Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Down Under

When I was growing up we didn't have Halloween. We knew it existed (it was integral to the plots of both ET and It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown). But it was seen as an American thing, which it was.

That seems to have changed but only partially. On October 31st, packs of children roam the neighbourhood in search of Halloween. This started a few years back. I remember that some children came to our house asking for treats. We searched around and found some chocolate and gave it to them. Child No.1, who was probably 3 at the time, watched this with great interest.

"Why did we give them our chocolate?"

"I think it is Halloween. If children dress up and ask for chocolate, we have to give it to them."

"I'm going to dress up. Then can I have some."

"No you have to go other peoples' houses."

"Can we go?"

"No, we don't celebrate Halloween."

This, of course, was not an entirely satisfying conversation for her and for what must have been a year she quizzed us about it all. When it came down to it, we had an excellent reason for not wanting to do Halloween. Given how few people knew about it, it seemed like we would go around the neighbourhood begging for food. That wasn't a good look. Halloween just didn't have the scale. So we resisted for years.

But the crowds of children have grown and somehow it doesn't seem quite as strange any more. We let Child No.1 wander around dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow today (with a friend) and she seemed to do quite well. The other kids were left to handle the distribution of our own treats.

What was interesting is that a market for information seemed to evolve amongst the packs of kids. Just as a pack had scored something from us, I could see them engage other packs in an exchange of information -- usually with pointing -- of which houses seemed to understand the deal and which did not. I had to instruct the kids to quickly distribute stuff and get back inside so that we didn't draw too much attention to ourselves. We were in danger of running out.

The other thing I did to ration supply was insist that the kids were actually dressed up. Some were just coming by with a bag and a smile. That didn't cut it. Others were in their school uniform. That definitely didn't cut it. So the loot was distributed according to not only whether someone was dressed up but also the quality of it all. And if they didn't want to hear a lecture on incentives, then they could go without as far as I was concerned. Let's face it, with only one kid -- albeit an entrepreneurial one -- in the field, we were running a household deficit on treats.

Halloween, as a real social event, requires pretty much close to 100 percent neighbourhood buy-in. I think we are running at about 30 percent at the moment and at the slow rate of growth our kids will be long gone before it becomes something serious.

[Update: Some economics Halloween links]