Halloween: The Other Family Holiday

by Stand Staff

“What are you going to be for Halloween?”My eight-year-old niece called to ask me that question this morning, and it made me remember the way I used to interrogate people on the same topic every October when I was a kid. In my niece’s case, the question is even more pressing since for the last two years, Halloween had been cancelled in her small Connecticut town thanks to a freak ice storm in 2012 and Hurricane Sandy in 2013. When I told her I hadn’t decided yet, she rattled off a few urgent suggestions from monsters to superheroes for me and my puppy, who she insisted dress up, too, and reminded me I’d better make up my mind since Halloween is only weeks away.

After we hung up, I took my puppy for a walk. As if to drive home my niece’s point, neighbors already had pumpkins on their stoops; one even had a cardboard witch pinned to the front door. The pressure from my niece about the looming holiday led me to think of my earliest memories of Halloween. Since my parents married and had my brother and me at a young age, they were still very much kids, too, and that meant they got into the Halloween spirit as much as we did. Back then, my mom and dad were costume snobs who wouldn’t allow their kids to be caught dead in some generic, store-bought number. Instead, they helped us dream up and create wholly original and clever costumes for the big night.jackIn second grade, I informed them that I wanted to be a scarecrow. My mom helped me hunt down old clothes from my dresser, and my father sliced holes in them with his hunting knife, excitedly explaining his plans to smudge my face with burned cork and stuff my outfit with real hay from a local farm. I was so thrilled that I took to bragging about it to all my unimaginative cronies at school.My big mouth got me in trouble when the teacher overheard. She sent a note home informing my parents that I was forbidden to wear the costume to the school parade since she didn’t want the janitor to be stuck sweeping hay in the hallways afterwards. My parents couldn’t believe what a busybody my teacher was—except they referred to her using a different B word. In the end, however, my mom took me to Bradlees discount store where we picked out a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume, the sort with small slits for eyes and an even smaller slit for my mouth. As I struggled to see and breathe and my face sweat beneath that mask, I marched half-heartedly around the school in a line of other Caspers and Woody Woodpeckers and Bugs Bunnies. The indignity of it all was tolerable, I told myself, repeating my parent’s earlier assurance that when the big night came, I would transform into a living, breathing scarecrow as planned.

When Halloween arrived at last, out came the ripped clothes, the burned cork, and the real hay. It didn’t matter that the straw poked and scratched at my skin and left me smelling like the livestock section at a state fair; I was too ecstatic to care. My brother’s costume was equally as impressive. He wanted to be a robot, so our dad spray-painted boxes silver and glued reflectors on them, adding a coat hanger wrapped in tinfoil for an antenna. We set out at dusk, carrying pillowcases that would soon be stuffed with Kit-Kats, Sweet Tarts, Charleston Chews, and so much more.

Our neighborhood was once a place where people from the nearby city of Bridgeport went on weekends to get away, so the houses were a hodge-podge of quirky old cottages, some at the end of long driveways, surrounded by trees with bare, twisty branches. In other words, the perfect, spooky setting for trick-or-treating.

One family after another opened their door and showered us with praise for our costumes, tossing in extra candy that I felt certain we never would have been given had we worn those lackluster, Casper-type get-ups.

As years passed and I grew older, my costumes kept their originality. I was everything from Santa Claus and Ghandi to a dice and a banana, complete with a blue-painted face for a label and the word Chiquita written across my cheeks and nose. Eventually, though, my passion for Halloween died down as I spent the night at grown-up parties, where people were supposed to dress up but rarely did. If I happened to be home visiting on Halloween, it seemed that hardly any kids came to the door anymore. But in recent years, my youngest sister, who had yet to be born back in those scarecrow/robot days, married and added onto the house where we grew up. When she gave birth to my niece and nephew, suddenly Halloween came alive again.

All these years later, my favorite thing to do on the last evening of October is to return home to my old neighborhood. My mom, my dad, my sister and her husband and their kids, even my brother and his daughter—all of us still wander those same streets at dusk. In some ways, Halloween feels more like a family event than Thanksgiving and Christmas, since we are often apart on those holidays because of conflicting schedules.    As for those quirky old cottages, most have been transformed into bigger homes and the families who once lived in them are long gone. Still, there a few who have not changed, right down to the same people who open their doors to us on Halloween night as we shout “Trick or treat!” Those neighbors, much older now, still remember me as a boy dressed like a smudge-faced scarecrow. They laugh at the sight of me on their stoop since I’m the only adult who gives in to my niece’s urging and wears a costume.

Which brings me back to her question: What am I going to be for Halloween?

It’s such an important decision that I still haven’t made up my mind. Whatever I choose, I promise it will be a costume that neither of us will ever forget.