There’s not a whole lot to not like.
Imagine: you dress up like a pirate or princess or hobo, then walk up to the door of a complete stranger, and that stranger smiles and gives you candy. Then, depending on how closely your parents monitor the situation, you go home and gorge on your well-earned bag of goodies. If you’re extra careful, the sweet stuff will last for weeks. Then again, older kids might get cold, hard cash from their folks in exchange for all of that yummy booty.
Really, no matter how the scenario unfolds, it’s all good.
This was my story as a young girl. I have photos of my brother and me in costume (he’s a skeleton and I’m a Pilgrim girl, complete with bonnet), standing next to each other. We’re posing on our tiny front porch in a town south of Los Angeles, smiling and no doubt ready, willing and able to take on the task of knocking on just about every door in the neighborhood.
But then I started third grade and everything changed. To my young mind, it wasn’t for the better.
If I have to blame anyone, it would be Danny Kaye.
Let me explain.
Years and years before Audrey Hepburn and Angelina Jolie, entertainer Danny Kaye was the first Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF—short for The United Nations International Emergency Children’s Fund. Initially taking on this intensive, globe-trotting role in 1954, Kaye traveled the planet in this capacity, from India to Africa, for more than three decades. Dispensing speeches and hugs, he was the first entertainer to bring the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable children of the world to the rest of us.
And Kaye seemingly loved every minute.
That might be because he considered the ambassador gig to be the most rewarding of his long career in show business. Although known for starring roles in movies that include The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Hans Christian Anderson and White Christmas, Kaye’s daughter Dena says her dad also knew exactly how to engage children on an intuitive level.
“Children are the same the world over,” she remembers him saying. “They may have a different culture, but an ache or a laugh is universal.” (Watch Kaye in action here, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdA_MLi2FCY.)
So far, so good.
But then came Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF.
Begun as a local event by a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia, the program involves children collecting small change instead of candy on Halloween. Eventually, this tiny once-a-year fundraiser morphed into a worldwide event, and now
boasts millions of kiddie participants around the world. In its present incarnation, it has also raised about $175 million
In my case, dozens of empty orange containers were brought to the synagogue I attended a week or so before October 31. I didn’t start religious school until third grade, and that first year, on the Sunday closest to that delivery day, we were shown a movie starring Danny Kaye in his role as UNICEF ambassador. In so many words, we were told that this is what we were expected to do on Halloween night.
Collecting candy was no longer an option.
This idea especially appealed to my mother. She didn’t like candy in our home to begin with because it caused cavities, and back then, there was no such thing as dental insurance. Also this way, she could teach her children about charity and the value of helping others. She felt it was never too young to learn such lessons.
On a grown-up, in-theory level, this makes a lot of sense.
But to me, a slight eight-year-old armed only with an empty orange box (and no bag for sweets; I was told not to ask), it was a daunting night.
Still, I was a child who Wanted to Do Good, and I was also a child who Wanted to Make Her Parents Proud. So for three years, after watching Danny Kaye each of those years, I trudged through our working class neighborhood on Halloween, pretty much hating every minute, collecting money for an organization that I really didn’t know much about, except for what Danny Kaye had told me. (Today, the irony of a woefully unprepared child collecting funds for another defenseless population hasn’t been lost on me.)
More than a few people refused to give me any coins; I didn’t know until years later that this was still a time when lots of folks weren’t exactly keen on the UN.
In particular, I remember a grouchy old man (although he was probably younger than I am now) screaming at me, accusing me of being a Communist (what was that?), and slamming the door in my face. (For whatever reason, my parents never went up to a house with me, preferring to stand on the adjacent sidewalk.)
But the final straw came right after the third Halloween run, when I returned my change-laden box to Sunday school.
It was then that a classmate told me that she had gone trick-or-treating for candy. In fact, she always had. Her parents—and as it turns out, pretty much all of the moms and dads—had simply stuffed their own stray coins into the orange containers that were brought home.
I felt like I’d been played, and let’s face it, I had. I’d been forced to go collect money when no one else in my class had.
After that revelation, I refused to carry the orange box ever again. Of course, I was older by then, so more able to stand my ground. But the memory of that horrible container has stayed with me, and sadly, permanently stained the idea of Halloween being a happy, kid-friendly holiday.
Yes, I learned that it’s important to give, especially to those less fortunate. But I’ve taught the same lesson to my now teenage daughter in other ways.
So in case you’re wondering, this means that when she went trick-or-treating, she went for candy. If she has children, I hope she gives them the same delicious choice. There are plenty of other times throughout the year to give, and to give generously.
Heck, if so desired, that definitely includes a big-hearted donation to UNICEF.
But I’ve also come to believe this: a night designed for wearing silly outfits and collecting candy is neither the time nor the place for such an activity.
And that’s especially true when tasked with the smallest, and the most powerless, among us.
What are your Halloween memories? I look forward to hearing your comments and stories!