IT USED TO be that the worst thing a grown-up had to worry about on Halloween was putting together a kid's superhero costume. The standards for jack-o'-lantern carving were lenient, and what else was there? So long as a household was well-stocked with M&Ms, candy corn, miniature chocolate bars, Fig Newtons and bubble gum, the trick side of trick-or-treat night remained hypothetical.
Even the kind of person unscrupulous enough to dish out confiscated birthday party loot or stale jellybeans left over from Easter was unlikely to get into any trouble. The assorted ghosts, clowns and Frankenstein monsters at the door would tamely accept a handful of just about anything, even though the faces under the masks could be seen to fall if the offerings ran to ostentatiously healthy stuff, such as apples.
It was, of course, apples that set off the alarms that have so spooked recent Halloweens. Apples with razor blades in them. Authenticated reports of a few sinister treats spawned rumors of many more, to the point where parents began insisting that children refuse anything that was not safely encased in commercial packaging.
It was goodbye to a lot of homemade cookies along with the now-suspect apples. But the homemade cookies were already under a cloud anyway because of their sugar content. Anti-sugar sentiment, backed by research on hyperactivity and dental caries, was rapidly ruling out yesteryear's candy as well.
Even the dates and raisins that seemed so wholesome a while back were running into opposition. Some dentists recommended sugarless gum as an appropriate contribution to the hopeful sacks. Others remembered that where there's no sugar, there's likely to be saccharin, complete with cancer threat. The sugarless gum was also discovered to bring on diarrhea in some children. Besides, think of the parents who can't bear to see anybody, young or old, chewing gum.
The foods children like to eat that are demonstrably free of both sugar and saccharin are heavy on the salt and fat. Popcorn, potato chips and Fritos get no more nods from the nutritionists than saltwater taffy.
In despair, people in neighborhoods with heavy trick-or-treat traffic resorted to carob-flavored granola bars and peanuts in the shell. Or they gave up on food entirely and handed out little toys of the Cracker Jack-prize type.
Here, too, there were problems. Think of the policy detours the Cracker Jack people have had to go through. No more metal crickets because somebody might get cut. Nothing that could be swallowed to anybody's detriment. Cracker Jack isn't what it used to be.
The non-food people also found themselves up against expense. There are no 10-cent, made-in-Japan pencil sharpeners anymore. Plastic rings have a way of looking awfully small next to the yawning mouth of a supermarket bag.
Short of bypassing the local kids entirely with a UNICEF contribution and nothing else, what's to be done? Leaving town on the 31st of October would only activate the nearest contingent of silver thieves.
One way to get around the food problem is to give out balloons. Balloons have the further virtue of emphasizing the idea that Halloween is, or should be, a holiday for small children.
Peanuts in the shell still pass the major tests. They're bulky, too, so a large bowlful looks reasonably generous.
Another strategy is to offer popcorn, unsalted and unbuttered. Parents will thank you for not adding grease stains to their Halloween perturbations.
In the end, though, compromise is probably called for. When even the raisin has lost its innocence, why not recognize that you can't win this one? Pass a tray with at least a few chocolate kisses on it. After all, it's only once a year.