Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Saturday, 31 October 2009

Halloween and the American way of life

obama and mccain pumpkins
Last year Barack Obama and John McCain's faces were carved onto pumpkins

Halloween seems to be an annual ritual of life in the United States. Gary Younge has discovered that the modern, sugar-coated version gives a key insight into American culture.

Arriving home seven years ago in the drizzly dusk of late autumn, I emerged from the subway to what sounded like a huge flock of starlings. The excitable, high-pitched squawking of hundreds of small things echoed through my neighbourhood in Brooklyn.

My brownstone block had, it transpired, been converted into a venue for an enormous, open-air children's fancy-dress party.

There were pirates, princesses, witches, wizards, myriad superheroes and Disney characters, Frankenstein, ghosts and robots - their taffeta and capes poking out of their anoraks.

Trick or treat

Carrying bags and pumpkin-shaped containers in one hand, and leading their parents with the other, they had upended the natural order of things - kids striding into the night demanding candy from strangers. Most do not even bother saying "trick or treat". The streets were theirs.

File picture of Halloween in New York
To some, Halloween is an illustration of civic engagement

This, I realised, was Halloween - American style.

In Britain back then, Halloween would have been something I was only vaguely aware of. I knew it happened every year but I could not have told you when and most years it would have passed without me noticing it.

It was a date in my diary that bore no necessary relationship to any sense of occasion - like Pancake Day without the pancakes.

But here, every year the stoops are full of jack-o-lanterns, many brilliantly carved. Last year the Obama logo was sliced out of many a pumpkin.

The house opposite literally puts on a huge performance, complete with fire breathers, jugglers, amateur thespians, acrobats and costumes.

Fake spider webs hang from gates and over porches. Skeletons greet you at the door.

The only celebration I remember on this scale in Britain was the Queen's Silver Jubilee back in 1977.

Now I am the parent of a small child, I see it coming from a distance. The question at day care and among friends is not: "Did you know it is Halloween?" but "What will yours be going as?"

Street party

All assumptions of gender equality implode under the weight of urgent needs and wants. Mothers sew, while the children masquerade in traditional roles as though feminism never happened.

My son, Osceola, will be a pilot complete with epaulettes, his friend, Rosa, will be a mermaid replete with sequins.

To the cynic and the conspiracist this could all just be one more attempt to snag the American consumer - a marketing ploy for the pumpkin and costume industry, sponsored by candy lobbyists.

Halloween celebration
Halloween in America is often marked by wearing fancy dress

From the vantage point of my own stoop it feels like an inspiring illustration of civic engagement. One huge street party of the people, for the people and by the people.

The popular antipathy to the very idea of government in this country is well-known, and has many drawbacks - lack of health care and massive inequalities being just a couple. But one by-product is a reflex, that transcends political affiliation, to do things for yourself.

This might sound like rugged individualism. But in practice, the impulse is usually underpinned by the assumption that whatever it is you are doing for yourself, might be even better if you did it with others.

People are far more likely to organise themselves here and are resourceful in finding ways to sustain financially the things they want to do.

Cultural creativity

A Harlem-based dance producer once told me it was basic "culturenomics" - developing a support system that can sustain your cultural creativity.

And so it is, that my wife (who is American) asked the other tenants in our apartment block for donations to buy candy, and volunteers for shifts to stand on the steps and hand them out.

There are many ways in which Brooklyn is atypical. This is not one of them

For the last month the house across the street has been selling T-shirts and trinkets to fund their big show, which this year is called "the carnival of carnage".

Our next door neighbour, a carpenter, has been helping them with the set.

All weekend, people have been taking to the stage in their front garden to rehearse their parts - inside costumes hang from every surface and sewing machines have been awhirl.

In this land of rampant consumerism and cut-throat capitalism, nobody is getting paid and everything is free.

Those who can - give. Those who cannot, are still able to partake.

I have spent Halloween in various parts of the country - including the rural Midwest and the South.

There are many ways in which Brooklyn is atypical. This is not one of them.

For now, there are pumpkins to carve, candy to buy, a pilot to prepare and contingencies to consider.

The weather does not look promising, but will not dampen our spirits. The show will go on. Because it is our show.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Country profile: United States of America
18 Oct 11 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific