Why we’re not going to be Halloween Scrooges

I was going to skip Halloween this year. I made plans with a friend to go somewhere–anywhere–away from home so that I could keep the lights turned off and avoid trick-or-treaters. The candy has become so expensive, and I didn’t want to buy and carve pumpkins. It’s hard to know how many will actually come. Some years we get a fair number. Last year, when it rained, we only had two or three and at the end of the night I was left with a big bowl of candy that I didn’t want.

I just wasn’t feeling it.

Over the weekend, though, we had friends for dinner. They are Jewish, and as we talked about what is happening to them, for them, I found myself revisiting my Halloween plan. I found myself thinking about community, and what it means to be a member of one. In our conversation, I told my story about a rift with my next-door neighbor. More than a year ago we found ourselves on different sides of a conflict over the creation of a project to house unhoused people in our neighborhood, and since then my formerly friendly neighbor avoids me. She once turned around and walked in the opposite direction when she saw us approaching as we were out walking on a sunny evening after dinner. She is Israeli, spending part of every year with family there, and I have wanted to check in on her, offer something that would be helpful, but I haven’t had the courage to reach out.

I found myself revisiting memories of my childhood Halloweens.

There was the year my brother wanted to be a sprinkler. My brother, who is significantly autistic (though we didn’t know that until he was an adult), was fascinated with sprinklers. He could sit and watch them for what seemed like hours to me. He loved them so much that he would go into neighbors’ yards and pull out their hoses and turn their sprinklers on. (It was the 70’s, a different era. There were few fences and every kid we knew was free-range.) Our neighbors on one side complained, but the neighbors on the other side, the Fryes, were kind about it.

My mother was stumped about how to turn my brother into a sprinkler, but eventually she figured out how to do it. She made him a green cape, then fashioned a wave sprinkler (his favorite kind) from styrofoam and tin foil for him to wear on his head. Most people did not know what he was; many guessed that he was an alien. But Mr. Frye? As soon as he opened the door, he began laughing. Really laughing. Belly-laughing. He knew right away what Joe was, and that he knew made me like him even more than I already did. (The Fryes had two plum trees, and they gave me a standing invitation to climb them with my books in hand and to sit and read and eat as many plums as I’d like.)

Both Mr. and Mrs. Frye had cleft palates, and so their speech could be a little hard for me to understand. They knew, as our family did, too, what it was like to be judged and misunderstood for simply being who you are. What it was like to be treated meanly by those who more easily fit into society’s norms.

Another year, perhaps the last good year before invading hormones began to change Halloween for me, my group of girlfriends came to my neighborhood to trick or treat with me. We were a loud horde of shrieking tweenagers just beginning to glimpse what life might become as we kept running ahead of my mother.

We turned into one yard I was unfamiliar with, running and shouting and kicking leaves down a long front path to a small house. An old man opened the door to us, holding a finger to his lips as he waved us into the house. That was strange, and I felt a little uneasy, but we all trooped in. “Don’t wake the little one,” he cautioned, and I saw a young girl asleep on a couch, a hand-knit blanket draped over her body. There was a fire burning in a fireplace and old-fashioned music playing low from a radio. I felt like I’d stepped into one of my books, one that told a story set in a different time.

“Just a moment,” he said, and went into an adjoining room. He returned with a tray of caramel apples, each wrapped with the kind of plastic wrap our mothers all had in their kitchens. “Here you go,” he said, and told us that we should each choose one. We each slipped an apple into our bags, quietly, and moved to the door. I didn’t want to leave. Something about this house, so different from my own and from all the others we’d visited, felt so good to me.

Back out at the road, by mother was waiting anxiously. She asked me why we’d gone into the house.

“He asked us to,” I said.

“Don’t do that again,” she cautioned. I showed her the treat–one unlike any other I’d ever received–and she told me that I would have to throw it away because it was home-made. I protested, describing what the house had been like, what he’d been like, but she was firm. “We don’t know him,” she said, “and we can’t accept those kinds of treats from people we don’t know.”

I knew she was wrong–I knew it!–but I did what I was told, keeping only this memory that is still vivid nearly 50 years later.

After dinner with our friends, I thought of the children in my neighborhood, the boys who shoot baskets in the street and ride their bikes and skateboards in a loop in front of our house. They are Russian, and they’ve never come trick-or-treating, but there are others in our little part of this large city who have. I thought about how hard so many things are for so many children, and about my fears for the future they will be living their lives in.

