NOTHING IS LIKE IT USED TO BE
Every description of any ancient or medieval civilization always features the same sort of footnote or marginal aside: the vague mention of a festival or holiday that sounds totally insane and like a lot of fun. The Romans had so many holidays it’s a true wonder that they had any time at all for the enslavement of the known world, and the Renaissance probably would have happened around 700AD if medieval Europe hadn’t been so consumed with feasting and paying homage to saints that everyone forgot to learn how to read. Alas. Various traditions feature huge bonfires, guys running around whipping people, horse races where the losing horse gets chopped up and burned. Man is a very creative species! Most often very little is known of these festivals, so they sound even more exciting to us than they probably were – oh Neptune’s beard, I forgot the mead for Fornicalia dinner, and the stores are closed. What a pain.
I fall victim to that insidious weakness of every lover of history: believing that the past was more… something. More everything. More interesting, more exciting, more meaningful, more heroic, you name it. Squinting through the keyhole into other eras we see only the most exciting bits, a two minute highlight reel of a film with a 300 year running time. Sure it’s going to seem action packed and amazing, but that’s not even close to any sense of the boring, futile reality of the thing. The antidote to this disease is to at least try to take an abstracted view of the present whose details you know like a well worn glove. What will the people of 500 years from now think they know about us? We’re leaving them more records in a year’s worth of tweeting than all of recorded history up to now, but I think this will deceive future historians into believing that they know us far more than they in fact do. No one will ever know. But let’s imagine what the people of the future might make of our festivals and traditions. They sound boring to us because we’ve known them all our lives, but considered anew they are totally, gloriously nuts.
Christmas: to celebrate the birth of a man-god (in whom a large portion of the population does not sincerely believe) we give each other presents. Okay. But we also make an elaborate ruse of tricking children into believing that a magical elf-man-god, who runs a proto-industrial sweatshop in a place totally inhospitable to human existence, travels the earth and delivers presents to people all around the world in a single day. Men dress up as this being in large indoor marketplaces where they are paid to take photographs with children, many of whom are terrified by the entirety of the experience. This elf-man-god has absolutely no relation whatsoever to the man-god for whom the festival is celebrated, and weirdly enough the Christian religion vehemently denies the existence of any kind of ancillary god-like figures at all, so strictly speaking the main mascot of the Christmas festival is a symbol of blatant heresy to the religion that gives us the festival in the first place. No one cares. Oh and there is also a minor pantheon of mythical figures who pop up around this time: a living snowman who dies mysteriously, an evil troll who terrorizes a village and learns a lesson, and a reindeer whose unique genetic mutation saves Christmas over and over. People decorate their homes and business with likenesses of these figures, but few can explain why, or attribute any meaning at all to the custom except that it’s fun. Doesn’t that sound amazing?? Well it happens every year!
Easter: to commemorate the betrayal and murder of a man-god, and his eventual rebirth (which provides all mankind with the possibility of salvation from otherwise inevitable and eternal punishment for a crime committed by the very first humans) we attend certain religious ceremonies. Sounds reasonable. But we also go to great lengths to deceive children into believing that a giant, magical rabbit goes around hiding chocolates shaped like either rabbits or chicken eggs, to be hunted for exclusively by children. The children are meant to conduct this hunt using special wicker baskets (usually yellow or purple). We also decorate chicken eggs, which we do not eat, with various dyes and paints, usually in pastel colours. Here again the existence of the magical rabbit directly contradicts the fundamental monotheistic beliefs of the religion giving rise to the festival. The average educated person is vaguely aware of this fact, and knows that the rabbit and egg symbols are nods to some foggy pagan medieval past, but cannot articulate when this past might have been, why it persists, nor anything at all of what these pagan beliefs might have been, save that they are reminiscent of drug-fueled youth culture movement from the mid 1960s. Easter is starting to sound pretty cool, right?
