I grew up on a farm, a mile down the road from the farm where my dad lived as a child. My parents knew everyone “on the mile”: where they went to church, where they worked, whether they had kids. There were a lot of young families like my parents, who’d bought a couple of acres in the midst of farmland, built a ranch-style house, put down sod and planted trees.
Almost no one decorated for Halloween. The holiday was much less about scares, when I was a kid, and more about community. The emphasis was on giving. One farm wife made popcorn balls: carmelized popcorn shaped bigger than a fist and wrapped in cellophane. Because the apple orchard was farther down the road, homemade candy apples were popular gifts. One neighbor offered a mixing bowl full of pennies and encouraged each child to take a fistful. (This was when you could actually buy two pieces of Bazooka bubblegum for a penny.) Neighbors would invite you in to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate so they could get a good look at your costume.
Halloween seemed magical to me then. The neighborhood was a wonderland of houses with their porch lights on, inviting and friendly. We neighborhood kids traveled in packs, carrying brown paper grocery sacks or pillowcases. Our costumes were homemade and seldom p.c. — hoboes and cowboys and indian princesses, gypsies and soldiers — things made by hand by our mothers or pulled together from our parents’ closets. There were no racks of shiny rayon costumes at the sole grocery store in town.
Because I have such rosy memories of Halloween — before the scares of razorblades in apples and tabs of LSD given out as stickers (neither of which I took seriously until it was MY four-year-old going door-to-door) — it was hard to learn to take my daughter trick-or-treating. We don’t know our neighbors beyond the houses immediately adjacent. Porch lights are resolutely switched off in this neighborhood on Halloween, where the neighbors are more likely to celebrate Dia de los Muertoes or Qingming than Halloween. I knew that there were parts of town where parents dumped their kids by the van-load, but I wasn’t interested in being run down in the crush.
The first year we trick-or-treated only from the nurses in the hospice where my great aunt lay dying. The year my daughter was three, we only begged from places I shopped at on West Portal Avenue. We tried Potrero Hill the following year, but the neighbors were so besieged that they’d grown surly. Some just left bowls of candy on the steps and retreated, so they didn’t have to interact with the children at all.
The year she was five, we hit the jackpot. The neighbors of St. Francis Wood compete with each other, turning their yards into Oz, complete with Dorothy’s house atop the witch, or setting up a life-sized pirate ship, captained by a skeleton. Kids and adults all seemed to have a good time. My daughter was particularly impressed by the man doling out chocolate body parts, who gave her a blue eye because she was “such a pretty princess.”
After that, we spent a couple of years braving the Halloween crush because one of the families in her grave always hosted a Halloween party before the kids go out to trick-or-treat together. Those excursions have been among the most magical nights of her life. I always looked forward to recapturing the sense of community I felt as a child. It’s strange that I have to think beyond our neighborhood to do it.
This year her school sabotaged all that. They scheduled the class bonding camp over Halloween. Even though a full third of the parents protested, the school refused to reschedule the trip. Their only compromise was to offer an earlier return flight — families could pay more money for less camp — and have their children fly home on Halloween. Since the kids are flying in and out of a small airport, I figured the odds that their plane would be delayed were even on. Either way, we decided the only real protest was to keep our daughter home. Most other families caved and sent their children away. No one at all is happy; bonding is the last thing being accomplished.
This year we’ll go back to St. Francis Wood to trick-or-treat. There will only be the three of us, instead of a pack of children. There will be no one to trade candy with afterward, no classmates whose costume must be admired. The excitement will be muted.
Still, I think we made the right choice: to keep her home to enjoy Halloween, rather than send her off to let strangers enjoy her costume and provide Halloween fun. What’s Halloween without trick-or-treating? These kids are too young for ghost stories or haunted houses or scary movies. They’re too young for sexy costumes and awkward dances. What else can they do at this age, beyond trick-or-treat? For that matter, I feel like childhood is flying so fast and there won’t be too many more magical nights that she’ll want to share with her parents.
It makes me sad that the school chose to suck the fun out of Halloween this year.