When I was kid Halloween was a rather simple event. I’d put a witch hat on my head or cut some holes in an old white sheet and masquerade as a ghost. My costumes were made from the cloth of my imagination and whatever I had on hand. My mother would save a brown paper bag from her grocery shopping that I used to hold the goodies that I collected from my neighbors. If I was feeling especially inspired I’d take the time to draw some jack-o-lanterns on it with my box of crayons. Mostly though I’d just grab a sack and head out to trick-or-treat with my friends. It was all so uncomplicated and innocent back then. We trusted everyone and were usually right in our belief that we would be safe. There were a few urban tales that warned us of razor blades and needles inserted into apples so I always threw such offerings into the trash but mostly there was little mischief other than our childish attempts to scare each other with ghost stories and such.
When my daughters were young the whole Halloween tradition became a bit more elaborate. I had to purchase costumes for them rather than using what we had around the house. Most of the time they chose the one size fits all flimsy outfits that came in a box along with a big plastic mask that engulfed their tiny faces. The costumes fit like sacks and were usually torn to shreds by the end of the evening because they were made from a substance that resembled paper. The masks were so hot that they usually ended up in the trick-or-treat bags that were a bit fancier than the grocery sacks of my youth. Fear of real horrors became all too real when the “Candyman” from Deer Park, Texas poisoned his son with a pixie stick one Halloween. After that many parents abandoned the old time honored ritual of gathering goodies from house to house. Churches, schools and neighbors began to hold Halloween parties instead. There were some years when hardly any kids came to my house.
Today Halloween is bigger than ever. In some ways it has become as important in the holiday annals as Christmas and Thanksgiving. Entire sections of stores are devoted to displays of decorations, costumes and an array of treats. The children who come to my door wear outfits worthy of a high budget movie. They are decked out in full makeup with wigs and intricately detailed clothing. They bear baskets and sturdy plastic containers rather than the paper bags of old. Sometimes they carry flashlights to help them navigate in the dark. The homes that they visit are decorated with lights, pumpkins, spiderwebs and inflated monsters. Eerie sounds echo across neighborhoods transforming them into spectacular and frightening happenings. The children come by the droves along with their parents who more often than not are also dressed in ornate designs.
This weekend there will no doubt be Halloween parties all across America and most of them will be for adults. I’m not quite sure when grownups laid claim to celebrations that had once been only for children but it is now big business. Perhaps our world has become so uncertain and complex that we enjoy playing make believe if only for a brief time. We dress up and poke fun at our society. We laugh and feel the freedom that we once knew as children. Halloween provides us with an opportunity to display our creativity and an excuse to just be silly like we were in the times before we had to deal with so many responsibilities and so much stress. With the craziness of the election season I suspect that this will be an especially “bigly” year for Halloween. There are so many people and ideas that we might poke a bit with our satire.
This year there are new wrinkles in the festivities. Some people worry that their costume choices might offend. We are told that we should be careful not to appropriate a culture that is not ours. I suspect that being a hobo like I once was might be considered a slam toward those who are poor. I’ve read that some colleges are advising students to avoid wearing sombreros or demonstrating a lack of empathy in choosing what they will wear. It is a new complication that is sure to create some storms of controversy and raise questions before the weekend is over.
It used to be that those who attended Catholic school had a singular advantage associated with Halloween because the following day was All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation that was traditionally a holiday in the parochial schools. Now the students simply go to Mass in the morning and carry on as usual for the remainder of the school day. There is no more holiday in honor of the beloved saints. Traditions are changing all the way around.
I still prefer the simpler ways of approaching Halloween. I have put a jack-o-lantern on my front porch and even have a few lights along the sidewalk but that is as far as I plan to go. I’ll stock up on chocolate bars and other sweet treats and spend a few hours enjoying the children who come to my door. Other than that Halloween will come and go much as it has for most of my life. It is a fun but minor celebration in my annual routines. I sometimes wear a special t-shirt with glittery pumpkins that I purchased at Walmart for five dollars one year just to get into the spirit of things and I almost always find a horror movie to watch, but mostly Halloween is a sign that my truly favorite time of year is near.
I suspect that for most of us nothing is going to be as scary as the coming election. We are all holding our breaths in anticipation of what is coming next. It’s probably good that there is a way to ease our tensions just a bit whether we join friends in ridiculous outfits, gather with laughing children or just shut ourselves away to escape into a world of zombies or haunted houses. Sometimes we’ve just got to get away and Halloween is the perfect vehicle to distract us from the terrors of reality. Here’s hoping that your own way of enjoying the day is “huge,’