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The Many Joys of Halloween

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Fall Leaves

Of all the holidays in the year, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Halloween. I love everything about it, from the spooky atmosphere to the silly costumes, and I have many fond Halloween memories from when I was a little kid.

Unlike birthdays or some other holidays, Halloween in our house didn’t require any sort of a significant financial investment, so my parents were confident in their ability to give my sister and me all the essential trappings of Halloween. My parents saw the holiday as an excuse for silly fun and one night off of typical taboos against dressing up in strange clothing and begging strangers for sweets, not as anything to be suspicious of or deemed harmful. It didn’t hurt that our father was also a fan of the holiday and encouraged us in our enthusiasm for it. Thus, while Halloween itself is only ever a one-day event, the build-up in our house always started the day after my dad’s birthday.

On October fourth, the decorations for Dad’s birthday came down and the Halloween decorations went up. We had an entire moving box full of these decorations, many of them handmade over the years by my younger sister and myself, and a couple that dated all the way back to our parents’ childhoods. We hung the drawings we made in every front window, making sure not to cut off too much light for the houseplants. The big poster board jack-o-lantern was taped onto the window on the front door. My sister and I wanted everyone who walked past our house to know that we were excited for Halloween.

Not all of the decorations were for the benefit of passersby. Most of the best decorations were for the interior of the house. Fake spider web was woven into the bannister on the staircase. The tissue paper ghost was hung on the plant hook in the sun room. The wooden pumpkins were lined up on the mantelpiece, and the various holiday-themed stuffed toys and decorations were propped up on any and all available horizontal surfaces. It usually took a few hours to empty the big cardboard box. By the time my sister and I had done so, the house positively screamed “Halloween,” and not just from the more vocal seasonal props.

Once my sister and I had finished decorating the house, it was time to give thought to decorating ourselves for the big night. Finding the perfect costume was always an exercise in poring over the glossy pictures in the catalogs that flooded our mailbox, despite the fact that we never bought a single thing from them, and despite the fact that we very often picked a costume very similar, if not identical, to the one we’d worn the previous year. We knew this, but it was still fun to imagine the possibilities- Halloween, after all, was the one night out of the entire year when we really could be anything we wanted.

My earliest Halloween costume was a witch outfit my mother had sewn herself. It had been nice and roomy when I first wore it so I could wear a jacket underneath to ward off the chilly Wisconsin night, and much later it served as an extra layer in a more age-appropriate costume. Dressing for the weather was a big part of choosing a functional and fantastic Halloween costume, as temperatures could get really cold at night, often dropping into the low forties. Costumes, therefore, had to be able to accommodate a jacket or sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants.

The two costumes I had after outgrowing the little witch ensemble reflected this: a felt and plush bumblebee costume and then a plush cat costume, both complete with a fuzzy headpiece to serve as a warm hat or hood. Both were full-body costumes that were warm enough in their own right and baggy enough for any other necessary layers.

When I outgrew these costumes, I got my first and only store-bought costume, another witch outfit. This was a hand-me-down from one of my mom’s friends, and came with a ratty black and white wig that turned out to be surprisingly warm on cold nights. It was a simple black dress with zigzag edges to the sleeves and hem that made it versatile enough to be worn as the basis for several different kinds of costumes, from a witch to a vampire. I wore this outfit for the last few times I went trick or treating, and for a few costume parties after that. I still have it, though I don’t think I’ll ever have another occasion to wear it.

Most of the best events happened either on or just before Halloween itself. One of the things we did the night before Halloween was carve our jack-o-lanterns. We usually picked up the pumpkins themselves a few days ahead of time and kept them in the garage to keep them fresh until the night we carved them. Then we’d cover the dining room table with newspaper, fetch the pumpkins, and get to work. We would come up with a design or face we wanted to do and draw it on the pumpkin as a guideline for whoever would cut the gourd. When my sister and I were little, this person was usually Dad, but as we got older we were allowed to cut our own pumpkins.

My sister and I typically picked out pumpkins that were a pleasing, uniform shade of orange, with gentle, rounded lines and a proportional appearance. When we chose faces to carve, we almost always went for the more traditional jack-o-lantern faces, with triangle eyes and a jagged mouth.

