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Pious Petunia Offers Treats, No Tricks

By October 30, 2015 No Comments

Advice columnist Pious Petunia returns as a guest blogger to face her biggest challenge yet. What wisdom can Miss P offer for the horror that is Halloween?

Dear Pious Petunia: My children nag me every year to buy the expensive bags of chocolate bars to hand out as Halloween treats. Can I buy the cheap candy instead?

Miss P: Certainly. This is a fine opportunity to explain to the next generation the intricacies of the family budget. Set the little ones down in a circle and get out your laptop. Show them spreadsheets and pie charts, complete with budget projections based on several scenarios, with the one labeled “option 2: chocolate Halloween candy” plunging the family finances into a roiling sea of red ink (use a GIF), while the one labeled “option 1: Sweet-Tarts” leads to a grassy meadow of security. In other words, give them a taste of the kind of nightmarish adult terrors you face every day trying to keep your family afloat.

Keep in mind, however, that whatever candy you purchase, you will end up with the leftovers. Thus, stay away from the completely inedible cheap candies composed of hardened glue. Miss P also suggests purchasing one small chocolate bar and stashing it away for yourself as a reward for surviving yet another year of putting up with this nonsense. The children need never know.

Dear Pious Petunia: Can I refuse to give candy to teenagers who show up at my door to trick-or-treat with a “costume” that is indistinguishable from normal clothing? (Last year, when I asked one kid what he was, he answered “A skater punk.” I refrained from replying, “No, I meant for Halloween.”)

Miss P: Ah, the teenagers. Miss P has also experienced this phenomenon. All is well for the first hour of trick-or-treating, right after supper, when the young parents bring round their adorable little bumble bees and panda bears clutching plastic-pumpkin candy buckets. Then come the grade-schoolers, who have reached the gross-out stage and appear at your door with rubber axes “impaling” their heads and t-shirts covered with red marker in a rough attempt to suggest spattered blood. Or, for those youngsters who enjoy adult approval, perhaps a lab coat and stethoscope will do, or whatever team uniform was crumpled on their bedroom floor after yesterday’s practice.

But as the evening darkens, out come the real ghouls: the young teenagers, probably not even from your neighborhood (they drove in), who have no problem with the cynical truth that Halloween is an extortion racket and they are in the position of power. They carry the largest pillow case they could find and they do not bother with a costume. Hand me free candy, they say with their defiant slouch: or else.

What to do? Well, a snappy remark, such as you suggest, is more than deserved in this instance. You have other options as well:

TurnipJackolantern1. Stand there with your bowl of candy poised casually on your hip while you favor the youths with a lengthy lecture on the Celtic origins of Halloween. Did you know, for example, that the Irish and Scottish used to carve out turnips and create little lanterns out of them? When the teens look at you blankly, ask impatiently what they teach kids at school these days, and launch into chapter two: some fascinating facts about the danse macabre. With any luck, the teens will realize that your neighbors are easier pickings, and they will flee your doorstep.

2. If these young people feel they are too grown-up for childish costumes, well then, they should receive adult-oriented treats. I suggest filling their pillowcases with your third-class mail.

Dear Pious Petunia: Is Halloween a dangerous instance of syncretism? Should Christians stay out of it altogether?

Miss P: And so we arrive at the central issue. The answer to your first question is yes. Of course Halloween is a dangerous instance of syncretism. In fact, Halloween is an unholy pastiche of pagan, Christianized, and then re-paganized ritual business. What began in various ancient cultures as festivals of the dead or methods for warding off malignant spirits became, in Europe anyway, All Hallow’s Eve, which has now, in modern America, become yet another festival in the pagan cult of consumerism, taking its place on the calendar and in the megastore aisle between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Miss P has observed well-meaning churches attempting to deal with this confusion in various ways.

Trunk or Treat night
Church people line the church parking lot with their cars and throw open the trunks, each cleverly decorated with some innocuous and church-friendly theme (fairy tales, CandyLand, Jonah and the Whale). Costumed children scurry safely in a safe space, receiving safe candy from safe people. This is a nice solution not only for safety-minded parents but for rural areas where going from house to house requires GPS systems and hiking boots. Drawback: good luck convincing middle-school-age children that this will be fun.

