There was a time when grown adults would go door to door in crazy costumes on Halloween, demanding treats. It was called mumming.*
Now we (we meaning twenty-first century Americans) call it trick or treating, and only children do it. Depending where you live, children might not do that any more, and it’s possible that the custom will die out like wicker man or the Jackson lottery. But if anyone’s going to do it, kids will.
I once went to a boar’s head festival—a deliberately anachronistic reenactment of an early modern (ca. 1600?) Christmas celebration. It had a lot of things that make customs quaint, including songs, costumes, and processions. And it was pitched at adults, as boar’s head festivals traditionally had been. Imagine, now, that you have the job of explaining to aliens your own (twenty-first century American) Christmas customs. The children hang their stockings by the chimney with care. The children leave a plate of cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. The youngest child puts the star on the tree. The children go to bed early so they can open their presents in the morning.
Obviously there are some things about Christmas that grown ups still do, and it’s not so unusual for childless households to trim a tree, exchange presents, or perhaps sing carols or venture to church. But it’s almost impossible to trim a tree or even speak of Christmas without invoking “Christmases long, long ago”: the Christmases of childhood. Truman Capote’s lone Christmas story is called “A Christmas Memory” and is no less nostalgic or sentimental than the title implies (worth reading but warning: pdf). An old lady with a wreath on her door cannot overwrite that fact that literally only children believe in the primary figure in America’s largest and most important secularo-religious festival. Stop bluffing: Christmas is for kids.
Easter, on the other hand, is partially the central holy day of the Christian calendar and mostly the day when a giant bunny hides chocolate eggs for children.
I received more valentines between the ages of five and eleven than I have in all the other years of my life combined; and, unless you are an import model, you did to.
What happened here happened to baptism first. Two thousand years ago (or almost), if you wanted to get baptized you got your grown-up body dunked in water; after a couple centuries, babies were getting dunked. Theoretically baptism was done at an earlier age in order to offer salvation even to the very young, but certainly another factor has come into play; if you can avoid getting soaking wet in your clothes while everyone you know watches you sputter water out your nose, probably you will take that out. It’s much easier to get the very young to do your ritual for you; the very young can’t object, and although babies do traditionally object to being baptized (crying while “Satan leaves the body”), babies object to all sorts of random things, like tummy time or taking naps, regardless, so no one takes them seriously. Some denominations still practice adult baptism, but they are in the minority, and are considered weird by mainstream America. Why would any sane adults take part in a ritual when they could send their children as proxies?
I’ve been mentioning Christian rituals, but of course this is not a Christian-specific occurrence. Bar and bat mitzvahs may represent the assumption of adulthood, but as the concept of adulthood got modified to apply to eighteen-year olds, or (of late) to thirty-year olds, the mitzvah age stayed at twelve or thirteen. Once you have the power to prevent a culture from making you stand in front of everyone and stumble through the Torah reading, you will no longer do it. If it wasn’t happening to a tween, it wouldn’t happen at all.
This is the nature of custom and ritual, that they’re sort of embarrassing and unpleasant. If it weren’t embarrassing and unpleasant, you’d just do it every day, which is why even if you call your Morning Coffee Ritual a Morning Coffee Ritual, it doesn’t count as a folk custom. Ritual is what culture employs its power to force you to do. The absolute limit of the power of culture to impose a ritual on you is college graduation, the last time in your life you will ever put on a funny costume and march in front of everyone while people applaud. By the time you get your MFA, the school just mails it to you.
Culture obviously had more power in the past. A hundred years ago (for example), if a close relative of yours died, you would wear a special costume for approximately a year, followed by another year during which you wore a different special costume; and all that time every letter you wrote would be on special paper purchased for the occasion. Now you wear a special costume for a couple of hours on one day. It’s probably the same costume you wear to job interviews, or possibly to work. From two years to four hours, that’s the magnitude by which the power of culture has diminished
So culture used to have more power and in part it used that power to force people to participate—to participate, somewhat circularly, in culture. There’s a coercive aspect to it, sure, but it’s also the case that a culture with more power is more persuasive. It’s simply less humiliating to participate in something that you actually believe in. If you are deeply into Mariolatry, and only if you are deeply into Mariolatry, you won’t feel like a goon marching around with a statue of the Virgin on a papier-mache throne (e.t.a.: apparently Mariolaters do not call it “Mariolatry,” but you get what I mean).
Baptism got shifted to children first because it involved something objectively unpleasant (getting dunked, possibly in very cold water); for everything else, a weakening culture made activities that might otherwise be enjoyable look humiliating. Just to make this clearer, using a still-extant custom: there is one day per year, and only one day, when you can wear sequined glasses made in the shape of a four-digit number while blowing a paper noisemaker and not be mercilessly ridiculed by everyone who sees you.
Gradually, adults stopped dancing the may pole. They stopped playing the Abbot of Unreason. They stopped riding tricycles in fezzes.
We’re left with a threadbare remnant of culture; but this means we are only humiliated when we try to explain it to those alien anthropologists. “Tell me about your Earth customs for the day known as Thanksgiving ,” the alien will say; and you’ll answer, “Well, first we eat dinner with family, which we do every day; but this is slightly different because we eat turkey, which otherwise we only do sometimes. And then we watch TV, which we do every day; but this is slightly different because we watch a parade, which we don’t usually do, or a football game, which we only do like once a week.” The alien is rolling its eye stalks at you, but you answer is still better for this holiday than for every other holiday, when your answer is that your custom, as an adult, is to purchase a Hallmark card and then get drunk.
But you wouldn’t actually admit any of this to the alien; it would be too humiliating. Instead you would talk about the only things you could talk about, the rituals that children go through and customs they enact as proxies for us. Children are too young to feel the humiliation of public shame, and they are too weak to avoid their fates even when the shame strikes. When they put on a Christmas pageant, they are not merely playacting the story of Jesus in a manger, they are also playacting the concept of a contemporary culture. They are not only pretending to be shepherds and wise men, they are pretending to be you and me.
[Continued, more or less, here.]
Postscript: A friend pointed out the missing piece, which is the gamut of wedding customs. This is a fair cop. Our culture lost everything but weddings.
*Technically mumming can also refer to similar activities on other holidays, and is perhaps not the most analogous practice to trick-or-treating; I just don’t know the gerund for whatever the analog is. Another related adult halloween practice is souling, or going door to door offering to pray for the dead in exchange for treats.
Of course you could also go door to door around Christmas time wassailing, and singing Christmas carols outside a house in the expectation that you’ll get some hot chocolate is probably still practiced in some areas.