Trick or treat? The Halloween gift economy

Anyone who says good fences make good neighbors has probably lived next to people like the boys down the hall from me. Although I often tolerated the mess in the bathroom left by the boys across the hall, I never actually interacted with the boys themselves. I was perfectly happy within the confines of my five-bedroom, seven-mate suite, all of whom I chose my sophomore year and continue to love immensely. This is a common phenomenon — strong relations with the “neighbors” you choose and nonexistent relations with those you don’t. With so much choice and freedom, compounded with social mobility, social networks, and ease of transportation, modern residents can escape the outdated convention of neighborly relations. Even at Yale, who on Lynwood, Edgewood, or any of the other streets teeming with undergrads can claim to know, or to have good relationships, with all of his neighbors? Who can even claim to know all of the “neighbors” in his entryway?

Gone are the days when parents stopped by neighbors’ houses with freshly baked pies, organized neighborhood parties, and left their kids with the folks who live next door. When the media pervades the community with stories of missing children and bloody crimes, how can a modern parent feel responsible or safe sending a child around the block alone?

Halloween provides the chance for nostalgic residents to reconstruct just such a community. If we really consider its implications, Halloween is a truly remarkable holiday.

Although Halloween might have originated in pagan rituals and All Hallows’ Day, the current manifestation is anything but religious, thanks to the immense commercialization orchestrated by costume manufacturers and other holiday-savvy businesses. Whereas in the past costumes reflected the religious nature of the holidays, today they are nothing more than a festive gimmick.

Furthermore, the practice of soliciting candy is entirely paradoxical. Children are taught at a very early age not to accept candy from strangers, yet this maxim is tossed out with the pumpkin pulp once the first jack-o’-lantern is carved. Store-packaged candy provides the mark of safety assurance; commercialization and secularization, so often held responsible for dehumanization and community fragmentation, is in fact the foundation for the trust and gift-giving that characterizes the Halloween community.

A gift economy is a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any expectation for immediate or future rewards. True, neither the individual candies nor costumed children chanting “trick-or-treat?” can be characterized as particularly “valuable,” but the idea behind a gift economy is that these gifts must remain outside the logic of the market in order to be truly relational. Why else do we hide the prices from gift receipts? Why do we condemn political gifts as “bribes?” True gifts are sacrifices with no hope of conversion into economic or political capital. And these neighbors are, indeed, performing their societal sacrifice — gratifying the sugary demands of masses of children, many of whom they may not identify, let alone remember.

Traditionally, gift economies only exist because of religious faiths; in Buddhism, it is known as “Dama.” Religious adherents participate in this form of economy out of a hope for eternal rewards, and indeed, religion has been lauded for its emphasis on and creation of altruistic communities. Market forces, so frequently blamed for the destruction of communities, actually serve to create an altruistic hyper-community during Halloween, where people participate not because of a hope for eternal salvation, but in order to revive a feeling of togetherness. The practice of gift-giving exists for Christmas as well, but those presents are reserved for friends and family, not mere strangers!

Halloween is, sadly, entirely voluntary. Parents and children can opt out of it, and those who can’t be bothered can turn off their lights and spend a night at the theater. Those who do participate agree to accept the market conditions of the hyper-community for three or four hours, in order to revive, at least for a short time, an intense exchange of trust between strangers that has largely disappeared in modern society.

As Halloween nears, the Yale community should embrace this post-modern event in its entirety, replete with tricks and treats, costumes and candy and maybe even haunted houses! I, for one, plan to visit President Levin’s House — it is no coincidence that Halloween is the only time of the year when that illustrious abode is open to the Yale public.

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