Hallowe’en: children dress up in costumes of any sort whatsoever and proceed from door to door around their neighbourhoods soliciting candy. Adults signal their willingness to participate in the ritual by hollowing a specially-grown squash and carving a face into it (which will be illuminated by candlelight). Many young adults participate by attending parties where they dress in hyper-sexualized versions of the costumes they wore as children, and drink to excess. In addition some teen aged males become aware of the existence of Devil’s Night, the night before hallowe’en. This night is rumoured to be the traditional night of mayhem, destruction, and petty crime, though almost no such activities take place. Nonetheless, the rumour persists. The overarching theme of hallowe’en is death and evil, and participants celebrate Romanian folklore, Egyptian curses, 19th century horror fiction, Haitian religion, and Satanism, all without any appreciation of why they are doing so. Scaring children is considered perfectly acceptable, and elaborate displays of pretend murder victims, rotting corpses, and decrepit cemeteries are de rigeur. What the heck?
Viewed from this abstracted perspective we can see that our own traditions might be a lot more interesting than we give them credit for, and we can see how descriptions like this, which are pretty much completely accurate, abstract out some essential thing, whereby we want to say “yeah, that’s true, but it’s not like that”. There are layers of irony, of detachment, of what-the-hell-why-not? that can’t survive a cursory description. Perhaps remember that the next time you’re reading about some ancient tradition: you’re assuming that the people of the day took the whole thing deadly seriously, but a sense of fun and humour is by no means a modern invention.
I purposely omitted something from my description of Hallowe’en. Children who go begging for candy ritually recite the phrase “trick or treat” on the doorstep of each candy-dispensing household. By tradition this, and some semblance of a costume, are necessary and sufficient to earn a sweet reward. This is so engrained that the whole custom is called “trick or treating”. I would argue that when children say “trick or treat” they mean it as a declaration. It says “I am here, and I have performed the ritual. Now you do your part”. The words themselves lose any real meaning, especially after saying them thirty, forty, fifty times in one hallowe’en outing. However, trick or treat is not a declaration. It is a question. It asks: will I receive a treat, or some sort of trick? You see, the logic and language of the hallowe’en ritual has, built right into it, the possibility of screwing with kids. Most adults ignore this, and simply perform their appointed role. What are you supposed to be? Oh a princess! Well here you go. Mini bag of chips dispensed, transaction over. But I am not most adults, and if I have an opportunity to trick people I will take it, every time.
Thus I would like to tell you about the last two instances of hallowe’en candy giveaways at our house. I think you will be amused at the very least, and maybe gain some insight into the wagering tendencies of eight year olds.
Last year an idea hit me from out of the blue, which is were ideas generally come from, when it comes down to it. I rushed around the day before and secured a supply of paper lunch bags, located my duct tape, went to the dollar store to get some suitable candy, and rummaged around my kitchen counter for some vital supplies. Fortunately for me I always buy more stuff than I will actually cook. I busied myself and had some assistance with all of the preparations.
Trick or Treat?! Trick. When the kids arrived that evening they were presented with a choice. First, they could have a normal portion of candy, fine. Or! They could choose from a large array of surprise bags. I had a collection of sealed paper bags spread out on a cookie sheet for them to exam (no touching). What I told them was this: “half of the surprise bags have something awesome, and half have something crappy. You get what you get, no take backs and no second chances”. It was extremely amusing to watch their greedy, calculating faces, but I must report that the calculating phases last all of two milliseconds, on average. “Surprise bag!!” was the almost unanimous response. Kids love a chance to win big! If only they had money you could use this to great advantage. A couple of them stopped to think things through. What’s in the bags? I won’t tell you. Hmm. Anytime a kid was on the fence their nearby parents would yell out “do it! take the surprise bag!” and so they did.
What was in the bags? Half of them contained a full sized chocolate bar, the holy grail of hallowe’en scores. And half of them contained either a potato or an onion. My favourite moment was a group of four kids, out together, all of whom opted for surprise bags. They got their bags and immediately tore into them – as an aside, I imagined the kids taking the bags home and opening them then, which in retrospect makes absolutely no sense – on the front porch, one after the other revealing what they had gotten.
Kid 1: I got a full Oh Henry!
Kid 2: I got a full Kit Kat!
Kid 3: I got a full Snickers!
Kid 4 (the youngest): I got… a potato.
And everyone roared laughing at her, including myself, her friends, and her parents. It was great. She took her potato with grace, and dutifully put it into her treat bag.
