I’ve been thinking about Halloween a lot lately because as a parent with two small children, I’ve been sucked into this nostalgia that I simply don’t share. Growing up, Halloween was just not that big of a deal to us.
In the Leventhal house, there was no planning our costumes, no mother toiling over a sewing machine, no decorating the door and conspiring to scare neighborhood kids. It was the mid-1980’s and my parents told us that Halloween was a pagan holiday and that we didn’t celebrate it. I never fought or questioned them, and as such we have few if any photos of my sister and me in costumes, trick or treating. And neither of us is scarred by this fact.
At the time, I went to a private, Jewish school, so the idea of a school-based Halloween celebration was not something I knew or understood, and as most of my friends were spread across town, I didn’t feel left out staying home to hand out candy. And because we lived in four houses before we settled into my “family house” in the fifth grade, we didn’t have close relationships with our neighbors. There were few invitations to go trick or treating with the other kids in the neighborhood, and my mother probably felt like the whole charade was a silly, waste of time.
My mother’s disenchantment with Halloween certainly came from a place of fatigue. My mom was on her own many nights because my dad taught high school by day and community college classes at night. She couldn’t take us trick or treating AND man the house. She was supremely irritated that the public school could require costumes for a parade–I wore the same witch costume in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade parade. My sister in her little angel costume did the same for first, second and third grade. When I went off to middle school, she inherited the witch ensemble. My mother could envision no other choices, and did not entertain other possibilities. And on the few occasions that we went out to collect candy, she would inventory the spoils and trade us for the stockpile. I didn’t care too much about the candy and usually nabbed some new paperbacks out of the deal, so I was happy.
As I got older and as kids could go out trick or treating on their own, I felt a little left out of the Halloween evening plans. I lacked the creativity to come up with my own costumes and my mother was certainly no help. In college, I tried to be creative, but learned early on that clever costumes are tough to pull off. After trying out Ginger from Gilligan’s Island and Tito in the Jackson 5 (just an excuse to wear some incredible plaid pants), I did what any self-respecting co-ed would do on Halloween: I slutted it up.
Slutting it up was kind of fun (and slightly cold) if only for a night. One specific October 31st, I am sure that my vodka jacket was directly responsible for my warmth because my “ice princess” ensemble was pretty useless. There was a white boa and silver platform shoes involved, of course. Nothing clever at all.
After college, I sort of gave up. Every year, I buy one bag of candy corn and try to make it last a whole month. And I don’t think about what I’ll be for Halloween. I don’t feel deprived because I have no opinion about Halloween. I like dressing in costumes as long as I don’t have to come up with the costume ideas. I really like candy. Who doesn’t like seeing their neighbors? I just really don’t like spooky, creepy things, horror movies, zombies, haunted houses or hayrides. I don’t even carve the pumpkin in this house. I like my autumnal entertainment as benign as possible.
In the past twenty years, though, Halloween has acquired a true secular, commercial status in American life. As a child, it was easy to abstain or avoid. Now, conscientious objection looks like you’re a big party pooper. And I’m not really a conscientious objector–I truly object to Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day on multiple grounds, but Halloween is like nothing at all in my mind. I just don’t really care. And if it wasn’t for our kids, I probably wouldn’t give Halloween a second thought.
Still, I have to care or put on the mantle of caring because my little daughters know about Halloween. My kindergartner daughter has been waiting for the Halloween parade at her school. She has been doing candy corn math problems and reading pumpkin stories. Every person she meets asks her what she’ll be for Halloween. I want them to feel in the loop if they want to be, and I know that I can’t layer on my own malaise about this pseudo-holiday.
This morning, my older daughter woke up and her first sentence out loud was, “Guys! It’s Halloween today!” I imagine this is what it is like to celebrate Christmas.
So today, we’ll join up with some neighborhood kids and walk up our street and collect candy. My girls are too early to broker a true trade, so we’ll let them keep a few pieces of candy and I’ll bring the rest to my seminar students on Monday.
The only upshot of Halloween is that it helps us autumn lovers hold on dearly to pumpkins, apple picking, mulled cider, warm sweaters (if it ever got cold enough) and fall leaves, because tomorrow, Christmas will be upon us.