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Moving Forward, Looking Back / Scaring up sweets south of the border

Published 6:27 am, Wednesday, November 20, 2013
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We typically spend Halloween night at our son's house in the Stratfield section of town. Our own house has been off the Halloween grid since the Carter administration, thanks to our long, dark, uphill driveway. This Oct. 31, we were far away in Mexico, but we were surprised to learn that we wouldn't miss Halloween.

Halloween has not only snuck across the border into Mexico; it's celebrated in many countries. Halloween isn't even an American invention. Who knew? Halloween, and its pagan precursors, has been with humankind for millennia, but we probably have ninth-century Pope Gregory III to thank for blazing the trail to modern Halloween. Employing a classic evangelical tactic to win over the local heathens, he moved All Hallows Day to November 1, enabling a merger with Samhain, an ancient Celtic harvest festivity that just happened to fall on the same day. No wonder Halloween never came up in Hebrew school.

A three-day Catholic observance, Hallowmas, emerged, with All Hallows Eve leading off on Oct. 31 and All Souls Day wrapping it up on Nov. 2. All Hallows Eve eventually became known forevermore as Halloween. Hallowmas came to North America with European colonists in the form of harvest feasts, but such satanic celebrations (or any celebration, for that matter) were not tolerated in Puritan New England. Fairfield has long since shaken off any Puritan objections, and like the rest of the country, has swallowed Halloween whole.

Fairfield is in full Halloween mode weeks before its official arrival. Front yards and stores are festooned with Halloween displays, and it's so eagerly awaited that several local schools and churches jump the gun with pre-Halloween events. Supermarkets stock bags of candy that can be moved only with a forklift. Party stores have geared up for Halloween with ready-to-wear costumes and accessories, and we now have the phenomenon of "Halloween superstores" that specialize exclusively in Halloween paraphernalia.

On the big night, our son's compact Stratfield neighborhood is Fairfield's go-to Halloween destination. It's not about the candy -- people come here from all over town, and even other towns, to be part of a huge block party with superbly creepy front yards and ingenious backyard scream-fests with Hollywood-level special effects. By nightfall, the streets fill up with wave after wave of assorted superheroes, princesses, cowboys, witches (good and wicked), space aliens, vampires, zombies, ghosts, and other bloody supernatural beings. By the time the last exhausted ghoul drags his bag of candy out of the darkness for that final handout, we will have distributed over a thousand individually-wrapped morsels of sugar and saturated fat.

Meanwhile, in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, the Halloween buildup is decidedly low-key, if not undetectable. Residential and commercial decorations are modest and rare, and there are no Halloween specialty stores. You can find Mexican candy and some costumes in local markets, but the brand-new Sam's Club (yes, Sam's Club, in Mexico) ensures an ample supply of American candy.

Mexican parents take their kids around the neighborhoods just as they do here. It's shirtsleeve weather. There's a great variety of costumes, but with a special emphasis on face-painting. The Mexican version of "trick or treat" is "triqui triqui Halloween." Of course, the kids never turn down candy, but they will happily accept pencils and other school supplies. Try dropping a pencil into a Halloween bag around here.

The lower intensity of Mexican Halloween isn't just about family resources. Mexicans dote on their children, and see the fun in Halloween, but are becoming conflicted about it because it competes with an important Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The indigenous peoples of Mexico, going back to the Aztecs, had major rituals honoring their dead. When Spain conquered Mexico and established Catholic missions, the traditions of All Hallows day came along with them, and time blended the customs together. Día de los Muertos corresponds to the three-day Hallowmas. Traditions vary, but generally, on All Souls Day, families visit cemeteries to decorate the graves of family members and leave offerings. The mood is festive, and often includes foods made especially for the occasion. Witty and beautiful depictions of skulls and skeletons, Day of the Dead hallmarks, come in all artistic forms, most notably elaborate ceramic works.

That Halloween and Day of the Dead overlap on the calendar make their superficial resemblance confusing, and Mexicans are becoming protective of their traditions. A local shopkeeper told me that in her home town of Guadalajara, further south in the state of Jalisco, Halloween is nonexistent. There is, in fact, a Day of the Dead counterattack underway. Some American cities, particularly those with Mexican-American communities, are starting to hold Day of the Dead celebrations. Each year, thousands of people attend Tucson, Arizona's All Souls Procession.

Seems to me that the Mexicans have a point, and maybe the Puritans did, too. Halloween's religious and agricultural roots have all but disappeared. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the National Retail Federation sheds some light on the current place of Halloween in American culture. In 2013, we will spend almost $7 billion on Halloween costumes, candy, parties, and the like. $330 million of this total will be spent on pet costumes. I could find no sales figures on those sexy costumes favored by certain adult trick-or-treaters, but some things are best left to the imagination.

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at: rblumen2@gmail.com.