Holidays of Our Lives

October 30, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

At first, even a clown costume scared the 2-year-old. But as Halloween approached, fear dissolved into curiosity. Two weeks ago, the decision was announced: ''I'm going to be a pum'kin.''

And now, having scrambled around to make a wish come true, his parents have joined millions of other participants in yet another commercial holiday phenomenon: the $1.5 billion Halloween industry. That sum doesn't include the candy sales, which are substantial.

The trend started with Christmas. Laments about its commercialization are as old as advertising. Then Mother's Day proved that a holiday can be invented and can have an economic impact. Florists and greeting-card makers love the second Sunday in May -- and why shouldn't they?

Come June, Father's Day brings the peak season for necktie sales. When fall rolls around, Thanksgiving helps sustain the turkey industry. As Valentine's Day approaches, the price of red roses goes sky high, and candy makers are smiling with every ring of the cash register.

It's easy -- and often appropriate -- to disparage commercialization of holidays. And it's true that money is no substitute for meaning. But the hyping of holidays can have a positive side as well.

Halloween is a case in point. Unlike many other holidays, which are centered on family activities, Halloween is a community event.

It is also quintessentially a children's holiday. In a era when medical advances and better living standards keep children safer than ever from early death, we can enjoy the ancient ghoulish rituals as good fun.

Children can enact fantasies to their heart's content, with the full knowledge that the world will be right side up by morning. (Lest we wax too philosophical here, let us not forget that, for children, probably the biggest attraction of Halloween is the opportunity to exceed their normal sugar consumption several times over.)

The rituals bring pleasures for adults as well. In many neighborhoods, it's the only time of year when tiny ghosts and goblins, princesses and Power Rangers can traipse from house to house and expect to be welcomed with a smile. When watchful adults come along, trick-or-treating can help reacquaint neighbors who on other days pass each other with barely a hurried nod.

For many families, the ''neighborhood'' may not be a child's surrounding streets. In Baltimore and other cities, shopping malls are now serving the the same social functions for many people that Main Street once did. That makes them favored places for informal parades of costumed kids in search of candy.

Schools, fire stations, churches -- virtually all kinds of community gathering places -- provide other sites for Halloween parties and costume contests. Usually the hoopla is meant to be a substitute for trick-or-treating, but that ritual seems to outlast the fears of sabotaged candy and evil tricksters.

Some sociologists see these gatherings as signs of the new kinds of community ties Americans are forming. More accurately, they are the latest incarnation of community ties that inevitably change and evolve as population grows, cities and towns spread into suburbs and exurbs, neighborhoods are all but empty from nine to five, and families get caught up in schedules in which car-pool arrangements overpower domestic tranquillity.

Halloween is a time for American families to step out of those hectic routines for a few hours. While children dress up as pumpkins and ghouls, adults can turn back into neighbors, and decorated houses can brighten up the street.

Of course, those decorations pump up the Halloween industry. But, kept in context, the Halloween industry is no bad thing. And it's refreshing to see watchdog groups ready to make sure it doesn't go too far. This past week, a group called the Trauma Foundation announced a coalition called ''Hands Off Halloween.'' The campaign is an effort to slap down the beer industry for using pumpkins, child-sized masks, black cats and jack-o'-lanterns as promotional items.

According to the press release, the group charged the industry with ''recklessly exploiting images that appeal to children,'' and denounced ''beer manufacturers' efforts to turn a major children's holiday into a major drinking holiday.''

Good luck to the coalition. Adults have plenty of holidays to call their own. Halloween holds unique magic for children.

After all, the biggest danger in trick-or-treating is not a poisoned apple or tainted candy, but rather a reckless driver on the one night of the year when adults can help preserve the magic of childhood by making sure that streets are safe for costumed kids.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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