Another kid got a potato and turned it to her advantage, selling it for twenty five cents to a passing adult. He was quite happy to get a cheap potato. Maybe a half dozen kids opted for normal candy, a couple of mini chocolate bars. This included my little six year old neighbour who later told me that she chose as she did because she was sure I would give her something bad. The truth was that I had earmarked a sure winning bag just for her, but her rightful distrust prevailed. I had spent the previous six months trying to convince her that she turned into an amnesiac werewolf every month (I can hear you barking!), so I can’t begrudge her her caution.
In the days afterward a few parents sidled up while I was futilely battling the endless supply of leaves blown into the hedge and said how much they enjoyed watching their kids either win or come up with nothing. It was a good time.
STEP RIGHT UP
This year the pressure was on to come up with something similarly entertaining, and a good magician doesn’t repeat a trick. I thought about doing the same thing, only with actual worms from a bait shop as the crappy prize. I still think this would have been funny, but maybe not for everyone. The element I liked about the previous year was the gambling aspect, so I wanted to push the kids a little harder, and see how risk-averse, or not, they really were. The answer: hallowe’en candy raffle! And this time I have some pictures. Here was the scene on the way to the door, to get them in the mood for winning.
And when they finally got to the door? Trick or Treat?! Trick. Come on in and let me explain. Here is what met them…
The ultimate hallowe’en raffle! Yes! Here’s how it worked. You could take a little mini chocolate bar, as usual, or you could enter the raffle. Your first ticket was free, and you could enter to win either the Lucky Charms + Giant Toblerone, or the Lucky Charms + Big Thing of Nutella, or the Mystery Prize. Then you could buy as many other tickets as you wanted, for the low cost of one piece of candy per ticket. In addition we’d rigged up the raffle tickets such that every few awarded bonus prizes: mini chocolate bars, full sized chocolate bars, or even a bag of large marshmallows.
The first few kids were very reticent, and admittedly it took me a while to explain the whole thing. A boy and his little sister came up; he took his free ticket and stopped, and the little girl (maybe five years old) bought five tickets. Her brother made fun of her for it. And? She won a couple of chocolate bars. Then the brother bought a few more, and off we went.
The kids were generally much more suspicious of this scheme than the mystery bags, but as soon as any member of a group won a few candies it would start a rush. Maybe the cutest moment for me was a big gang of kids, including a little boy maybe four or five years old. His brother bought some tickets, and then it was his turn. He looked up at me and stated imploringly “I can’t read” so I explained everything and snuck him a free mini chocolate bar. It was pretty adorable.
None of them bought more than a few tickets, until later when something funny happened… they started to come back. Obviously they’d had some time to think about it and realized that they could trade candy they didn’t like for a chance to win something better, so a few familiar faces reappeared. Only this time I didn’t have to explain the game to them, they poured into the front hall with hands full of candy, ready to trade. One girl bought 15 tickets, and one guy, bought five, then three more, then five more, as he slowly realized that he was at a candy alchemy station that would spin his suckers into full sized versions of the good stuff. At the very end of the night a gang of kids showed up with 50 pieces of candy they’d decided they didn’t want, but I’d already run out of tickets. In the end I managed to sell 186 raffle tickets, at a cost of 1 piece of candy per ticket. Here is the take:
You’ll note that there is some good stuff in here: chocolate bars, cheetos, et cetera. Not a bad haul by any means! And a novel way to drill a core sample into the neighbourhood to see what people were giving out.
Now of the three prizes the kids attempted to win there was a clear and overwhelming favourite: the mystery prize. Far and away the favourite, and its ballot box was filled to overflowing with raffle tickets. The others were popular too, but not nearly so much. The gambling spirit was alive and well, and I guess this is why we had to be cautioned not to follow strangers into murder vans as children; because we probably would have. Hey kid, want a surprise? Do I!
We did the draw at the appointed time that night, to the delight of a small costumed throng assembled on the front porch. However none of the kids who were there had the winning tickets, so I posted the results outside.
Eventually some kids came around to collect. I gave one the prize even though she was one number off, because otherwise I was totally going to eat an entire box of cereal, probably in one sitting. What was the mystery prize? Why, all of the candy the kids paid me, of course. So now you know how to get the kids in your neighbourhood to give you candy for hallowe’en. Next year is going to be even better. It may involve real worms.