JIM:

According to the National Retail Federation, "More Americans than ever will be in the haunting mood this year, with seven in 10 celebrating Halloween, the most in NRF's 10-year survey history. On average, celebrants are expected to spend almost $80 on decorations, costumes and candy as total spending on the holiday is expected to reach $8 billion." [http://www.nrf.com/modules.php?name=Dashboard&id=54]

Halloween springs from many ancient origins. Some scholars trace it back to Parentalia, the Roman festival of the dead. The Celts celebrated Samhain, which marked the end of autumn and the start of the cold season. For the Scots and Irish, the natural and supernatural worlds collided. The souls of the dead revisited their former homes. Early Christians appropriated the day as All Hallows Eve. November 1st is still All Saints' Day.

Most American holidays are nothing more than long weekends anymore: Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, and a few more if you happen to be a banker, a teacher or a government worker. Why, I have to wonder, does Halloween stand out, when it's not even an official U.S. holiday?

When my kids were little, Halloween rivaled Christmas for generating enthusiasm. In the name of Parenthood, I variously was Dracula in my old polyester tux; Booboo the Bear, being dragged on a leash by my circus-performer daughter; and, "Mom," in a blond wig, skirt and stockings. That last one was the toughest. I kept getting hit on.

Whatever the outfits, we always arrived home with bags of booty. The goodies got spilled onto the hallway carpet, where Marc and Claire bartered back and forth until each had an optimum mix of treats. The apples, if any, were turned over to us adults for inspection against razor blades. The kids feasted, brushed and were bedded down.

Not such a big deal, right? So why all the excitement? I can't recall so much fuss about Halloween when I was a tyke. We lived for Christmas. Halloween and Thanksgiving were just short stops along the way. I have to wonder what changed.

CLAIRE:

My first guess would be that as a child (heck, let's not lie, even as an adult), I just really, really loved chocolate more than all my Christmas presents combined. Sure, I adored my little stuffed dog, Tuggles, but I couldn't eat her. I thought my new winter coat was cool and stylish, but it was no replacement for a frozen king-sized Snickers bar. (Like I said, I really love candy.) Even so, that doesn't explain why I've always preferred Halloween to Easter, another candy-centric holiday.

My second guess is that I was, like many children, a little pagan at heart (again, let's not lie; I still am). Christmas and Easter are wonderful for many reasons I see now, as an adult, that I didn't understand as a child: the opportunity to be with family, finding the perfect gifts for loved ones, joy to the world and good will and all that. But when I was kid? Come on. It was all about the presents and the candy.

I could barely sleep on Christmas Eve every year, I was so feverish with excitement. Thoughts of all the things I'd asked for on my Christmas list danced through my head, keeping me from even the smallest catnap. It was the same with Easter; I couldn't stop myself from imagining the bounty of chocolate and Peeps that would surely await me in the morning.

The only thing marring this perfect image in my mind? I'm ashamed to admit it, but there's no use denying the truth. You may recall from previous columns that I once famously proclaimed, "I'd rather go to jail than church!" Well, church is kind of a staple of Christmas and Easter, is it not? Thus, you understand my childhood dilemma.

The holidays, not to mention my enjoyment of chocolate, were constantly blemished by the prospect of church-going looming overhead. I would only have just begun to feast on my first (or fifth) Cadbury cream egg, and suddenly it was time to get dressed in a frilly outfit and head over to the house of God, who hadn't given me anything that year as far as I was concerned. I was too young to understand that I wouldn't even be getting Cadbury cream eggs if it weren't for God (and some crafty marketing by candy companies).

The point of this soliloquy? I think it's obvious: Halloween requires no church attendance. Not only that, but it insists upon the very opposite of church troublemaking! Naughtiness! A rude poem that demands candy under threat of losing one's underwear! All of this while completely in disguise, rendering consequences nonexistent. Could anything be better to a child?

It's not that church is so horrible, but can anyone honestly say that it's exciting? But that's what Halloween is; it's thrilling and forbidden and creepy and exhilarating. It's mischief and pranks; it's haunted house witches jumping out of coffins to scare the bejeezus out of you. Halloween is not built upon a moralistic story like every other holiday; it's built upon ghosts and campfire tales and the headstones of dead people. And that's simply fantastic.

So parents, take heed: your children may be little darlings come the Christmas and Easter holidays, but in their heads they're all thinking the same thing. Just wait until Halloween …