What a dirty trick.
Halloween, once a simple evening of childish pleasures, has gone the way of Christmas and been corrupted into an American marketing bonanza.
This year, the kids were barely back to school before stores everywhere exploded with Halloween costumes, decorations and, of course, candy. Indeed, according to the National Confectioners Association, Halloween ranks No. 1 in holiday candy sales nationwide, beating Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day, in that order.
"It's a moneymaker," said Pam Reese, an Orchard Park mother of two.
"They've made it so that many people feel they can't afford Halloween. I saw $28 costumes at Toys 'R' Us. People order costumes from the Neiman Marcus catalog starting in August.
"Everybody has to outdo one another, and it's a little ridiculous," says Ms. Reese.
Besides the expense, other Halloween expectations create stress, too. For many busy parents, a modern Halloween holds all the appeal of high hurdles in an already grueling footrace.
There are costumes, of course, and goodies to bring to parties in the classroom (and maybe the day care center and church group, too). There is the basket or bowl of treats, to be handed out at the door. The pumpkins get carved and the house gets decorated, sometimes including sound effects.
Many parents try to squeeze in visits to both sets of grandparents on the big day. Some super-parents even sew the kids' costumes themselves.
Parents of little ones take them trick-or-treating; those with older children wait nervously until the kids come home, hopefully in one piece and without a police escort. Bags are checked for tampering; anything "suspicious" is discarded.
Halloween, it seems, is no longer much of a treat.
Want to take the horror out of Halloween this year? Simply use common sense and some backbone, recommends Kate Scarcello, education director at EduKids, a child care center with five locations in Western New York. She says parents must set the tone, and simplify, simplify, simplify.
"Parents should decide together what's best for their family, then do it," she recommends from the Orchard Park location of EduKids. "If Aunt Susie wants to dress up as Dracula and take 10 kids out trick-or-treating that night, that's her decision. You do what is right for your family."
Kelly Schneider couldn't agree more. According to this West Seneca mother of two girls, ages 7 and 11, "Halloween has sort of misdirected itself."
She uses organization and firm limit-setting to keep Halloween stress at a minimum in the Schneider household.
"We have dinner," she says firmly. "We then take the girls out to just a few neighbors' houses that we know, then to see their grandparents. They're home in time to help pass out the candy at our house, which they enjoy."
Schools can play a role in providing fun, safe Halloween celebrations. Mrs. Schneider is this year's chairwoman of the Halloween Bash at Potters Road Elementary School, held the weekend before Halloween.
"It's a lot of work," she says, "but absolutely a blast!"
Holidays should be fun, not frightening. But according to Ms. Scarcello, Halloween zeros in on three of the most common fears in young children -- masks, strangers and the unknown.
"Scary monster costumes are inappropriate for kids," she says, recommending that parents use minimal costumes themselves. "Small children can't grasp the abstract. They sometimes don't know what's real."
Making matters worse, Halloween is a holiday of mixed messages, when parents allow their kids to break important everyday rules.
"On Halloween, most kids eat too much junk food and stay out late at night. They knock on strangers' doors; we let them take candy from strangers. For some reason, all this is OK on this day!" she exclaims.
Ms. Scarcello has seen plenty of Halloween pressure on families, both at EduKids and in her previous job, teaching kindergarten in a Buffalo public school.
"Parents drop off their kids at school or day care, then rush back at the end of the day, pick up their kids and go through McDonald's drive-through, so they can rush home and keep the kids up all night trick-or-treating."
Compassionate to the plight of busy parents who feel pulled in several directions at holiday time, Ms. Scarcello pleads with parents to remember that Halloween is only one day. She believes Halloween is "so overrated."
"Kids need (holiday) tradition, but they also need parents who aren't maniacs," she says. "Our kids need a calm and loving environment. We're rushing and shouting when we don't normally rush and shout.
Can we have a kinder, gentler Halloween? Ms. Scarcello assures us that we can.
"First and foremost," she says, "Halloween should be an option, not an obligation. If you want to participate, please do. If not, that's OK."
She believes that any shared family holiday can be a positive experience. Families can enjoy the traditional harvest period at this time of year, watch the weather changes and have cider and doughnuts.
"Gather your children together for a simple family holiday at home, instead of -- not in addition to -- door-to-door trick-or-treating."
As for costumes, make it friendly. Ms. Scarcello suggests that parents ask their child who he would like to be this year, not what he would like to be.
She gives some easy examples: "Let your young child wear the same clothes he usually wears, but add a grown-up necktie, to be 'Grandpa.'
"Encourage older kids to be their favorite teacher or sports hero."
She gives parents all the encouragement they need to simplify Halloween and other holidays:
"Let yourself off the hook! It will be much better for your kids -- and for you."