House to House

Readers Corner

House to House

A column appeared in the Iceland Review online magazine on the 31st of October:

The author traced the hidden roots of the Halloween trick-or-treating custom back to old Nordic times, and so embraces this seemingly new-to-Iceland holiday. She observed that this is an about-turn from her position expressed in the Iceland Review a year ago, when she bemoaned that Icelanders were taking to this foreign holiday. She argued then that Iceland had its own rich customs that should be promoted instead. Indeed, they already had a special day, Ash Wednesday, uniquely celebrated in Iceland with costumed children let out from school to go from storefront to storefront singing for treats.

While visiting recently, my brother said he thought trick-or-treating was important because it allowed children to visit every house in their neighborhood. His son's fiance had revealed that she had never trick-or-treated, nor had she celebrated with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny because her mother did not support them for religious reasons. Was she going to hand out treats on this coming Halloween, I asked my future niece-in-law. Yes, she replied, and she was looking forward to the experience.

My brother's notion that trick-or-treating offered a cheerful visit to each house was new to me. I think he is right.

My husband grew up in a rural area where the houses were few and far apart. Every Halloween the neighbors asked each other how many children to expect that year and so had just the right number of packets to distribute. The children got more candy, and the parents were not tempted by leftover sweets.

I grew up in the suburbs and ran from house to house in my immediate neighborhood to accumulate as much loot as possible. I then hurried to more upscale neighborhoods I knew from past experience gave more generous treats.

But traditional trick-or-treating in the United States is possibly dying or at least significantly morphing. Some Christian sects have decided Halloween is of the devil and have pushed it out of schools. Others promote “trunk or treating” as a replacement. Children are brought to a church's parking lot and go from the tailgate of one vehicle to the next picking up candy. Some churches have turned this activity into a proselytizing opportunity by adding literature, song, and games. A large grocery chain holds a Halloween affair with free treats throughout the store—nice for kids, easy for parents, and also good for the store's image. My grandchildren recently participated in a Zoo Boo. We went to the local zoo in costume and received candy or small toys at various stations throughout the zoo. There was an event charge on top of the standard admission fee. The zoo is a non-profit organization, so I did not begrudge their additional $8.50 per child. However, while the overhead was invisible to my grandchildren, I internally noted that Halloween had been subtly changed to a fundraiser or at least a break-even activity, rather than an act of charity.

Thanks to my brother's observation, I now see that in most of the newer variations on Halloween the essential modification is that the local neighborhood is replaced by an institution. What is lost is the local community; and the safety, protection, and goodwill inherent in a neighborly response to things that go bump in the night.

And so back to Iceland where children have begun to go house to house asking for treats. Sometimes customs, as well as people, must emigrate to be refreshed or to stay alive. Those customs which go around may eventually come around, as is perhaps the case with trick-or-treating in Iceland. I think that the customs themselves, and the world, are richer for their journey.

Jeanne Stone
Rochester, New York, United States

Jeanne Stone