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Halloween arrives, and Canadians embrace the season wholeheartedly

Why We Wrote This

When our European bureau chief changed assignments, she expected more Halloween decorations on her new beat come October. But she found Halloween in Canada seems a bigger deal than even in the United States.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
The writer’s front door became one of many in her Toronto neighborhood decorated for Halloween, which she found to be about togetherness more than anything else.

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In popular culture, Halloween is viewed as an American secular holiday. But it’s a phenomenon in Canada, too. In fact, Canadians outspend Americans per capita on Halloween, to the tune of $1 billion annually. There’s nothing particularly distinctive about the way Halloween is celebrated in Canada, but at least in our bureau chief's neighborhood, it seems to be more about togetherness than any great passion to don a witch’s hat or string some cobweb around the shrubbery. Everything revolves around two-block Lavinia Avenue, dubbed “Halloween Street,” where residents say they have to get help handing out candy to the children who pack the pavement every year. In the past two years they have moved it beyond just a boon to candy manufacturers, starting a food drive for the Daily Bread Food Bank. “We decided we should make it more of a community event beyond massive commercialization,” says Alexandra Devlin, a mother of three. And when it comes to celebration on “Halloween Street,” there is no middle way, she says. “You are all in, or you best turn off your lights and go to the movies for the night.”

New to Toronto, I get asked many questions: about how I find the schools or the public transportation system. There’s another topic that has come up with confusing frequency too.

“Have you ever experienced Halloween in Toronto?” asked one father in the schoolyard in the still balmy days of September. “Enjoy your first Halloween in Toronto,” said a Spanish journalist when I introduced myself as a newly arrived colleague.

By October the house decorations in my neighborhood came out, giving the impression that every other home is inhabited by that one Halloween-crazed family on your street. There are ghosts and goblins hanging from trees, plastic gravestones peering out from flower beds and severed hands strewn across front lawns. Neighbors have giant blow-up cats and spiders on their front porches and have wrapped their front doors in bright yellow “caution” and “danger” tape. This is not just a single fanciful block; this is the entire neighborhood.

When I asked a woman two doors down about it, she said she’d be celebrating and decorating her house too. “For the community,” she explained.

Never a fan of the holiday, this year I found myself at the dollar store purchasing that “danger” tape – not for me, but for the people who walk past my front door.

There’s nothing particularly distinctive about the way Canadians celebrate Halloween, a tradition that has its roots in paganism, was Christianized, and then commercialized in North America. Yet perhaps, at least in my neighborhood, it seems to be more about togetherness than any great passion to don a witch’s hat or string some cobweb around the shrubbery.

Folklorists trace Halloween back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Nicholas Rogers, in his book “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night,” says the feast marked the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the onset of winter, a time of stock-taking and preparations.

Halloween came to North America with Irish and Scottish migration in the 19th century and underwent many iterations. “Halloween’s capacity to provide a public space for social inversion or transgression held it in good stead at a time when other potentially raucous holidays were becoming more institutionalized and domesticated,” argues Mr. Rogers. It morphed from a family affair to a party co-opted by adults, and later to a time to reaffirm gay and feminist values.

In popular culture, Halloween is viewed as an American secular holiday. According to digital coupon company RetailMeNot, 73 percent of Americans plan to celebrate it this year. But it’s a phenomenon in Canada too. “It’s become bigger and more celebrated than it ever has,” says Chris Ainsworth, who founded the Canadian Haunters Association, a group of hardcore Halloween enthusiasts who turn their homes into elaborate haunted houses each year.

In 2014, the Retail Council of Canada made news saying Canadians were now outspending Americans per capita on Halloween, to the tune of $1 billion annually. The estimate has remained stable, says Diane Brisebois, the council president. That’s not because enthusiasm has waned, she says, but because prices have been driven down.

Some here bemoan the creep of the commercial in the festivities. But in some ways the holiday has also returned to its roots as a community-centered activity.

And perhaps that's why everyone gets so excited about Halloween in Toronto, a metropolis that is known as a “city of villages.”

In my neighborhood, Halloween revolves around two-block Lavinia Avenue, dubbed “Halloween Street,” where residents say they have to get help handing out candy to the children who pack the pavement every year. In the past two years they have moved it beyond just a boon to candy manufacturers, starting a food drive for the Daily Bread Food Bank. “If we are doing it as a community event, we decided we should make it more of a community event beyond massive commercialization,” says Alexandra Devlin, a mother of three young children on the street.

Some of her neighbors will take off an afternoon of work to decorate their homes, even hire an electrician to rig lighting and sound effects. She admits she finds the obsession with Halloween a bit strange. Yet she participates willingly – again because she is part of the community.

Ms. Brisebois agrees there is something to the “community spirit” behind Canadians' embrace of Halloween. “Canadians still like to meet their neighbors, to talk, to share, it is a Canadian trait, so Halloween is another way of getting a bit closer,” she says. “Maybe the biggest difference between Canadians and Americans is that Canadians really get excited, all hyped up about Halloween, I don’t know if it’s because of our weather and the thought that winter is coming, but people really embrace it.”

And as Ms. Devlin puts it, there is no middle way, at least on “Halloween Street.” “You are all in,” she says, “or you best turn off your lights and go to the movies for the night.”

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