Democracy on Halloween

The Baltimore Sun

The time has arrived for one of our nation's most visible displays of democracy in action. No, not Election Day. I mean Halloween.

Each year, as October draws to a close, I get excited. My days as a trick-or-treater are long over; my young children now fill that role. But Halloween in our neighborhood is a big deal. At dusk, the children in their costumes flood our decorated block. The autumn air crackles with their energy and enthusiasm, creating a festive atmosphere. And yet I see something more going on - something to do with us as Americans. Whether I am escorting my kids from house to house or manning the door to hand out candy, the Halloween that I see is not one of rampant consumerism, expensive costumes or trivialized evil. What I see instead, and what I find exciting, is that Halloween is an exercise in democratic principles.

Think about it. For starters, everyone is in costume, which means that all are free to be, for one night, exactly what they wish they were or hope to be. The beautiful and the plain, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the meek all mingle together, their fantasies and aspirations on vivid display, in ordinary neighborhoods all across America. There is no such thing as a bad costume on Halloween; the more homemade, the better. In fact, it is the lack of a costume that receives scorn. "What are you supposed to be?" is the perennial question to the uncostumed. The implication is that everyone is supposed to be something or someone on Halloween. Everyone matters.

Then, as the children go on their quest for candy, they elect which houses to visit. Each time they decide which door to approach, they cast a mental vote. The neighbors have to appeal to the trick-or-treaters with lights and decorations and the promise of candy. The houses with the cleverest decorations, best jack-o'-lanterns or tastiest goodies get the most visitors, and the homeowners get bragging rights regarding how many treats they handed out. Meritocracy at work!

Then there is the trick - the vote of disapproval. Some of our neighbors are stingy, and others don't participate at all, turning off the lights to appear as unwelcoming as possible. These homes run the risk of being festooned with eggs or toilet paper, another way the children express their choice on Halloween.

When these acts of minor vandalism happen, to call the police would violate the spirit of the holiday. Not only are the trick-or-treaters supposed to be anonymous, they are encouraged to step outside the normal constraints of propriety - to live large and take risks without fear of reprisals, if only for one night. Again, it levels the playing field, giving everyone equally the right to demand treats without paying for them and to deface your property if you don't hand it over.

We open our lives to public opinion each Oct. 31 and hope for good results, but there is no guarantee. Children have minds of their own and will make their choices based on multiple factors: Do I know these people? Does the house look too spooky? How many treats am I likely to get? And when the night is over, there are winners and there are losers.

Finally, what makes Halloween so democratic is that it is a holiday where the people make the rules. Although it has roots in the calendar of the Catholic Church and the pre-Christian ceremonies before it, Halloween today is not legislated by Congress. It is not a government holiday. It is not decreed by any religious leader. The traditions and the activities are created by each household, in each neighborhood, in each town all across America.

I have heard that people new to this country find Halloween baffling for precisely this reason. There are no guide books. It is not even marked on some calendars. Everyone just seems to know what to do and how to participate. The rest of it we make up as we go along, with effort and imagination. In that lies its simple beauty.

My children don't realize that they are rehearsing the American experiment when they go trick-or-treating. They just want to get more chocolate and fewer lollipops. But I hope they see at some level what I see: the value of aspiring to live as one wishes to be, of encouraging generosity and protesting stinginess, of the work of the individual over the privilege of birth or the decree of authority. These are the values of democracy.

Matthew Taylor lives and writes in Rockville. His e-mail is beall520@

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