Nov 23

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In America, Halloween, celebrated on All Hallows Eve, is marked in a variety of ways. For children it is a time for dressing up and wearing grotesque make-up and masks, and going door-to-door in the neighborhood, “Trick or Treating.” If the neighbor opening the door, after being greeted by cries of “trick or treat, opts to “treat”, then each child in the group receives a piece of Halloween candy or fruit. If the door opener refuses to “treat” then the “Trick or Treaters” are at liberty to “trick.”

“Tricks” may vary from the purely mischievous, such as soaping the offender’s car windows, to the almost vandalistic, such as spray-painting graffiti or wrapping shrubs and cars in toilet paper. The practice of dressing up and wearing masks apparently dates from pagan times, when people disguised themselves as spirits in order to avoid becoming a victim of one of them. The Mexican people still celebrate something similar, known in their culture as the “Day of the Dead.”

According to Wikipedia, observance of Halloween faded in the South of England from the 17th Century onwards, being replaced by the commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5. However it remained popular in Scotland, Ireland and the North of England, from whence it traveled to America in the 19th Century. It is only in the last decade that it has apparently become popular in the South of England again, although in an entirely Americanized version.

Wikipedia says that the custom survives most accurately in Ireland, where the last Monday of October is a public holiday. All schools close for the following week for mid-term, commonly called the Halloween Break. As a result Ireland is the only country where children never have school on Halloween and are therefore free to celebrate it in the ancient and time-honored fashion.

Just like other festivals in America, Halloween is excessively commercialized. Back in the days of innocence, costumes and masks were hand-made by the children’s parents or older siblings. The children carried hollowed-out pumpkins with candles inside to light their way. Back then it wasn’t essential to be accompanied by an adult for reasons of safety either.

Nowadays, the larger toy stores literally turn over all their floor-space to Halloween costumes, masks and decorations, and the supermarkets are stocked to capacity with special Halloween “treat” candy in traditional black and orange wrappers. Video rental stores stock up on all the old horror movies, and TV programming drags out all the grizzly favorites: “Frankenstein” in all its many versions, the Rocky Horror Picture Show etc.

In recent years, it seems that adults have become increasingly involved in the festival. Fashionable nightclubs and discos host a special Halloween night; office and bank workers dress up in costume to go to work, as do waiters and waitresses. Adult costumes are often very elaborate, and the masks vary from the coquettish to alarmingly realistic plastic overlays such as are used in horror movies. Some garish make-up and a wild hairpiece contribute to the overall, scary realism of the result.

False vampire fangs and artificial blood sachets carried in the mouth for timely puncturing, along with four-inch, stick-on fingernails, are among the gruesome accessories available. Parents, supposedly “for the benefit of the children,” create grottos on their front lawns with artificial cobwebs, life-sized witches and fake tombstones. Skeletons and ghosts hang in every suburban tree.

To complete the near saturation of this one-day Halloween celebration, the classical music radio station I listen to plays scary music all day: “Danse Macabre,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and so on. If I were to allow myself to philosophize about the escalation of Halloween mania, I suppose it could be interpreted as a reaction to the real horror that fills our contemporary lives. One can turn off Halloween at will, and it only lasts for one day each year.

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