony?)
When I was a child of nine or ten, I remember returning home from trick-or-treating with my siblings, spilling out my bag (or maybe pillowcase, sometimes it was a pillowcase) full of candy onto the carpet. It was time for the annual “candy sorting”, to be followed by the traditional “candy trading” and finally the “candy hoarding”. My mother stepped into the doorway, observing with a half-smile the scene of five children kneeling over piles of candy. She then sighed, shaking her head a bit, and saying, “I love this. Too bad there’s not a chance that your kids will be able to trick-or-treat when y’all are all grown up. The world is just getting too bad. It won’t be safe anymore.” We’ve all heard the rumors: needles stuck inside of Twix candy bars. Razor blades in apples. Poison secreted into lolly pops. I mean, who lets their kids take candy from strangers? Isn’t that breaking child-safety-rule-number-one?!?
Well for once in my entire adult life, I’m glad that my mother was proven wrong. It is 20 years later and I’m glad that trick-or-treating is still “a thing.” I’m glad that the world has shown itself to be better than my generally optimistic mother predicted. I can’t say for every neighborhood in the country, but I know that in many–my small Northern Colorado town included–Halloween is alive and well. People are good–we trust our neighbors (even the many that we don’t know). We are united in the cause to prove just that: that we trust our neighbors, that we believe in the Good out there. That trick-or-treating in the dark is still a safe thing to do. That the America that we know and love is here to stay.
Now in recent years substitutions aplenty have arisen from every nook and cranny in the attempt to circumvent and replace traditional trick-or-treating. One such is “trunk-or-treating”. For those of you that have somehow missed out on this phenomenon, a community of people–perhaps a church congregation–meet together in an empty lot, park their cars, and open up their trunks from whence they will distribute Halloween candy. The finest among us will even have decorated their trunk elaborately and in true Halloween spirit. I was at a trunk-or-treat once where one fine gent had gone so far as to turn his Volkswagen Bus into a miniature haunted house, complete with sound, lights, and streamers galore. Once the cars are in place, trunks opened and adults stationed, the children then go trick-or-treating from trunk to trunk rather than from door to door. This microcosmic enactment thus enables the children to participate in a semblance of traditional trick-or-treating while remaining protected in the confines of a parking lot–no dangerous running around in the dark, no dangerous knocking on mysterious doors, and no dangerous receiving of “suspicious” candy from strangers.
Other well-meaning but, (in my opinion) less appealing options have started showing up as well–fairs where businesses set up booths in broad daylight to pass out candy (and, to go along with your tube of Smarties, here’s a free pamphlet about “x” business). Or there’s “Trick-or-treat Mainstreet!” Once again, trick-or-treating type behavior in broad daylight where the children visit each of the businesses on main street and trick-or-treat for candy. (And if said businesses get a bit of publicity, who’s to complain?)
While I appreciate the good intentions in these last two examples, they are, just as the trunk-or-treats activities are, missing one of the core aspects that, for me, makes Halloween a bastion of wholesome Americana–the act of trust, and the act of interaction with the actual people that live in your neighborhood on their actual doorsteps.
On this one night a year–Halloween–we interact in a happy familiar sense with strangers (strangers that also happen to be our neighbors, I might add). We accept food from them, in a sense we entrust our children to them. And we feel comfortable doing this because we trust each other. We don’t have to “actually know each other” other because we know that this is our shared tradition, this is our community and we believe in the Good in it. We won’t be confined to daytime, “Main Street Trick-or-Treating” or fun (but still somehow lacking) uber-safe “Trunk or Treats”. We will trick-or-treat in the dark on Halloween night and we will do so at the doors of people that we have never met before (or only met on previous Halloween excursions). We have no idea who might be opening that door and giving our kids candy, and that’s how we like it! We will do so as an act of defiance: We believe in Halloween. We believe in our neighbors. We believe in America.
***And I’m not saying that reasonable precautions should not be taken–they should. By all means, accompany your children door to door, check their candy before they eat it. But what we should not do is abandon our time-honored tradition in pessimistic fear of some boogeyman that doesn’t exist. Rumors of razor blades in apples, etc have proven almost without exception to be just that: rumor and myth. Turns out most people in America aren’t quite that evil after all. http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/halloween/a/Is-Halloween-Candy-Tampering-A-Myth.htm
And so it is my hope–my prayer–for America that we can remain a nation that Trick-or-Treats.
Part 2: Danish Halloween
So considering my strong feelings about Halloween (that and my kids asking about it every day since October 1st), it’s no surprise that I was determined to carve out a Halloween experience here in Denmark.
I was pleasantly surprised that my kids’ school observed Halloween somewhat.
The entire month of October may not have been all-pumpkins-all-the-time like my kids’ school in Colorado, and it appeared to be mostly in the spirit of cultural diversity appreciation (kind of like we Americans demonstrating our appreciation of Guy Fawkes Day) but I was excited that the kids were able to carve pumpkins at school (using real knives, no less), and on Halloween Day there was even an educational Halloween scavenger hunt.
After asking around, a friend told me that her daughter actually does trick-or-treat here in our tiny town. But when I asked someone else about it, they said, “Oh no, no one trick-or-treats here.” I could foresee that trying to trick-or-treat here in Denmark among unsuspecting Danes could have the potential for being incredibly awkward–and yet, I couldn’t let my children down.
I decided the best tack was to tag along with the group of 3rd grade girls (my friend’s daughter included) that had already planned to go trick-or-treating. If we were blending in with a group of actual Danish children, surely it wouldn’t be perceived as a cultural faux pas?
Trick-or-treating in Denmark:
- We started at 3 pm, right after school.
- Most people were not home.
- The ones that were home seemed to mainly be parents of the kids’ friends.
- We startled quite a few old people, and I felt bad about this. Not too bad though, because I think they enjoyed getting the visitors. I just felt bad for putting them on the spot–some of them that didn’t happen to have candy had to rummage around and find a few coins to give out.
- The kids were unattended by adults (except for me, the helicopter American parent).
- Danes think a proper Halloween costume should be scary, as this distinguishes Halloween from the Danish holiday of Fastelavn, an occasion also happening to involve costumes and the gathering of treats.
- Even though my kids got considerably less candy than they are accustomed to getting in the States, it was fun to see the variety and they were inordinately excited about getting a few kronor (coins).
After returning from our afternoon trick-or-treating foray, I augmented the kids’ candy a bit (which probably wasn’t necessary, but I had already bought extra, being afraid that they might literally get no candy), we had an old-fashioned mummy-wrapping while listening to Halloween music, and we ended the night with my daughter’s favorite movie, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” (Yes, we will watch it again for Christmas.)
***Note to self: When you’re known as the only American family in the town, the town children will show up at your door, and they will expect candy. Buy more and better candy next year :).
Oh, and we even got a couple caroling trick-or-treaters, which was pretty much a dream come true!