At a time when, as of Tuesday, the rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases was 1,507 per day in Utah, and when beds are being readied at Sandy’s Mountain America Expo Center to handle the overflow from maxed-out hospitals, these may be the biggest questions facing Utahns right now — bigger, perhaps, than the election.
The pandemic has been a long test of patience for an impatient generation, but holidays may pose the biggest obstacle yet. They intersect common sense with layer upon layer of emotional triggers and cultural comfort zones. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are, to many, the fuzzy teddy bears of the year.
That’s understandable. Traditions are anchors that tie us to community, family and generations past.
But it’s important to remember that the Halloween traditions you grew up with and may be hoping to hand to your children or grandchildren are quite new.
If, for example, you’re looking for some sort of Halloween guidance from the last big pandemic in 1918-20, you won’t find much. That’s because there were no trick-or-treaters back then.
I contacted author Lisa Morton, whose book, “Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween” is considered by some to be a definitive work on the subject. In an email exchange, she said the holiday a century ago was mostly either costume parties for young people or pranks and vandalism under the cover of darkness.
“Upon looking at newspapers from all over the country, the celebration of Halloween that year seems to have varied considerably from place to place,” she said, “with urban areas likelier to take action to control celebrations.
“In Los Angeles, for example, authorities cancelled larger celebrations like dances, and discouraged smaller gatherings like parties. … However, many areas throughout the country recorded a traditional observance with no mention of the flu at all.”
In other words, people were about the same then as now. That’s sobering, considering they were dreadfully ineffective in stemming the tide of that deadly flu.
When it came to Halloween pranksters, in the years following the pandemic they eventually caused many cities to consider outlawing the holiday entirely. Trick-or-treating saved it, especially when the “trick” part of that demand began to diminish in importance.
But even that wasn’t an easy transition. If you want an interesting study in how people react to change, just browse newspapers from the late 1930s, when the door-to-door tradition was beginning.
Using newspapers.com, I found a scathing letter to the editor in Corvallis, Oregon, from a woman who compared trick-or-treating to “the old familiar call of the racketeering gangster — ‘pay or else.’ … This new blackmailing racket of ‘trick or treat’ is not one householders should encourage by surrender.”
We can laugh at this today. The writer was overwrought, so caught up in the gangster stories of her day that she couldn’t focus on a bigger picture. But maybe some of us are guilty of the same.
A recent poll by Scott Rasmussen for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 33% of Utahns plan to carry on Halloween traditions with no changes this year. Among the 35-54 age group, the figure was 43%. Among Republicans, it was 52%, while only 6% of Democrats agreed. Americans can politicize virtually anything, even the act of giving candy to children.
At the end of our exchange, Morton, the Halloween expert, offered some perspective.
“Halloween is very adaptable,” she said. “It came through 9/11 just fine, despite dire predictions about it that year, and I believe it will survive 2020, although I also hope parents will consider
adapting this year to keep their families and friends as safe as possible.”
Adapting means that, while contemplating big questions in a pandemic-riddled world, we remember that scaling back or changing Halloween for one year won’t kill the holiday forever.