'Tolerated mayhem' wee goblins enjoyed in the past is missing from today's more structured Halloween

October 31, 1991|By Tim Warren

State folklorist Charlie Camp has nothing against community-sponsored Halloween parties or haunted houses as an alternative to trick-or-treating. But he also sees something lost: the idea of Halloween as a child's special day.

"A sense of license granted to kids to walk around the streets is something that I associate with Halloween," says Mr. Camp, folklorist with the Maryland State Arts Council since 1976.

"Some of the compromises that are done for good reason completely eliminate the whole idea of Halloween. If it's just another day to throw a party, it's not Halloween."

As some folklorists and historians view the decorations and fanfare of contemporary Halloween, they also lament the years when the eve of All Saints' Day meant little kids dressed as ghoulies and ghosties -- or even as ballerinas and cowboys -- giggling as they knocked on doors and demanded treats.

Gerald Parsons, a reference librarian for the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center, agrees. "Halloween is clearly shifting from part of a children's culture -- they were the ones who got dressed up and parents played a passive role," he says.

"Now it's involving adults. They are dressing up and entertaining themselves, like they have been doing for the past several years in the Georgetown section of Washington. It's comparable to the Carnival experience -- the element of a time of license."

All of this can be no surprise to any child who has gotten an electric train for Christmas and then had to wait until Dad and Uncle Bob finished playing with the toy: If it's any fun at all, the grown-ups will appropriate it for themselves.

Mr. Parsons recalls that when he was a child in Wilmington, Del., in the 1940s, "Children dressed themselves up as adult figures and went into homes of neighbors, and the neighbors were obliged to guess their identity. It was an absolutely critical part of growing up. Nowadays children don't even wear masks, or care if anyone knows them."

For Mr. Camp, growing up in northeastern Ohio in the 1950s, Halloween was "tolerated mayhem -- a real inversion of the social order. Grown-ups ruled the streets and children are at home in the care of the parents for 364 days. Then you had one day in which kids were wandering around and demanding a treat. If they were satisfied, they left you alone. If not, you'd get toilet paper strung on the trees or windows soaped up."

The latter scenario -- along with safety concerns such as tainted candy -- is precisely why many communities in the state have clamped down on trick-or-treating and have organized their own Halloween observances.

"In many parts of the state, the trick-or-treating custom has all but vanished," Mr. Camp says.

According to Marguerite Ickis' "The Book of Festival Holidays," trick-or-treating originated in Ireland. "Groups of Irish farmers would go from house to house soliciting food for the village Halloween festivals in the name of no less a personage than Muck Olla (ancient god of Irish clergy)," she writes. "Prosperity was promised to cheerful givers and threats made against tight-fisted donors."

But Mr. Camp sees another aspect to trick-or-treating: "It is connected with one of the most ancient practices of Halloween, that of mumming [wearing a costume and taking part in a pantomime]. It's a part of English or Anglo-American folk theater."

One final Halloween twist Mr. Camp has noted, is that pumpkins and other symbols of the harvest are more evident in cities and suburbs rather than in rural areas, as one might expect.

"Actually, the seasonal display increases the farther away you get away from the fields," he says. "I don't think people cherish the Indian corn and the pumpkins in the areas where they're produced as much as the areas where they're not. It's a link, or an imagined link, with the agricultural past."

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