A holiday gone awry


SIX-YEAR-OLD Margaret, neighbor and daughter of my best friend, was a bumblebee that year for Halloween. Her two younger friends, a mouse and a pumpkin respectively, followed her experienced lead as she knocked on my front door.

"Now remember," I could hear her stage whispers, "when Linda opens the door, you're supposed to say, 'Trick or treat.' " They followed instructions, and I did my part, dropping Milky Ways into their bags.

They thanked me and had already turned toward the next house when I heard Margaret's words: "Don't touch that candy until your mother checks it for poison."

It was my first clue that the Halloween ritual of trick-or-treating has outlived its usefulness.

Perhaps the trouble is that parents today remember how Halloween used to be. Fun. We want more of the same for our children. But maybe holidays like Halloween, conducted in the dark and dependent on the kindness of strangers, are no longer feasible after we've taught the children to move through a dangerous world with tremendous caution.

Not wanting to let go of Halloween completely, we think we can reinvent it for them. So we change the rules a bit, adding a cumbersome dose of parental involvement.

Although we recall that in our childhoods a winning costume was often created the night before by rummaging through the attic or basement for the necessary fabric, junk jewelry or charcoal, we decide the traditional approach just won't do for our kids.

Last year I participated in the annual Halloween parade at my daughter's school. I struck up an innocent conversation with a man whose son was Mt. Everest -- a carved and painted Styrofoam piece of art that the father informed me took him three weeks to create.

Surrounded by princesses garbed by Macy's and robots in pricey costumes from New York catalogs, we adults, I suddenly realized, were in competition with each other!

Gone with the delight of making one's own costume and the peace of mind in roaming the neighborhood is all the spontaneity and fun that once meant Halloween. It died when we weren't looking; it just hasn't been buried yet. Perhaps it's time.

A list of "Basic Halloween Safety Rules" comes to our house each October, courtesy of our community improvement association. It is well-meaning but positively Orwellian.

Children are told to do the following: "Be accompanied by a parent. Visit homes only between 5 and 9 p.m. Confine those visits only to known neighbors who have their porch lights on, and accept only wrapped treats. Bring home all candy for inspection before eating. Do not wear masks (they restrict vision). Costumes should be light in color, short enough to prevent tripping and non-flammable. Carry a flashlight."

K? And in case we forgot to tell you, have a happy Halloween.

Linda DeMers Hummel writes from Timonium.

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