The choices we make through food are an expression of our identities, values and cultures. Food choices can also be situational as they vary greatly depending on the time of day, year, and where and who with are with. Notable examples of this are during holidays, when food becomes a fundamental element in experiencing celebrations (Mintz 1985, p. 115), so much so that many people permit themselves to consume things they wouldn’t on a regular basis. For children and adults alike, the consumption of sweets is closely associated with Halloween. However, one can wonder if treats and candy are really the defining element of how people experience the holiday?
Susan Honeyman claims that the sugar industry, motivated by capitalistic interests, purposely created a market for candy on October 31 to initiate children to consumerism. She argues that these industries denatured the original meaning of Halloween, which was previously a day where children were free to assert their youthfulness through pranks. However, by taking a look a closer look at the practices, beliefs and behaviours of a family of Peruvian origins on the day of Halloween, we notice that the holiday can also be used to forge ties with larger Canadian culture as well as a way for them to assert their Hispanic origins. This begs the question of whether or not blatant candy consumerism is truly the major element of the Halloween experience.
In her essay entitled Trick or Treat ?: Halloween Lore, Passive Consumerism, and the Candy Industry, Susan Honeyman explores various topics including self-determination, consumer choice, exploitative capitalism, protectionist values and the candy industry as they relate to Halloween. More particularly, she describes how the holiday has been molded and used by capitalism in order to socialize “children into future consumers” (p.82).
The origins of Halloween are very different of what it is today: October 31st used to be the only day when children could engage in pranks and break rules, all of which was tolerated by adults. Honneyman gives the example of a book describing what October was like in 1903: children burnt properties, set out to punish cranky neighbours and hide outdoor furniture all in good fun (p. 86). In response to this, adults started offering treats to potentially rebellious children in order to pacify them, hence the meaning behind saying “trick or treat”.
Nevertheless, industries made a conscious effort to commercialize ritualistic festivities and transform them into “holidays”. Honeyman laments this transition since she believes it denies children of their sense of agency and turns them instead into passive consumers. The imagery of a child arriving at a doorstep begging for treats, forsaking the threat of the “trick”, is compelling evidence of this as they resemble nothing more than an idle consumer.
The notion that children should be “protected” and “controlled” also results in denaturing the prankster origins of Halloween. Myths about razor blades in apples, unwrapped candies and treats laced in drugs appeared sometime around the 1960s despite the fact that no children have ever been reported to have died from candy given to them by a stranger. Honeyman hints that the reason behind the perpetuation of these urban legends may be to promote confidence in commercially produced goods instead of home-made treats.
By making it all about passive consumerism and the sugar industry, Honeyman fails to recognize if perhaps there are redeeming qualities left in Halloween festivities, notably, that through agency, holidays can be used as an excuse to create bonds between individuals, families and even communities. This was precisely the topic I wanted to explore during my fieldwork. To do so, I decided to conduct an interview two days after Halloween of a married couple who immigrated to Canada from Peru in 2008 with their son (“Y.”) who was 7 years old at the time. Last year, the mother (“R.”) gave birth to their second child, a little girl who was 8 months old at the time of the interview. I thought it would be interesting to get their thoughts on Halloween and how it is enacted in their household.
Firstly, the family asserted that the function of participating in Halloween celebrations is that it allowed them to better integrate themselves into Canadian society. Their first Halloween in Canada created a certain angst since they did not necessarily understand the celebration and they were in a more economically difficult position where spending upwards of $40.00 on a costume for their son did not seem viable. However, they still made an effort to take part in Halloween in other ways. On their first Halloween, they borrowed a costume that one of their nephew’s outgrew, and R. decided to try her hand at baking with pumpkin, a vegetable not found in Peru. The second year, the father (“J.”) spent the entire month of October making an elaborate costume with his son who went on to win “best costume” at his school. What’s more is that they stressed that their son creates ties with other children in their neighbourhood and that it is fun for the parents to participate in the celebration as well. In fact, they mentioned that they embrace Halloween more and more each passing year.
Candy in this family’s household is only allowed during “occasions” or “exceptional circumstances”, such as when they visit the movie theatre or friends. October 31 is probably the only day of the year when Y. has absolute control over the food he eats, as he can decide between sweets or “regular foods”. In contrast to his childhood in Peru, R. stated that the only time Y. was exposed to so much candy in South America was during other children’s birthday parties. Fischler claims that: “it can be said that the absorption of a food incorporates the eater into a culinary system and therefore into the group which practices it” (Fischler 1988, p. 281-282.) as Mintz argues that people signal “meanings” through the foods they consume (Mintz 1985, p.113). In this case, the meaning behind letting Y. eat candy during Halloween is that he fully experiences the holiday which, in turn, lets him become part of larger North American culture.
Nevertheless, R. did her best to assert control over just how much candy her son could consume. Even though her son exerted more “choice” in the food he ate on Halloween, this did not stop her from going into his candy bag at night to remove the lower quality treats in an effort to reduce her son’s exposure to nutritionally weak food. She may be right in doing so, since Mintz claims that society’s general liking of sweetness is mostly, if not entirely due, to “culturally conventionalized norms” and not because of some kind of genetic predispositions for liking sweets (Mintz 1985, p.111). Moreover, her actions might prove that individuals can affirm control over what their children consume, despite companies trying to lure children into getting addicted to sugar.
Halloween also allows this family to highlight their Hispanic heritage through what Minzt would call “extensification”; the power of consumers to endow products with their own meanings (Mintz 1985, p.114). In regard to these parents, Halloween was an opportunity for them to have open conversations about death and more traditional Latin American festivities enacted around the end of October with their son. This is also something they also plan on discussing with their Canadian born daughter when she is a little older. In effect, the “performance of an ethnic identity” is seen as more important to “people who had children” (Devine et al. 1999, p. 88) as they have a to play an active role in teaching their children about their traditions.
El dia de la cancion criolla and El Dia de las Muertes are traditional Latin American holidays that celebrate ancestors that celebrate their culture and ancestors have deceased, respectively. Even though the parents did not engage in El dia de los muertes back in Peru, they wanted their son to be knowledgeable about the Latin American tradition. Fischler asserts that food is used as a mark of differentiating between members of different groups (Fischler 1988, p. 281), but in this case I believe the lack of treats and candy the Peruvian celebrations serve to distinguish themselves from North American Halloween culture. Also, to relate this back to Honyeman’s article, the prankster origins of Halloween may be totally overlooked in this household, however their traditional Peruvian origins were far from lost.
To conclude, during the course of the interview, they didn’t seem to attribute much importance to the “commercialization” of Halloween and didn’t have many thoughts on the “evils” of the sugar industry overshadowing them experiencing Halloween, other than saying “it is the one day a year when our son gets to eat candy…it is not a problem”. Arguably, by adhering to the social practices of Halloween, in which consuming candy is included, this family is forming their own unique identity as Canadians of Peruvian origins; a far deviation from Halloween being solely a “market-controlled experience”.
The meanings of food which we consume during holidays can be accused of having been “manipulated” and “controlled” by those in power all in order to make profit. However, this train of thought is erroneous in that it overlooks the agency of individuals to bequeath festivities with their own meanings. As we make over 200 food choices in a day, I also believe we have a choice in how we participate in holidays, whether it is as a consumer, a family member or as an individual within our communities. Thus, although treats and candy are part of Halloween, they are not the defining element of how individuals and families experience the holiday. My interview proves that Halloween for this family did not solely revolve around sugar, nor did it suddenly turn them into “passive consumers”; on the contrary, it gave an excuse to discuss their traditions, spend time with each other and even made them feel like they could better integrate into Canadian culture.