Saturday, November 13, 2010


Friends and acquaintances are aware of my sometimes obsessive penchant (an anthropologist’s curse) for following and defining the origins of cultural celebrations, witness posts in recent years about Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and others. I have long followed our current celebration of Halloween and its mostly Celtic origins [Samhain (sow-an)] and the wonderful Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) tradition where we break down the barrier of death and celebrate the lives and memories of our ancestors and departed Friends. Yes, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life…

Día de los Muertos (sometimes known as Flor de Muerto "Flower of the Dead") is a remembrance / memorial observed by many in Mexico and by many Americans and Canadians of Mexican descent. Scholars now believe that this custom can be traced back 2,500–3,000 years to the Aztecs.

With the advent of Christianity Halloween in all its myriad forms was adopted, morphed and absorbed by the Christian Church and now observed as All Saints' Day on November 1st and All Souls' Day on November 2nd. In the United States and Canada Halloween has evolved into a largely secular/commercial annual celebration observed on October 31.

As we all know Halloween in the US and Canada is celebrated where costumed/disguised participants attend parties, tell ghost stories and, of course, where the children (mostly) engage that now traditional activity, “Trick or Treating”. While this is a relatively new custom in the United States (1940’s), Souling (which dates back to medieval times) was a similar activity common in Great Britain and Ireland where the poor received food for their prayers for the dead.

Guising, the practice of costumed children going door to door requesting food or coins started in Scotland and Ireland in the 1800’s and continues to this day. It appears that this tradition was carried to Canada where scholars report similar activity in the early 1900’s. This is probably the origin of our current Halloween custom of Trick or Treating (TorT). The big difference between Europe and North America is that in Europe the children are expected to earn their treats via of a song, poem, joke, etc. (no performance – no treat). But, that’s all the subject of a future post as we are going to highlight an extraordinary and unique Halloween tradition right here in Dallas, Texas.

Seems that the historic old East Dallas neighborhood of Swiss Avenue, a 22-block neighborhood of 170 grand homes minutes from downtown Dallas had by 1985 according to some few “snobby bobby” residents (The Guild?) had tired of the visitation of thousands of Trick or Treaters on Halloween night. These kids were mostly Hispanic, African-American & Vietnamese children and young adults bussed in mostly from other nearby east Dallas neighborhoods.

This mind set apparently fed by the minutes of a published homeowner’s association meeting spawned a rumor which was fed further by a well-intended, enterprising reporter for the now deceased Dallas Times Herald (my Dad’s employer for 30 years) who was just trying to expose what he perceived as an elitist, snobbish attempt to drive off the annual throng of trick-or-treaters. The front page story the day before Halloween declared that Swiss Avenue was going to shut down Halloween – turn off their lights, close their doors and refuse to participate. That didn’t play well with the greater majority of the folks on Swiss Avenue. They cherished their hard fought designation as an historic neighborhood and felt it was an honor, yea, their civic duty and responsibility to throw open the doors of their neighborhood to all the children of the city.

Former Texas State Representative Harryette Ehrhardt still a resident of Swiss Avenue (SA) since 1970 eloquently expressed the sentiments of the greater majority of SA residents, "Halloween gives us an opportunity to serve the larger Dallas community. It's a part of our way of repaying Dallas for the privilege of living here and for the tremendous gift from the city for this historic district."

Neighborhood leaders contacted Hispanic and other minority organizations, schools, churches, radio & TV stations and other groups admonishing their detractors and assuring everybody that there was no Swiss Avenue closure and extended hands of Friendship along with a perpetual invitation to continue their Halloween visitations. Alas, that year saw a substantial drop in visitors to Swiss Avenue and all to the chagrin of its residents.

The 1985 controversy and ensuing Halloween Blackout reminded residents of their special place in the Dallas and North Texas community and prompted a rededication and renewed effort to extend their Halloween invitation. Committed Swiss Avenue residents ended up making this tradition better than ever which - now refreshed - saw a resurgence of All Hallows Eve visitors the following year – and every Halloween since. New Swiss Avenue residents are carefully counseled on their potential responsibilities though many don’t get it until they see it first-hand.

This year given the hospitality of good Friends who are residents of Swiss Avenue I was able for the first time in my 65+ years to experience a Swiss Avenue Halloween. Nothing could have prepared me for the continuous unbroken lines of thousands of children which coupled with vendors on most street corners hawking their food and trinkets including light sabers, glow necklaces and sugar skulls gave the whole neighborhood the festive atmosphere of Carnival, Mardi Gras and the Texas State Fair all rolled into one. I would not have believed this phenomenon had I not experienced it. Aye, it is probably the largest and safest neighborhood Halloween event in the country.

Many residents elaborately decorate their homes for the event with all the attendant high tech audio and video enhancements. From dusk to 9:00 pm and perhaps a little later residents don’t even bother the formality of opening and closing their doors. They stay open accompanied by a vanguard of equally coiffed and costumed revelers who give out the candy for three hours plus or until their supply gives out – whichever comes first at which time the lights go out. I was a ghoulish Monk turned dramatically to the dark side though after scaring several little girls - gave up the mask and adopted a more civil and priestly demeanor after which one of the girls thanked me. Besides that, I couldn’t eat or drink with the mask on. To further put things in perspective, I was accompanied by the very beautiful and always charming Static Cling…

During the evening and while on TorT Break some of us made a heroic attempt to watch Halloween Game Four of the World Series though the San Francisco Giants once again clobbered and humiliated the Texas Rangers at home, 4-0. San Francisco then lead the series 3-1 and went on to win all the marbles in game Five. Being the eternal optimists we always thought the Rangers might come back given all their incredible talent. But, it turns out that like the talent laden Dallas Cowboys, they weren't quite good enough. Too much candy corn and chocolate… Wait till next year...

Well, after all the candy was exhausted local accountants tabulated the visitor TorT Counter Machine and estimated that over 3,000 mostly very polite Halloween Trick or Treaters had come to our door! That figure is considered average (Sunday night) with the highest participation one year at over six thousand ToT! It was an extraordinary event and all without incident though we did notice a heightened presence of Dallas’ Finest. We also noted that if our hosts are an example, then Swiss Avenue is in fine hands and its future is assured. Thanks to stalwart neighborhood residents like Dick & Diane, Harryette Ehrhardt and Jim Schutze, the award winning author and columnist now the City Politics columnist for the Dallas Observer who keeps the light of day shining bright on Swiss Avenue.

The spirit of Friendship, Brotherhood and Harmony is alive and well in the very special Swiss Avenue Neighborhood and perhaps next year you need take your costumed and disguised self right on over there so you can experience this unique cultural celebration first hand. I will even tell you a horror story of Game Four of the 2010 World Series - the San Francisco Chain Saw Massacre - Shudder, Shudder


Ned Buxton

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