Halloween: Not Just For Kids

I’ve always loved Halloween – a pleasure that was condoned until I was 13. Now, at the ripe old age of 30-something, some people want to know, why do you still get into it? Well, I’m not alone. Sixty-three percent of Americans celebrate Halloween, with 30% of the adults joining the kids in costume, according to the National Retail Foundation’s Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey. Americans spend more than $4 billion a year on candy, costumes, cards and decorations for Halloween, and the holiday’s popularity has been spreading internationally. Halloween became popular in Britain after “E.T.” arrived in theaters and demonstrated the unbeatable fun of trick-or-treating. Germans see fit to blow more than $100 million a year on the holiday. And in Romania, home of the Dracula myth, revelers brave the haunted night to attend parties with vampire themes.

But the question remains in some people’s minds: why would adults enjoy participating in Halloween?

I have to admit that, for me, candy has a lot to do with Halloween’s appeal. (And by “candy,” I mean “chocolate.” I’m one of those for whom any candy not involving chocolate is really more “trick” than “treat.”) ‘Tis better to give than to receive, as they say, and I do enjoy opening the door and depositing a sweet in each child’s bucket, so much so it might seem I had stock in a dentist’s practice. But I’ve always got a private stash of my favorite candies close at hand and, because it’s Halloween, I can indulge to my heart’s content, though often this involves my stomach’s discontent.

Since becoming a mother of trick-or-treaters, I never have to worry about running out of candy; I always know that very soon, my intrepid young treasure-hunters will return with bags of sweet plunder, replenishing my dwindling sugar supply. The key is to talk up the Tootsie Pops and Sweet Tarts – just to distract them as I snag some of their M&Ms. (I’ve also found it useful to encourage the belief that coconut is just this side of poisonous, thus ensuring that the Mounds will all be mine.)

To the untrained eye there is an apparent inconsistency in my delight in Halloween; I won’t go anywhere near a horror flick, and indeed will scream and hyperventilate if my son creeps up behind me and says, “Boo!” in broad daylight, so why do I enjoy the creepiest of holidays? The thing is, when Halloween first started a few thousand years ago in ancient Celtic communities, it was the night when dead folks or demons were said to wander among the living. The idea of a scary costume was to frighten them off, or at least to blend in among them and not appear to be a vulnerable living target. Being the scaredy-pants I am, I can get onboard with that.

Plus I love the attention. When I was seven I dressed as an alien in a homemade green fur costume with a tinted motorcycle visor mask and twisted copper wire antennae – I got applause at every house I went to. Often the door-opener would call to other people in the house to come and see the Martian that had landed on the front stoop. That kind of childhood glory can be seriously addictive.

The creativity of costuming is a good chance to turn my imagination loose. The National Retail Foundation reports that in 2006 the most popular children’s costumes were the princess and the pirate, but I like to get a lot funkier than that. (I find that sampling the candy I bought for handing out helps stimulate the creative process.) Our family disguises have included a bellydancer, Tigger and a sorcerer, all handmade by me. It’s one thing to have a child select a pre-made costume from a rack at the big box store, but it is even more fun to have them select a pattern, fabric and notions for a custom outfit.

Even better are the get-ups whipped together five minutes before the doorbell starts ringing, like the year I was a scarecrow wearing a plaid flannel shirt, my jeans and a straw hat. To complete the effect I blackened my whole nose with an eyeliner pencil, teased my hair until it looked like a bird’s nest and grabbed some long brown grass from a neighboring field so it could stick out the ends of my sleeves and collar. My neck itched all night but it was worth it; the neighborhood kids’ eyes bugged out to see a grown-up joining in their game with such abandon.

The artistic side to Halloween continues with the decorations, especially the Jack-O-Lantern, which is derived from the ancient Celtic custom of making a lantern out of a hollowed turnip. This tradition is based on the legend of “Stingy Jack,” a swindler and a drunk who got in trouble with the devil and had to wander about with a candle in a carved-out turnip. When the Irish brought their Halloween celebrations to the New World and found a plethora of pumpkins, they upgraded this particular practice and now we have the fabulous works of art that sit on front porches with faces that beckon or threaten, depending on whether you are a trick-or-treater or a mischievous spirit. This may be my favorite part of Halloween; after all, which other holiday’s decoration preparation involves wielding a sharp knife to gut a monstrous gourd that will end up as a one-of-a-kind candle holder? (And if I find myself getting discouraged, a quick dip into the candy stash provides just the right little pick-me-up!)

Though the US Census Bureau reports that there are 109.6 million occupied housing units in America, all potential trick-or-treat stops, I believe that Halloween means more than trying to get our share of the available loot. In today’s mobile society, a lot of us get the chance to interact socially with co-workers, church groups and at school functions, but because we tend to move a lot, we seldom get to know our neighbors. Americans have gotten further and further away from the basic human need to know the folks that inhabit the same territory as we do. Halloween gives us the opportunity to accompany our kids as they knock on everyone’s door for a brief, friendly exchange.

And what a better way to greet a neighbor than with a chocolate bar!

This article was first published in The Lake Magazine

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