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MAN BITES TOWN

In the Holiday Spirit : What's Not to Like from Labor Day Till Christmas? Halloween, That's What.

December 09, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

THE HOLIDAY season is no time for controversy. We all are, or should be, too busy trying to bring some much-needed fourth-quarter resuscitation to our faltering retail economy. I know I've got my hands full buying stuff that's been carefully overpriced for the holidays so that I can give it to people who don't really want it.

The December holidays really aren't fit subjects for griping, except for the arguments that swirl around city halls over whether Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs should be allowed to coexist on the taxpayers' lawns. It seems such a goofy premise in the first place: We spend 11 months of the year excoriating the municipal headquarters as a haven for scoundrels and crooks, and then, each December, erect a symbol of the beliefs we cherish most deeply out in front of this den of thieves.

The only other issue appropriate for this time of year is whether the news media should desist, just once, from running those generic "holiday blahs" stories throughout this month. Like any campaign against generic news, though, that battle is a born loser. The people have a right to know. And, at a time of year when news folk would rather party than pry, news holes have a right to be painlessly filled.

For me, Thanksgiving is beyond all criticism. As a dedicated eater lucky enough to have known, through the years, plenty of dedicated cookers, I have absolutely no problem with this holiday ritual: You put food in your mouth. It's a formula that's worked for Passover for five millennia. Thanksgiving just takes the sensible step of removing the bitter herbs from the feast.

So what could be wrong with a holiday season that, thanks to ever-more-premature Christmas decorations, will soon stretch from Labor Day to the Rose Bowl? Halloween, that's what.

Forget about the fact that this holiday has, for Detroiters, become an occasion for do-it-yourself urban renewal on a scale that would shame our Community Redevelopment Agency. Setting one's neighborhood ablaze as a tribute to evil is obviously not something those people are doing deliberately. They're clearly acting under instructions from backward-masked lyrics on Judas Priest records. They should be pitied.

No, my beef with Halloween is that a once-charming occasion for children to dress up and extort sweets from grown-ups has suddenly been taken over by adults. In a place with a Carnival tradition--your Rio, your New Orleans--such costumed cavorting takes place in a woozy timeout from real life, lubricated by copious amounts of spirits and enlivened by a sense of riotous celebration. Not that you'd actually catch me at Mardi Gras--the smell of regurgitated fun on Bourbon Street in even ordinary times is not my idea of the sweet life--but at least that sort of thing has a historical claim to making sense.

But what can you make of a dentist's practice that does a land-office business on Halloween because the drill-wielders dress up as movie stars and goblins? Who could retain a last smidgen of faith in our nation's banking system, when in my local branch, for example, you encounter tellers outfitted for the day as prostitutes and Mexican bandidos ? I'd like to check my current balance, but maybe I'll just wait until the ATM is fixed, thanks. I mean, it's a bank. The least they can do is dress up like Charles Keating.

We know what drove the children out of Halloween celebrations: years' worth of sad publicity about isolated maniacs lacing treats with toxic tricks. But what convinced adults that this holiday was, like a cash-rich company in the '80s, ripe for a takeover?

In New York, scary enough under normal circumstances, Halloween now brings a lengthy parade of grown-up goblins to the streets. And here, a glance at the October ads in the local weeklies indicates that costume rental is at least as big a business these days as hair extensions and colon therapy combined.

There are those still alive who remember a couple of evenings when I went out in public in, to be charitable, absolutely loony costumes of my own devising. And, since I occasionally get paid for putting on other people's clothing and faces, perhaps I'm unduly insensitive to the charms of Nouveau Halloween.

But people in Carnival climes actually spend a lot of time and energy making their own costumes, fashioning them out of their own fantasies. They don't just rent from the seemingly ever-shrinking library of movie- and TV-inspired notions, skim fantasies. And, of course, a true spirit of celebration does suggest not going to work--both for the carefreeness of the act and for the courtesy of not imposing your celebration on some poor guy who just wants to cash a check.

Trust me; I'm not anti-fun. But wouldn't it be a wonderful world if we could give Halloween back to the children? Then we could concentrate on real adult pleasures this time of year, like shopping and filing lawsuits over creches.

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