It's spooky how misunderstood Halloween is. Forget all the hocus-pocus about witches and goblins. The true purpose of Halloween is much more spirited than that. It is to teach the children of America the finer points of their country's most cherished heritage: the free-enterprise system.

Halloween is the only holiday that approaches the reality of the business world. Other holidays feature a freeloader aspect: Ask of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny and you receive. The goods arrive delivered to your home, even if you have not held up your end of the bargain by being a good little boy or girl.

But Halloween forces children to show a little initiative in earning their treats. It demands that they go door-to-door giving a pitch to each and every potential prospect. Their costumes may vary in style, but on Halloween every kid is really dressed as the classic American salesman.

Long before he's old enough for business college, the successful Halloweener realizes that he needs to size up and outdo his competition. If this were any other holiday, goodies would be doled out on an impartial basis, but not on Halloween. Little kids get their treats simply because they are so cute; youth and beauty always have held a bewitching edge in the marketplace. Others get a goodly share of treats by coming up with an eye-catching costume; packaging is paramount.

The truly experienced pros use savvy instead of relying on style alone. They excel at streamlining their operations. Youngsters who never have heard of efficiency studies do them effortlessly around Oct. 31. They realize that the most loot can be gotten by canvassing as many houses as possible in the least amount of time. Beautiful as they may be, mini-estates on two-acre spreads are a cursed lot on Halloween. High-density neighborhoods become the favorite haunts of trick-or-treaters.

The canvassing phase of the business is one area where age and experience pay off: Older legs are longer and can cover more territory in less time. Also, parents of old-timers will let them roam more freely than their younger rivals.

These same parents, unfortunately, can present management with problems that hinder a successful operation. They often demand that older trick-or-treaters take along younger siblings. The little ones can't be left on their own but they interfere with the pace. Thus does the future entrepreneur learn the problems of child care: Everyone wants it but no one wants to provide it.

When the sales operation is completed, it is time for a practical exercise in how to invest the profits. The Halloweener who consumes all his earnings in a one-night spree has no right to bellyache later on. The prudent student of the trick-or-treat marketplace learns to earmark some goodies for immediate consumption and to stash some away for a sugarless day.

But they still should have some disposable income that can be used to trade up. How many sticks of chewing gum is one chocolate bar worth? The answer lies in what the market will bear. Candy or commodities, the principle is the same.

What is learned on Halloween may be sugarcoated but it is not all make-believe. Maybe that's why it is the one holiday that features fright instead of frivolity, mayhem instead of merrymaking. It is a training exercise for the perilous passage from childhood into a scenario that is much scarier than any witch could conjure up: real life.

Katy Parisi is a Washington-based writer.