Harvest festival celebrations
One can hardly object to celebrating the harvest, however removed non-farming communities may be from agricultural cycles. Pumpkins, cornstalks, apples, candy (recently harvested from the candy aisle?), and wholesome games. Drawback: this option sends the message: “We refuse to deal with scary stuff [hands over ears] la la la la la la la la la.”

Holy costumes
Forget the zombies, vampires, and clowns (you decide which item in that list is most terrifying). Definitely forget—help us—the sexy harem girl, sexy maid, sexy lumberjack, or sexy Donald Trump. Instead, get out the bathrobes and dress up as Bible characters like Moses, John the Baptist, or Paul. If you enjoy the gross-out aspect of Halloween, you can always costume yourself as a saint who met a gruesome end: Stephen, Sebastian, various decapitated virgin martyrs. Drawback: the temptation to dress as “sexy Mary Magdalene.”

Reformation Day
Miss P happens to share a healthy Reformation pride. Good for Martin Luther, nailing the 95 Theses to the church door on busy All Hallow’s Eve. We can celebrate his sixteenth-century version of social media savvy. However, in this day of ecumenical initiatives—not to mention a wise and gentle Pope admired around the world—perhaps cheering about church schism comes off as a tad tone-deaf. Suggestion: save Reformation commemoration for the Sunday after Halloween and plan a thoughtful observance which honors reform, laments division, and prays for unity.

Hell house
The very worst evangelism idea ever. We speak of it no further.

Dear Pious Petunia: What about the theory that we need a holiday like Halloween in order to “tame” the scary things in life? That we need a kind of release valve for our subconscious nightmares?

Miss P: There is probably some truth to this. Festivals in which the souls of the dead return, or in which villagers run about engaging in various antics to ward off evil spirits, are common enough across cultures to suggest that humans need some ritual mechanisms with which to face the darker aspects of existence, real or imagined. The Mexican Día de Muertos is a modern example of ritualizing with frankness and even artful humor the fact that death takes our loved ones. Perhaps the gross-out, the fake blood, the zombies, the front-yard fake gravestones, and the abjectly corny television specials are ways of grabbing our nightmares—death, violence, beastly transformations—and shrinking them down to manageable size.

What puzzles Miss P, however, is how much of American Halloween practice has nothing to do with healthy psychological trash-removal.

Does the candy frenzy help little ones with their fears? Or does it teach them early lessons in consumer greed? And where are the conservative objections to trick-or-treating? After all, doesn’t this practice socialize young children to expect something for nothing, to become “takers” instead of “makers”–except, one supposes, for the rare enterprising youngster who makes his own costume?

And what about all the “sexy” costumes for adults? Miss P observes that the sexy-n-sloshed approach to Halloween does nothing to release deep psychic energies. On the contrary, it seems to indulge our most pathetic desires to the point of absurdity. Sexy Barney the Dinosaur? Must we?

If we’re going to have a holiday that helps us face our darkest fears, then let’s spend the day coming to terms with the things we ought to be most urgently afraid of: climate change, terrorism, gun violence, and obesity. And of course, sexy Donald Trump.

Dear Pious Petunia: Can I choose a silly costume for Halloween?

Miss P: This is perhaps the best way to deal with Halloween if you cannot stomach the horror or the candy. “Cut through the crazy with a sharp wit” is Miss P’s favored approach to many of life’s dilemmas. So for those who enjoy craft projects and dressing up, by all means, outfit yourself as a chocolate milkshake, “Tax and Spend” (for couples), or Bananakin Skywalker. A little silliness can be good for the soul.

Dear Pious Petunia: Can I opt out of Halloween altogether?

Miss P: Yes. Yes, you may. You may turn off all the lights and hide in your basement, if you have one. Bring a flashlight, snacks, a good book (maybe about saints), and a battery-operated radio. Before you settle in, you may wish to remove, carefully, all spiders.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

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