Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Lessons of Trick or Treat

Halloween as we know it is relatively new. Trick or treat customs in the United States were well-established by the 1950's, and little has changed in the last 50 years. When we seek the origins of the customs, the history is murky at best. As far as we can tell, the custom of wearing costumes came about some several hundred years ago in the Celtic lands where Samhain was still celebrated collectively in the UK and parts of continental Europe (known then as Gaul). During this season, the spirits of the dead were said to return to our plane. In honor of their visit, they lit bonfires and offered sacrifices, typically of food and drink, to pay homage to the departed. 

The costumes came first. It is unclear when, but sometime before the middle ages, the villagers would dress in costumes of animal skin to drive away phantom visitors. Banquet tables were set out away from the main celebrations for any unwelcome guests. As time passed, this custom shifted, and people began dressing as ghosts, demons, and otherworldly characters in exchange for food and drink (enter in the treats) in a custom known as "mumming." Mumming is thought to be the precursor to our modern festivities. Poorer families would dress in costumes and visit the homes of those more fortunate for offerings of pastries called "soul cakes" in return for prayers for the wealthy family's departed loved one. The children began going door to door alone to ask for gifts such as food, money, or ale. Eventually, the prayers were forgotten, and the masked children would sing dance, or recite a poem in exchange for treats. By 1605, the custom shifted once more to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. The celebration known as "Guy Fawkes Day" involved communal bonfires or "bone fires" where they burned effigies of Guy Fawkes and of the bones of the Catholic Pope. By the 1800's, the children were seen carrying effigies of Guy Fawkes through the streets in search of "pennies for a Guy."

American colonists, especially the immigrants who were fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, helped popularize Halloween on the United States, since many of them were in need of the gifts of food and drink. Alas, it was in the 1920's when the pranksters first appeared, and the notion of the "trick" was added to the giving of treats. Treats were no longer exchanged for prayers but given in the hopes that the generosity would win the householder a by when the pranksters were choosing their targets. Large-scale community trick-or-treating really took hold during the Great Depression when the tricks took the shape of more physical violence and vandalism, but the trends were brought to a halt when the sugar rationing of WWII went into effect. The reemergence of trick-or-treating in the more benign form we know today came about in the 1950's when the baby boomers fellsway to national televised advertising campaigns targeting children with candy and costume parties, and the customs we celebrate today were solidified (at least for now). 

Okay, but what lessons do these practices hold for us? The easy lesson is this: honor your Ancestors, whose names live on as long as those who live remember them. That covers the Samhain and the prayer custom, but what of trick or treating?

The idea of treats in exchange for prayers and entertainment is not a far stretch from our practice of reciprocity. It is an exchange of a gift-for-a-gift among the fourth kindred--humanity. It is a time for generosity in exchange for a glimpse of the manifestation of a child's creative mind, heroes, and beloved characters. It is an exchange for the sake of simple pleasure (because let's be honest, there are very few places where the treats are good for us!). Yes, the gluttony is a risk for those who are not skilled in moderation, but for those of us guiding our young ones, it is a tremendous opportunity to practice and teach them this important virtue. 

Finally, the lesson of the trick. Sometimes, when we give, reciprocity is not there. It's not a pleasant thought, and I am sure many of us have examples in our own lives when we felt our generosity was met with a "trick" instead of a treat placed gently in our open and empty hands. But, this is an important lesson, because reciprocity is not a guarantee. Hospitality is not one-sided. Someone else's generosity cannot be bought with our own. The underlying lesson of du ut des, "I give that you may give," is not one of contractual obligation. It is far more "charitable and nuanced:" 

It is an economy of piety. The theory of do ut des is that we give the Gods something of worth, and in exchange, we receive from Them something of value, which results in us giving more worth to the Gods, which results in receiving something else of value, and so forth. Instead of being a mere business transaction, it is the establishment of a fundamental cycle of gift exchanging where one participates in a “continual engagement between an individual and a deity that could stretch over a lifetime.” ~Hellenic Faith

For me, the lesson of the trick is one that has been hard to learn for a person from a materialistic and capitalist society. So much of what our social mores teach is that "we get what we pay for." When it comes to the commerce of human relationships, this is not necessarily true. A little gift can go a long way, and a big gift can leave us with empty hands and a broken heart. 

Wow, Missy, that's a depressing take on this.....yes, and the point is that our generosity must be for the sake of our generosity--not used as a means to deserve generosity from others, though there is a component of generosity that may compel others to be generous with us. AND it's not guaranteed. 

In short, we give treats for the sake of giving treats to the children in our neighborhoods, and what we receive in return is knowing we have given them a little piece of joy. THAT is the true lesson here. We give because we want others to be happy. That's it. No pressure. No obligations. No strings attached. We give. And the lesson is to make the giving be enough to bring us joy. 

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