Then I texted my friend and asked if instead of going out she’d like to come over for dinner and help me hand out candy. Ours is a neighborhood that doesn’t see a lot of kids on Halloween, even when the weather is good. We are tucked between two major thoroughfares. Many of the folks who live here are older, and a good number of the younger ones are members of cultures that don’t celebrate Halloween in the ways I traditionally have. Ours is the opposite of a destination neighborhood, one that people drive their kids to because they are full of large, decorated houses and streets filled with bands of costumed kids and parents. Even on a good year, our streets are sparsely filled.

But there are kids who come, and they live here.

So, Cane and my friend and I are going to eat soup and have a fire and maybe play a board game. When I asked her about changing our plan, my friend offered to bring some candy to add to our treat bowl.

I know that staying home and answering the door to families in my community won’t change the situation in Israel/Gaza. It won’t ease my friends’ or neighbors’ pain. It won’t house those without houses or fix the climate or our broken political system or any of the systems that make some neighborhoods a destination for Halloween and others something else. But it will help some people feel good right here, where we are all living together, even if just for an evening. Maybe it will make us something other than total strangers to at least some of our neighbors, so that if one of them at some time needs or wants something I can give, they’ll be more easily able to accept it.

In the work I’m doing with a school this year, we’ve been reading, thinking and talking about how to cultivate critical hope in children who are growing up in trauma. One of the keys to doing so is to provide “material hope,” and that “comes from the sense of control young people have when they are given the resources to deal with the forces that affect their lives.”

Maybe I’m pinning too much on a welcoming house and a generous treat, but a material gift that is an expression of love–one that says, “your neighborhood, too, has adults who want to care for you”–is probably worth the price of a few pumpkins and bags of candy.

A little visit from the ghost of Halloween Past…

13 thoughts on “Why we’re not going to be Halloween Scrooges

  1. Ally Bean says:

    Halloween memories are sometimes the most vivid ones. I remember little details of glimpses of seeing into neighbor’s houses and an overly worried mother too. I’m glad you have generous plans for tonight. I agree that sharing some candy with kids who you’ll never know isn’t a big deal, but in light of the world we live in I think it’s a good thing. Positive begets positive.

  2. Kate says:

    The last time I went trick or treating I was in second grade. My mom remarried soon after and we didn’t celebrate Halloween after. She says looking back she wishes she would have seen it for what it is worth – a night to be kind and welcoming and neighborly and FUN.

    Abe and his friends have their plan together and V and Jesse will pull the fire pit out into the driveway and we’ll hand out close to 1000 pieces. I love it. More because we got our first snow fall and that always seems to make Halloween a little more of an adventure.

    I’m glad you’re handing out candy, Rita. My Gram used to say she didn’t think our brains were meant to know all of the things that are going on in the world (which I think some studies are showing the truth of that) but we were definitely meant to take good care of those in our community. In a time when the world needs joy and things are literally and seem figuratively darker, I hope you have a great evening!

    • Rita says:

      Snow! I remember one year when it snowed here, late on Halloween night. It felt magical. I love to think of you and your family around that fire pit. Wish I could stop by to share some warmth with you.

      I think your Gram is absolutely right, and I don’t need any studies to prove it to me. 🙂 I hope you have a great evening, too.

  3. Kari says:

    I’m glad you decided to hand out treats.

    On Sunday, we didn’t have many trick-or-treaters. We’re going to my parents house tonight because Ella likes to pass out candy there. I love it when a teenager ASKS to visit Grandma and Grandpa. 🖤

    I also love that picture of you.

    Happy Halloween!

    • Rita says:

      Hope you and Ella and all your people had a nice evening. I will never forget begging my mom to let me stay some extra days with my grandparents, and my grandma saying, “Oh, let her. Soon enough she won’t be interested in spending time with her old Grandma.” I was probably 10, and I couldn’t imagine that I would ever not wanting to spend time with my grandparents. I’m happy to say that I never stopped wanting to, even when I was a teen. That’s a testament to my grandparents, for sure. Ella is lucky, I’m guessing. 🙂

      (Also, that’s not a picture of me. That’s my Grace.)

