I should start by disclosing that Halloween is my favorite holiday on earth. I love the blatantly transactional nature of it, the fact that it jettisons religious tradition in favor of uncut sugar lust.
But to me, Halloween has always represented something even more profound: the chance to upend the prevailing moral order.
After all, kids are duly instructed in school, at home, and on television to never take candy from strangers. Yet, on this one blessed night, kids are basically exhorted to venture out, garishly dressed, to accept sweets from any rando who happens to open the door.
Back when I was a kid, in the latchkey ’70s, there was a communal understanding that certain acts of low-level vandalism and bullying were going to transpire on Halloween. Eggs were going to be chucked. Pumpkins were going to be smashed. Doorbells were going to be rung then ditched. While I’m technically not advocating for any of these activities, I do remember the sheer thrill of Halloween as being drenched with this sense of anarchic peril.
You kind of never knew what was going to happen, what you might see (some neighborhood mom in her slip!), or who you might encounter (a roving band of marauding teens intent on snatching your hard-won treasure). Would you be the kid who dared to bite into the caramel apple booby-trapped by some maniac with a razor blade, and if so, what would it feel like to have your tongue sheared in half?
OK, that looks horrifying on paper. But Halloween used to represent the closest a kid could get to a world free from parental oversight.
Which is precisely why I find today’s kid-safe version so lame.
Back in my day — a phrase I am mortified to be uttering — the idea that a parent would chaperone Halloween was unthinkable.
But in my neighborhood now, it’s considered de rigueur for parents to trick or treat with their kids — sometimes whole families dress up together. The adults wind up chatting with one another. The themed costumes are praised. Photos are taken. It becomes a coffee klatch.
Some families festoon their homes with elaborate decorations and camp out in their front yards, as if the point of Halloween is for the parents to gather compliments like so many UNICEF pennies.
As any lawyer would tell you, this kind of fraternizing violates both the spirit and intent of Halloween, which is for children to gather as much candy as possible in the limited window allotted. You don’t hang on Halloween. You hustle.
Thanks to shrewd planning and an obsessive awareness of my childhood neighborhood, I used to routinely rack up 10 pounds of candy every year. I would then haul the booty back home, where I dumped it on the rug and engaged in an interminable trading session with my brothers. A full-size Snickers bar for two Laffy Taffys and a fistful of candy corn? Nice try.
These sessions were made all the more intriguing by the sheer diversity of candies doled out back then: dozens of different candy bars, hard candies, cream chews, taffies, toffees, jelly beans. National brands, regional brands — like my beloved Big Hunk bar — even homemade concoctions, like the candied apples that Gary Lahr’s mom saw fit to give out (and, hey, no razor blades).
Not today. Parents are so paranoid about kids being poisoned, that most stick with the same mass-market bars. When my kids return home, 90 percent of their take consists of the staid six: Snickers, Reese’s, Milky Way, Kit Kat, Twix, and M&M’s. And they’re invariably “fun size,” a term I put in quotation marks because I do not consider receiving a fraction of a candy bar to be fun.
But honestly, none of that would be so bad except for the most galling aspect of today’s Halloween protocol: the fact that most parents don’t allow their children to keep their haul. No, there’s an elaborate system of candy buybacks — sometimes dentists get involved — in which kids are basically forced to trade their sweets for cash or toys or, I don’t know, karma.
If my parents had suggested such a scheme to me and my brothers, we would have sought legal remedy, arguing (quite correctly) that the candy in question was work product, and, as such, not subject to illegal seizure.
Alas, now comes the ugly part, the part where I confess to having gone over to the dark side.
Because as the father of three young children — two of them registered candy addicts — I must reluctantly admit to having participated in these desecrations. I have chaperoned my children, have limited their trick-or-treating time, and, most shamefully, have requisitioned their Halloween loot — setting aside a few Kit Kat Darks for myself, obviously.
I can offer no excuses for these betrayals, aside from the fact that I had cavities in every single one of my back teeth by the time I was 12.
I’m not proud. I can only plead that nobody reading this will tell my children how I really feel.Steve Almond is the author of The New York Times bestseller “Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.