The only photos I have of my childhood Halloween are the two years I was dressed as a clown. My mother was an excellent seamstress, but she was not frivolous. Purchasing fabric, notions, and taking time out of her day to stitch a costume worn for one evening went against everything Betty Jackson believed in. In her mind, that was a luxury reserved for people who didn’t clip coupons, recycle coffee cans into cookie tins, and transform the back patio into a hair salon once a month. Never mind that the cost difference was probably pennies, my mother preferred the off-the-rack, no-frills costume from TG&Y. And obviously, clowns. Then, on November 1st, she handed down those colorful vinyl pieces to my one girl cousin. I’m almost certain my Aunt Becky sewed whatever my cousin wore on October 31st, so my practically disposable Halloween costumes were probably never worn again.

When I had children, they also donned store-bought costumes every Halloween. In mid-October, after I had spent far too much money decorating my house with garland leaves, scarecrows, hay bales and pumpkins, I trekked to Walmart to buy an off-the-rack delight for the little ones. Over the years, our oldest two children wiggled into their costume around 4 p.m. on Halloween. The annual photos show them as an array of the year’s most popular Disney characters, a fact which only adds to my own lack of creativity. The lowest point in the “dress-up holiday” – as my daughter referred to it – was the year we moved to Phoenix on October 30. Somewhere around noon on Halloween we rushed to a local discount store to purchase the very last of the costumes left on the rack, the rejects: a wrestler and, of course, a clown. By the way, there is almost no way to make a clown costume appear feminine as you can see from the photos above, so we count that year as a complete fail. 

It was two years later that I caved to the pressure of my mommy peers and began attempts at creativity, which basically meant scrounging around for old clothes to pair together, painting their faces, and purchasing a corresponding accessory at the dollar store. The costumes in this era consisted of a pirate, hippies, a farmer, and Minnie Mouse (ears for a buck at the Dollar Tree!). These two older children dressed for Halloween and carried a plastic bucket for candy, reminiscent of my own childhood, but with one notable difference: I walked through my neighborhood as a child on Halloween. For their first several Halloween years, they did not.

As a young mother who had grown up with no siblings, my parenting mentors consisted of other young mothers who were in the church we began attending soon after our son was born. Until his birth, my husband and I had enjoyed lazy Sundays, much like we did in college and graduate school. We had been content to leave the fold of church until we were blessed with a surprise pregnancy and a baby 11 months after our wedding. Soon after his birth we admitted to needing a little support, comfort, advice and a place to yell for help. So we stepped back into familiar territory and settled in. 

One of the trade-offs of our comforting social circle of parents was an abandonment of traditional trick-or-treating on Halloween. Instead, my husband and I dressed our children in their uncreative costumes and loaded them into the minivan to drive to the Fall Festival at church. There, our little Disney characters enjoyed games, candy prizes, and an evening of reuniting with all the friends they saw on Sunday, Wednesday and during weekly playdates. In effect, we gave Halloween a cold shoulder. We all agreed that it was scary for the young ones, and had historical undertones (and overtones) of pagan and satanic rituals. We attributed all kinds of evil to this day, and a trek around the neighborhood with the plastic bucket was like embracing the dark spirits that permeated this non-holiday. We were suspect of the parents who didn’t show up to Fall Festival, and a little concerned about those who took their kids trick-or-treating during the early hours and showed up at the festival midway through. Also, that arrangement was a little like double-dipping. These days, many churches have graduated to something called Trunk-or-Treat, which allows kids to actually walk from car to car and still get the thrill of shouting out something (“trunk or treat!”) in exchange for candy. But still, no tricks allowed.

All those years of turning away from the dark side of Halloween left me missing the neighborly part of it. The people who lived closest to us were people we rarely interacted with, and when we finally returned to the trick-or-treat tradition with our youngest daughter and the older kids helping us escort her, it felt right. We passed by these houses every day and would sometimes wave at our neighbors or engage in quick small talk while walking the dog. But the act of ringing their doorbell with our youngest daughter, allowing her to cry out for candy and be complimented on her princess costume (sadly, we didn’t get any more creative with the dress-up part of it), felt like a return to something I needed from my small-town childhood. Instinctively, the neighbors pulled together to give the little ones the best night of the year. The candy was purchased, the houses were decorated, the porch light was on and the door was answered – sometimes with the adult wearing their own costume. 

And yes, there were scary places along the way. For a while, we lived in a neighborhood where our kids were both frightened and fascinated by the dentist who turned his garage into a haunted house, complete with a speaker for scary sounds that could be heard five houses away. But we talked them through it. We walked beside them and laughed to lighten the frightening moments and high-fived them when we escaped unscathed with chocolate bars and a toothbrush in hand. I like to think this was better preparation for the world ahead, which also turned out to include some scary moments for our kids, complete with ugly laughter and some unexpected events that jumped out from behind closed doors. We’ve tried to make sure they know it’s essential to have people walk beside them, and we’ve celebrated when they emerged from tough places and survived the darkness (chocolate included, always). 

We now live in a very different kind of neighborhood than the one our children grew up in. It’s a more economically and racially diverse part of town and as a naive young mother, I probably would have avoided a neighborhood like this in order to keep my children “safe.” But here is what happens in Owen Park every Halloween: We all buy multiple bags of 250-piece candy, stay home, gather on our front porches even when it’s cold, and wait for our neighbors to walk their children around in their homemade creations. Some of our neighbors have a lot of resource to dress up their kids, and some have almost none. We also don’t mind that people drive their children to our neighborhood from other parts of town that actually aren’t as safe. Tonight, the children are all equal. They get to become whoever they want to be for an evening, and they will be handed candy and hear the gushing compliments of the neighbors for whatever they wear – even the kid dressed in the plastic clown costume. It’s magical, and I’m all in for the frivolous excess of Halloween. In neighborhoods like ours across our city and country, hand in hand with the adults in their lives, in costume for one glorious night and anticipating armloads of candy, there isn’t a better place to be on October 31st. Maybe tonight we can be reminded of generous, neighborly acceptance for the year that is in front of us. We could use it.

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