Well, I do have a love/hate relationship with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, but otherwise that pile of candy loot my kids gathered last night is pretty detestable. Why do I hate candy—or, more specifically, Halloween candy? Let me count the ways (and if you get bored, jump ahead to the poll at the bottom) . . .
- Candy is sugar at its worst. You should know that I’m not an anti-sugar zealot. In spite of mounting evidence that sugar is in effect a poison, I do have a certain fondness for sweets. In fact, I am somewhat addicted to dark chocolate, which exists in its own special category, distinct from that of “candy.” With its lower sugar content, anti-oxidant properties, and fewer artificial additives (at least in the kind I prefer, the Icelandic brand Sirius’s 70% cocoa bars), it seems more like “real food” and less like a conspiracy to rot our teeth and turn us into diabetics. Maybe I’m being unfair to the humble varieties of candy kids scoop up at Halloween, but most of the packages list sugar as the first ingredient instead of chocolate or anything else. Let’s just be thankful the poison comes in small doses, but the waste of paper is a problem.
- Candy just isn’t as much of a treat as it’s supposed to be. My kids agree with me on this. My older daughter just commented the other day that she doesn’t care so much about Halloween candy and prefers baked goods; she and her friend came home early with a small haul. The younger one only stayed out as long as she did because her friend was determined to get as much candy as possible, and she was in it for the social experience. We have all heard about how many decades ago, trick or treating involved gathering up baked goods from one’s neighbors. By the time I started trick or treating in the 70s, people had become paranoid about razor blades in cookies and other unpackaged items. This is unfortunate because most kids do absorb baked goods, especially homemade ones, more easily. Even if butter, eggs, and flour get a bad rap for various reasons, they help to gird our systems for the onslaught of sugar that can make all-sugar treats or cheap milk chocolate a recipe for crankiness.
- I hate negotiations about candy. In spite of my kids’ ranking of candy fairly low on the scale of treats, they still want to eat it. Having it around the house introduces conflict that would otherwise be absent. The kids know the candy is there, so they constantly ask if they can have a piece. We usually allow them to eat several pieces the first night and then a piece a day until they forget about the stash—until they suddenly remember again. This approach may sound manageable except that I don’t really want my kids eating a piece of junky candy each day. But what else are we supposed to do with it? Eventually, we end up throwing some of the candy away. Although my kids do not gather as much in the first place as many other kids, they still have far more than any kid needs.
- Halloween is too focused on the candy. I saw a lot of kids out there tonight who were not wearing anything that could pass for a costume. They seemed to be pounding the pavement with a determination that suggested candy collecting was a job rather than a fun activity. That doesn’t surprise me because part of the fun is dressing up. I realize it takes time, money, and/or creativity to come up with costumes, but going trick or treating without a costume sends the message that Halloween really is about the candy. In my walkable urban neighborhood, a few streets attract large numbers of children from all over the city. Many residents take pride in their spooky décor and hang out on porches with friends to pass out candy while imbibing their own favorite poisons. It’s just too bad that candy is the organizing principle for what is otherwise a wonderful manifestation of community.
- My favorite Halloweens have not revolved around candy. When our kids were too young to know what trick or treating is, we attended some fabulous Halloween parties hosted by the most creative family we know. The routine was to gather at their house in costume, socialize, eat, and set out for a parade in the direction of Dupont Circle. The hosts wore homemade papier-mâché masks and sometimes stilts, and there were enough real musicians to establish a beat for the rest of us to accompany with various instruments and noisemakers. The kids loved it, and the people we encountered along the way enjoyed the spectacle. After this amazing family moved to the West Coast, some of us tried to do something similar, but didn’t manage to pull it off without their creative spirit as the driving force. More recently, we also enjoyed the creativity of some hilarious drag musicals staged by residents of a neighboring street. The best one lampooned the 2008 presidential election, but their version of The Sound of Music and a show with a “British Invasion” theme (featuring the Beatles, the Royal Family, and the Spice Girls, among others) were also standouts. Too bad Hobart Street didn’t come through this year. Maybe I don’t have a right to complain if I am not doing my part to make Halloween better, but maybe I just don’t hate candy enough to direct my creativity away from writing and toward Halloween revelry.
As you can see, my attitude toward Halloween candy reveals some ambivalence about Halloween itself. After returning from trick or treating, I took a look at Facebook. There were lots of adorable photos with kids in creative costumes and some images of impressive candy hauls (including the one featured here courtesy of Kristin Battista-Frazee), but the most exciting thing I encountered was a Day of the Dead photo gallery. My friend Michael Parker Stainback has lived in Mexico City for several years and has embraced the culture wholeheartedly. He lost his mother this past year and created a beautiful Day of the Dead altar that captures her spirit perfectly. Although the Day of the Dead and Halloween share a preoccupation with the mysteries of the afterlife, the Mexican holiday’s emphasis on connecting with one’s lost loved ones is more meaningful and symbolically rich than our flirtations with the macabre. There were plenty of zombies and skeletons walking around my neighborhood last night, and some of their costumes were imaginative, but the decorative candy skulls on my friend’s altar to his mother made me think our culture needs a more positive means of engaging with the concept of death. Maybe I will suggest to my kids that we offer up their candy to our ancestors. After all, the dead don’t need to worry about sugar lows or cavities, and we can hardly blame them for getting a little cranky now and then.