Today, of course, we dress up at Halloween for different reasons. (Unless I’m seriously misreading the zeitgeist, my peers and contemporaries do not dress up like a sexy nurse in order to befuddle dead spirits.) We dress up to celebrate, to forget, to pretend; to enjoy the fantasy of cutting free from the existences we live day to day and experience the freedom of being someone or something else. Add to this the practice of trick-or-treating (a custom that is rooted in the Middle Age practice of “wassailing” or caroling), and you have every kid’s – and many adults’ – favorite holiday. I mean, what child doesn’t love to dress up, run around in the dark, and get free candy?
I’ve never been a huge fan of Halloween. I enjoyed it as a kid, but not in the plan-your-costume-months-in-advance kind of way. When I hit adolescence, Halloween became uncool, which was just as well, because dressing up was too much work and by then I could just buy candy in the store without having to go to all the trouble of walking around the neighborhood and begging for it. As an adult, I’ve only recently lived in a neighborhood that enjoyed a plethora of children trick-or-treating. Moving to this busier neighborhood also coincided with becoming a parent. And now I enjoy Halloween more. No, it’s not for dressing up. It’s not for pumpkins, and it’s not even so much dressing up our little one (although that’s adorable: she was Maggie Simpson last year and Princess Leia this year). It’s seeing the sidewalks of our neighborhood and the walkway to our house filled with children dressed in costume, politely (usually) asking for candy and wishing me a happy Halloween.
The cutest kids I saw last night trick-or-treating were the kids between the ages of three and six. (No, preteen girls dressed as sexy witches, not you.) These kids look adorable already, but dress them up as Spider-Man or a teddy bear and they just ooze cuteness in a way that is hard to believe (see picture above). But these kids are also talking, and they are hilarious. Some examples:
Four-year-old girl dressed as a lion: “All your candy is in a pumpkin!” (referring to our classic trick-or-treating pumpkin)
Me: “That’s right! For Halloween!”
Girl: “It shouldn’t be in a pumpkin!”
Me: “It shouldn’t?”
Girl: “No! You should put it on a plate!”
Three-year-old boy dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle: “Did you go trick-or-treating?” (substitute all “r” sounds with a “w” and leave out the “did”)
Me: “I did, I went earlier.”
Boy: (with great excitement) “Me too! Me too! I went trick-or-treating!”
Me: “Was it fun?”
Boy: (nodding vigorously) “I’m going again!”
Five-year-old girl dressed in a black costume with the Batman insignia and a black bat mask: “Are you a pirate?”
Me, dressed in my grandfather’s WWII Army service uniform: “No, I’m not a pirate.”
Girl: “You look like a pirate.”
Me: “Well, that’s confusing. Are you Batman?”
Girl: (somewhat offended) “I’m Batgirl!”
Me: “Oh, of course. I’m sorry for being sexist. I’ll do better next year.”
Girl: “Oh, I’ll be something different next year.”
Our subdivision has sidewalks and the houses are close together. We recognized some of our neighbors, but I would guess that three quarters of our trick-or-treaters came from outside the subdivision, in minivans and trucks, bused in from houses in the country or less safe neighborhoods. We saw a good bit of ethnic diversity, and I can assume from the wide varieties of cars we saw circling our neighborhood that all of our trick-or-treaters came from different socio-economic backgrounds. They were dressed as zombies, superheroes, Disney characters, ballerinas, and animals. One kid was Gandalf, another was Princess Peach from the Super Mario franchise. One kid was dressed in athletic garb and had a cardboard bench attached to his back. When he turned to leave, I saw that the back of the bench said “Put me in coach!” One kid had no noticeable costume at all. My spouse asked him what he was dressed as. “Myself,” he said sheepishly. “I couldn’t think of a costume.”
We gave candy regardless of age or costume. Other than pilfering the Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkins for myself, we didn’t discriminate who got what. It didn’t matter what effort they appeared to have put into their costume, or whether we were dropping candy into fancy store-bought pumpkins or ratty pillowcases. Furthermore, I had no idea what any of these kids’ stories were. I couldn’t tell which kids came from broken homes. I couldn’t tell which kids were being abused. I couldn’t tell which kids were poor students. I couldn’t tell which kids were bullied at school, or which kids were bullies. There were two who had noticeable special needs, and both of these kids had an adult chaperone beside them encouraging and escorting them. In short, it felt like a single night of blissful freedom from the ills of the world, a place where all kids could pretend to be something fun and get lots of free candy for one beautiful night of make-believe. We had around 120 trick-or-treaters, and from sheer statistics, I know this means that in the darkness just on the edge of where our porch lights could reach, there were parents who are alcoholic, abusive, neglectful, or worse. I know that among the kids politely announcing “Trick or treat,” were kids who curse and yell and scream at their teachers and parents; kids who steal and kids who lie and kids who are deeply troubled and hurting. But none of that was apparent in our yard last night. We could all join the fleeting fantasy that everything was fun and exciting and filled with just enough light to see the brightly colored costumes and the promise of sugar and the darkness would cover up everything else.
And we don’t ever outgrow that fantasy, do we? We know better, and I think that maturity calls us not to ignore the suffering in the world. I also believe maturity calls us to hold that suffering in tension with the joyfulness of the world. That for one night we can pretend to be our heroes or our worst fears writ large. It confuses and wards off the death and suffering all around us. Perhaps the kid who couldn’t think of a costume really wore the most courageous costume of the night: being yourself is the toughest, isn’t it? Who couldn’t use at least one night a year to take a break from that?