If kids were in charge, all holidays would be like Halloween. No need to wear an itchy party dress or too-tight, hand-me-down black dress shoes. For Halloween, your mother doesn't choose your outfit – you do! And the more inappropriate the better. Sparkly, pink eye shadow and a purple satin skirt? OK, you'll be a princess tonight. Warty, rubber hands and a ripped shirt? Terrific – you're a swamp monster.
What other holiday has Hershey as its patron saint? The day's important ritual items? Pumpkins and lots of candy. No need for long religious services either. Just a good walk around the neighborhood collecting treats. No wonder kids think that Halloween is the ideal holiday.
When my kids were younger, the strategizing and planning for Halloween seemed to start just as the novelty of new spiral notebooks and back-to-school excitement faded. Just as they were settling into their routines of heavy book bags and daily homework, the orange glow of Halloween on the horizon would perk everybody up and cheer us through the fall.
My children are older now, but Halloween still inspires a burst of creativity and action in our house. I have to get the big box filled with decorations down from the attic. Over the years, I've invested in a hairy spider that swoops down on a string, several sets of twinkle lights, and pumpkin luminaries galore. Each will have a place of honor on my front lawn. For my two kids still at home, Halloween means checking with their friends and making big plans.
A few years ago, my teenage son decided he was too old to go out trick-or-treating, but he wasn't too old to skip the fun entirely. Michael wore a torn T-shirt, blackened his face with makeup and doused his chest with ketchup. He lay in the bushes in front of our house for hours that night, springing out waving a knife, to scare selected groups of older trick-or-treaters as they approached our front door.
My daughter's costume selection keeps wavering between simple, easy to construct costumes such as witches, hippies, and old ladies and those ideas that are a little too complicated to turn into reality.
But that doesn't stop Jessie. One year, she sewed herself into a giant felt cupcake she had constructed, complete with sprinkles on top.
Her costume is almost as important as which friends will walk around the neighborhood with her, who's having a party, and whose house can serve as a convenient home base.
My youngest is still open to parental suggestions when it comes to costumes – but the days of superheroes, cowboys, and baby farm animals are long gone. One of my favorite memories is of the literary-references year when Andy wore a yellow vest and hat and carried his plush Curious George monkey. He was the "man with the yellow hat," Curious George's best friend.
When I was first married, we lived in the city in a not-so-great neighborhood. We were surprised that first Halloween when hundreds of trick-or-treaters came to our tiny row home. Why didn't I realize then that children who don't have many treats on an ordinary day need a night of fantasy and free candy more than anyone? Still, I was amazed at the sheer number of hopeful faces that showed up at our door.
Their costumes were not elaborate, and it was obvious they were created with little expense. Those inner-city kids dressed up in whatever was available – a mother's lipstick smeared all over their face, a borrowed scarf and sunglasses, an older sibling's baggy shirt.
Teenagers who were too old for trick-or-treating came around on the pretext of helping the younger kids collect candy. But they always managed to hold out an extra bag for themselves. Who could blame them? Halloween is a night like no other. A night when kids are encouraged to take candy from strangers.
That night, we gave out bags and bags of candy. When the candy ran out, I gave out fruit and cookies. When that ran out, we finally turned out the front light and retreated upstairs to hide.
Unlike some other aspects of childhood that have changed radically over the years, Halloween seems almost untouched by the passage of time. We'll still put candles in the jack-o'-lanterns we'll carve. I'll still decorate orange-frosted cupcakes with candy corn, and kids will still come to our front door for candy. Only right now, Andy is surfing the Internet for costume ideas.