  4. TD says:

    I live on a street similar as you described. Although many of our neighbors on this street decorated, there hasn’t been any trick or treaters. Except one young child dressed up as some sort of green thing who was visiting their relatives and taking photos in their decorations.

    I’m happy that you decided with your good nature and good fortune to share this evening with anyone who dares to stroll by! Enjoy your moment and evening.

    I grew up in the 60s and 70s in Houston in a very wealthy neighborhood. And my memories of Halloween were not so good. I unfortunately remember that I had my tricker treat bag swiped off my arm! My older brothers couldn’t protect me. And I ran home of course crying only to be punished by my parents because my stepdad’s golf hat that I was wearing was too big for my head so I put it in my bag… which was swiped. I remember I was a hobo about 7 yo. After that I never wanted to trick or treat. And living in the big city of Houston, TX in the 70’s is when the parents had to take the candy to get x-rays for razor blade and the trick sorts.

    On a happier, wiser side of life, I do love seeing the children dressed in their costumes! And I have found that there are so many school and community functions that celebrate Halloween in a safe and healthy environment.

    In my adult life I have dressed up myself and have found ways to celebrate in safe environments.

    Enjoy your evening, however it my pleasure the day! I have had a wonderful day with blogs and sharing on-line and by text this year and driving through my neighborhood to see the outdoor decorations.

    • Rita says:

      I remember the scares about razor blades in candy and such in the 70s, which is my my mother wouldn’t let me eat the caramel apple. I think I also remember reading years later that such fear was the stuff of urban myth; no one ever put such things in candy for trick-or-treaters. Or, someone did and it was blown all out of proportion.

      I’m sorry you had such scary experiences as a child. I think we were much more left on our own in those decades, and it could get a little wild. I do remember that treat bags could be nabbed, especially when I was a bit older and out later and without parents to supervise. So glad to hear that you enjoyed your day yesterday.

  5. TD says:

    Well, I spoke too soon! There is a two hour difference from me to you, Rita. It’s 8 ish and very cold 50 degrees with high humidity. Our street is dark. No city street lights. Just porch lights and decoration lights. Times have changed since we were kids! Two different groups came by. One group of 9 kids being escorted by an adult using a cell phone flashlight and a car’s headlights. And the second group same type of escorts with a group of a dozen kids. They were having fun despite the cold for the tropics of Corpus Christi, TX!

    Happy Halloween 🎃

    So good for you, Rita, for engaging in the giveaways!

  6. Laura Millsaps says:

    We always have several families with young kids, early, before it gets dark, and then the older kids come a little later, but our small city wraps it up by 7:30, especially on school nights. This year it’s cold and windy, so we saw fewer people than usual, and we never get a lot. Trick-or-treating has decreased since I moved to this neighborhood 12 years ago, and while I’m sure the pandemic played a role, I think the neighborhood demographic has changed, and so have the times. So many of our old ways of forming communities have been disjointed by modern technology, by capitalism, by transportation, by digital media. Finding new ways are good, but so is keeping to ones as old as All Hallow’s Eve.

    • Rita says:

      Well, we had only two groups all evening. I have more thoughts about community-building, which I may or may not share here. (It’s been a week.) I won’t be buying candy next year, though. But it’s all good.

  7. Karen Prigodich says:

    When my kids were growing up we lived in a semi rural area on a busy country road with few street lights. Letting the kids go door-to-door was simply not an option. So until they were in elementary school and going with friends in more suburban neighborhoods. We dress them up and took them in the car or through adjacent gates to the homes of neighbors we knew. We would stay for 15 to 20 minutes, letting them ooh and ah over the kids costumes and just having neighborly chats. Our kids built relationships with our neighbors that have lasted past our move a few years ago.

    We now live in a tight little development of homes and despite some smiles and waves and a few brief snatches of conversation, I couldn’t tell you the names of any of our neighbors. We’re on a flag lot and have never gotten any trick-or-treaters. Strange how norms are so different in different communities.

    • Rita says:

      This all makes a lot of sense to me. When my kids were in elementary school, we lived on the mountain, but in a developed neighborhood. Kids who lived in areas more like the one you describe came to our neighborhood for Halloween. I have such fond memories of those years. There was a big feeling of community. With only one elementary school on the mountain, we all knew most of the kids. I wish that existed where I live now, but as you say–different places have different norms. And this time is quite different from that one, in many ways.

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