When I was a kid, instead of handing out store-bought candy to trick-or-treaters, my mom made halloween cookies, iced to look like jack-o-lanterns, with raisins for eyes and a grin. The neighborhood kids loved them- “Mrs. Hamilton’s cookies!” they’d yell. I could eat a dozen myself (as if she’d let me). The cookies had to be eaten right away. Otherwise they’d get smashed by other goodies in the treat bag. Then successive generations of kids, who didn’t know mom and my family as well, became leery of cookies made by strangers. By my teen years, mom had switched to packaged candy.
Halloween fun has been undermined by fear; not the exciting fear of ghosts and skeletons, but unnerving fear of poisoned treats, or with needles inserted. Parents are afraid to let kids out into a neighborhood where unsavory strangers may lurk. A generation ago trick-or-treaters flooded the streets. These days, not so much.
Many halloween fears are unfounded. Reports of candy tampering are quite rare. In previous years some hospitals offered to x-ray candy. However, no hospital ever reported finding metal in treats. Given the hassle of families going to the hospital, radiology departments tied up with this extra service, and the low yield of found objects, no one bothers anymore.
The damage to neighborhood trick-or-treating volumes has been done. But in response to these fears, some good things have happened. Parents accompany trick-or-treaters more. Some churches, schools, and families hold halloween parties, where kids’ safety is assured. My church has a trunk-or-treat party, where parishioners scatter their cars about the parking lot, and kids go from trunk to trunk to gather goodies. Keeping a closer watch on kids these ways, knowing what goes into their bags, isn’t a bad thing at all.
But what about those elementary school kids, too old to want to be watched, yearning to be out with their friends, away from hovering parents? Young enough to still love dressing up and collecting free candy- what about their trick or treat?
After my kids got home from trick-or-treating, they’d shout “Candy Market open!” The three of them would sit in a circle, still in costume, empty their bags onto the floor, and begin bartering. My oldest daughter didn’t like chocolate, and her younger brother and sister did. So the horse-trading would begin- so many skittles for so many m&ms, does a Laffy-Taffy equal a Butterfinger, etc.
Halloween is supposed to be fun. Choosing and making costumes weeks in advance, the anticipation of halloween night, is part of the joy. Then the night itself: roaming the neighborhood at night with friends. Parents often enjoy halloween too, delighting kids with hand-outs, chatting with neighbors, maybe dressing up and having their own parties. And of course for the kids, the big bonus: a bagful of free candy.
We discussed the perceived hazards of Halloween above- candy poisoned or spiked with sharp objects, and creeps lurking in the dark. Though these dangers are actually rare, trick-or-treating has taken a hit. It’s still safe to send your kids out into the neighborhood, but be aware of the real hazards. The most important concern is getting hit by a car. Kids are hard for drivers to see at night. They’re small and often wear dark costumes. And excited children run in and out of the street as they go from porch to porch.
Thus kids should travel in packs, to make them easier for drivers to see as well as having safety in numbers. Costumes should have visibility aids- reflective tape or shiny parts (metallic stars on wizard costumes), and kids can carry flashlights (or light-sabers). Another hazard is not of candy that’s been tampered with, but stomachaches from wolfing it all down in one go. Parents should encourage their kids to ration their goodies. It’s more fun, and better for them, to make the treats last for weeks, instead of just one night.
The true fix for halloween fears are having better neighborhoods for trick-or-treating. Get to know your neighbors. Have a pre-halloween neighborhood meet-and-greet, to plan for a safe trick-or-treat, and make halloween a block party. Talk to city hall about blocking the streets, or having signs and monitors to slow traffic. Welcome kids visiting from neighborhoods where it’s not so safe. Finally, inspect your kids’ treats when they get home, if only to allay your worries. Then, let the Candy Market begin!