An old friend who lives in Scotland tells me that her neighbors have berated her for letting her children go trick-or-treating. They say that going from door to door asking for candy is a thuggish American custom that teaches kids to expect something for nothing, and encourages both greed and gluttony.
Well . . . well . . . okay. It's hard to defend trick-or-treating, or even to explain it to people from other cultures, although it goes back much further than American Halloween. The idea of bands of children or teenagers roaming the streets in gangs, knocking on doors and demanding tribute, is scary, no matter how we try to tame it with parents and flashlights and princess costumes. Winter's coming; some of us have, and some have not. Adults are powerful and children are vulnerable. Some evils are visible, and some are not. Trick-or-treating goes back to an ancient genetic instinct that says we need to acknowledge those imbalances and pretend to address them, lest the powerless do something about it themselves.
In that context, giving out something decent at Halloween feels like a societal obligation. Candy is the ticket, people. Chocolate is the gold standard, but little bags of jelly beans and candy corn or fun-sized packets of Twizzlers and Starbursts are also acceptable. These five offerings are just asking to get your trees toilet-papered.
What's the lamest thing you ever got in your Halloween sack?
1. Bit-o-Honeys or Mary Janes. Unless it's chocolate, candy should not be brown, and taffy should not have grit in it. My mother, who was allergic to chocolate, actually liked Bit-o-Honeys and Mary Janes, so she was always glad to see these in our Halloween bags, and we were happy to let her have them.
2. Dum-Dum Lollipops. My pediatrician's name was — I'm not kidding — Dr. Payne. He gave away Dum-Dum lollipops, which came in flavors you don't find in nature. These are permanently associated in my mind with Saturday-morning allergy shots.
3. Nickels. Really? Even when I was a kid, you couldn't buy more than a piece of Bazooka gum with a nickel. If you can't make more of an effort than nickels, turn your lights off and pretend you're not home on Halloween.
4. Raisins. Some neighborhood mother on a health kick would always try to fight the wave of artificial sugar with these little boxes of the natural kind. Those tiny Sun-Maid boxes would get smushed under heavier candy in our bags, and by the time we got home, they'd be sticky cardboard wedges. I like raisins, but they're not Halloween candy, and the kids whose mothers gave out raisins heard about it for the rest of the year.
5. Toothbrushes. We had a dentist on our block who gave away free toothbrushes instead of candy. I've also seen tiny sample boxes of dental floss, which is asking for trouble; seriously, if you give a 13-year-old boy a box of twine, what do you expect him to do with that? Mom was always glad for us to get the free toothbrushes — keeping six kids in toothbrushes ran into money — but it felt sanctimonious to me, even as a child.