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Trick-or-treating is less scary – and less rewarding – than it used to be

"Are you scared?" my granddaughters asked as I navigated a path through cobweb-strewn bushes on their front lawn. "Terrified," I dutifully replied, shuddering at the horror of it all.

Actually, it is Halloween itself that freaks me out. I much prefer the Mexican idea of honouring the dead on the Día de los Muertos. Between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, Mexicans visit cemeteries, decorate graves and create "ofrendas" in their homes, which are elaborately decorated altars laden with sweets, breads and flowers to tempt the spirits to visit. After they have dissipated, the living gather to remember their ancestors and share leftover food with family and friends.

Our tradition pales by comparison. My husband and I head to the grandchildren's neighbourhood, where he carves pumpkins – one for each kid, which I think is excessively egalitarian – and I do door duty handing out candy and pretending to be scared by pint-sized Spider-Men and minute mermaids. My husband used to drape himself in an academic gown topped by a Clarabell the Clown mask, but he abandoned that get-up when older kids stole his thunder with Trump faces. Besides, he says, he doesn't need any props for his grizzled old man look.

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Meanwhile, the parents trundle the toddler, growling and roaring in his stegosaurus spikes, around the local streets while keeping track of the girls who are prancing about this year as a unicorn and Sleeping Beauty – presumably before she pricks her finger and falls into a hundred-year slumber.

So far, a note hasn't come home from school outlining the rules about acceptable costumes, but there's still time. The shadow over culturally offensive stereotyping is getting more pervasive as our society becomes more diverse. The more we know, the less we can indulge in fantasy for fear it might be appropriation. The first Halloween I can remember, I dressed as a little Dutch girl with a blue paper dress under a white pinafore and a cap with triangular flaps and long yellow braids swinging against my shoulders. Now I realize it was probably a slur against Dutch immigrants, but back then I was simply a character out of Hans Christian Andersen.

We had a no-toy gun policy when our children were small. Every year our son begged to be a nefarious variation on robber, pirate or gangster. Naturally, a weapon was an integral part of the costume. I thought we were safe when he settled on Robin Hood until he reminded me that even that socially acceptable character needed a bow and quiver of arrows. Our son got more inventive and less villainous as time went on; one year he paired up with a friend and went out as the back end of a horse. The costume was so hot that eventually the two halves went their separate ways – the easier to collect twice as much candy.

Halloween seems less menacing today than the marauding tradition I absorbed as a kid in Montreal. On Mat Night, a crude corruption of All Hallows' Eve, teenagers rampaged through the streets, stealing door mats, soaping windows and capsizing garbage cans, as a preview of Halloween. The next night, disguised as witches and ghosts, those same kids would bang on doors demanding treats or there would be even more sinister tricks.

The antidote to all that nastiness and greed was UNICEF, the little orange cardboard containers that we carried around collecting spare change for needy children. I remember forgetting my UNICEF carton one year and being so ashamed after I returned home with my haul, that I emptied my piggy bank into the box.

Those days are gone. In 2006, UNICEF Canada cancelled the collection boxes, thereby ending a 50-year tradition that was once so popular the government declared Oct. 31 National UNICEF Day. The effort expended to collect the money wasn't worth the payoff, which at the time was about $3-million every Halloween, according to spokeswoman Stefanie Carmichael.

"We admit it was a great way to engage children and to teach them about the importance of giving back," she told me in an e-mail, but "rolling all of the coins that had been donated was just too labour-intensive."

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Haven't they got machines to do that nowadays, I wondered? But there was another reason to halt the program. Some parents "didn't want their kids carrying money around at night," she said, raising spectres of louts grabbing collection boxes along with pillowcases of sugary loot as little children wail and parents give chase.

Instead, UNICEF Canada partners with schools on fundraising schemes such as "Toonie Tuesdays." I'm sure it's more cost-effective, in a world where "the growing number of children in need of life-saving support" is increasing exponentially, but it sure kicked the stuffing out of one of the few redeeming qualities of trick-or-treating.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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