Halloween: Our unofficial national holiday

I had to excuse myself to get around the clerk stocking new merchandise on the shelves. It was Halloween merchandise. Halloween is still two months away. Aren’t the stores afraid that this will get in the way of their Christmas merchandise, which will start showing up in another week?

But maybe this is not thisˇHalloween’s swag, but nextˇHalloween’s. Maybe retailers are so far ahead of the holidays that they have accidentally lapped themselves. Soon we will see signs that say “Halloween 2011” next to “Halloween 2012” so we will know exactly what occasion we are wasting our money on.

Halloween has morphed so far from what it was when I was begging door to door that it’s, well, scary. Our gang of 6- and 8-year-olds would scout the neighborhood and then meet every 15 minutes or so to trade vital information on who was giving out whole candy bars and who was trying to scam us with a few pieces of candy corn. It was like planning a military operation – to the victor went the spoils.

Our costumes were last-minute creations – a cowboy hat and a cap gun, eyeliner cat whiskers and a lipstick red nose. But we knew we were cute because all the adults told us we were cute. We knew how to work that; there’s no one more manipulative than a 6-year-old. Act shy and hold out the bag.

Then, out of sight of the front door of a candy-bar giver, we’d trade costumes or parts of costumes and go back for more. Does this demented old woman (she must be 30 if she’s a day) not know that the kid with the cat whiskers is now wearing a cowboy hat? That this ghost is almost a foot shorter than the last one, that the sheet is dragging along the ground, that the kid underneath can’t see out of the eyeholes because they are down by his neck?

Today you would no more send a kid out trick-or-treating with an old sheet over his head and a pillowcase for a bag than you would send him to school without a 40-pound backpack and an iPad. No, this Halloween a child must have a pumpkin-shaped basket for the Belgian chocolate that he or she will be collecting. The Little Mermaid/Captain Jack Sparrow costume must be correct down to the last sequin, the last gold tooth.

If you are not offering children several dollars worth of macadamia nuts or theater-concession-size candy (a pound box of Dots per child should do), you’d best turn out all your house lights, hide in your safe room and pretend you’re not home. Don’t even attempt to peek out; you can assess the damage the next day.

Once the children’s portion of the year’s biggest holiday is over, it’s time for the adults to come out and play. Why has Halloween become so big with adults? Because, one, you don’t have to travel. No one expects you to fly to Fort Lauderdale and spend a weekend watching the Weather Channel with your parents just because it’s not quite a national holiday.

Two, you don’t have to buy anyone a present on Halloween unless you’re going to a costume party, and you’d bring something to the host of any party. But this time you can bring the candy corn you couldn’t pawn off on the neighborhood kids.

Three, Halloween is a cheap holiday. Nightclubs that charge hundreds of dollars on New Year’s Eve are usually pretty reasonable on Halloween, and they don’t expect you to order the Dom Perignon, either. Even the most rapacious nightclub owners like a good party. If you show up at the door dressed in Lady Gaga’s meat dress this Halloween, there’s a good chance you’re getting in for free. Especially if you’re a man. Oh, sure, people will talk, but trust me, they already are.

Jim Mullen’s latest book “Now in Paperback!” is now in paperback. You can reach him at jimmullenbooks.com.

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