Our dad, however, was a master of truly creepy pumpkin faces. He had long ago liberated himself from the notion that a jack-o-lantern had to be carved into a perfectly-formed orange pumpkin, and that it required two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. He often picked deformed-looking or odd-colored pumpkins to carve, and worked with the natural contours of the pumpkin for maximum creepy effect.

I still remember one pumpkin he carved when I was in elementary school. It was small and darkly-pigmented, with crusty bits around the stem. He gave it a single gaping eye and a small, slack-looking mouth with two pointy upper teeth. It may not sound like much, but the effect when a flickering tea candle was placed inside was oddly unnerving.

Before we could carve the faces, though, our pumpkins had to be completely scooped out. This wasn’t just for ease of carving- since we used actual lit candles to illuminate our jack-o-lanterns, the insides of the pumpkins had to be free of any dangling bits that could potentially catch fire. This was accomplished by scooping out all the slippery pumpkin innards with our bare hands and then scraping the inside walls of the pumpkin and the underside of the stem-handled “cap” with the side of a large spoon. Since the pumpkins were fresh from an unheated garage at the end of October in Wisconsin, they were really cold, making this a bit less fun of a task than one might think. Every so often we’d have to stop and wash off our slimy hands in hot water to get proper feeling back in our fingertips.

The pumpkin seeds and goo were put into big mixing bowls to be dumped out onto the garden as compost the next day. Scraping the insides of the pumpkins was hard work, especially if they hadn’t warmed up enough yet. The cold vegetable matter could be unbelievably tough for small hands to work with, and the large spoons were awkward to hold and dug into our hands. My sister and I were very glad when our mother finally bought us a pumpkin-carving kit with comfortable plastic scrapers.

When we’d gotten approval from our parents that our pumpkins had been adequately cleared out and scraped clean, we could start the actual business of carving. We used regular kitchen knives, following our marker scribbles as best we could despite the slipperiness of the pumpkins and our own tiredness. My sister and I never managed to cut ourselves carving our pumpkins. Looking back at the state of mind in which this venture was typically undertaken and my own legendary clumsiness, this is something of a small miracle.

By the time we’d finished making sure that every cut was just right, we really just wanted to go to sleep. As was tradition, however, we always took the freshly carved jack-o-lanterns out to the front porch, put the tea candles inside, and lit them. This was our chance to appreciate our evening’s work, and to get the full impact of our designs. We’d admire our handiwork, take a couple of pictures, and then blow out the candles and take the pumpkins back inside. We never left them out overnight until Halloween night itself to keep them safe from being smashed or stolen by vandals. After Halloween, they deteriorated quickly, and the holiday was over anyway, so their safety was no longer a priority and they were left outside.

The next day was the most important day in the whole month-long excitement: Halloween itself! All day was spent in tense anticipation at school, where smart teachers would realize that their pupils’ attention lay firmly elsewhere, and so would give us a free day to study, or even occasionally a little party. Once or twice, the holiday fell on a weekend, which was its own special kind of wonderful, since we could spend the whole day preparing for the coming night, but Halloween almost always fell on a week day. When school was finally over, I would race back home to take care of my own special contribution to the holiday: decorating the front porch.

When I went trick or treating, I always loved the houses with elaborately decorated porches. Not only were these houses more likely to have good candy since their occupants obviously didn’t skimp on Halloween accessories, they were more fun to visit. It was cool to see the effort people put into making their houses appropriately spooky for trick or treaters, and I always wanted to do something like that with my own house. When I was about eleven or so, I took matters into my own hands and bought a bunch of outdoor decorations from the local Walgreens. I decorated the porch myself, and it became a tradition.

Every year I would buy new decorations to add to my collection, and every year just before trick or treating started, I would go outside armed with a chair and a large quantity of masking tape and prepare the porch. This was something I did by myself, with no help at all from any other family members, because I always had a “vision” of what I wanted the porch to look like, and I had to do everything myself if it was going to turn out looking anything like I wanted it to. While my efforts never turned out quite as spectacular as some of the houses we visited in our trick or treating rounds, I was always proud of my efforts to jazz up our porch.

When I finished decorating the porch, it was dinner time, and then time to change into our costumes and head out for a long night of happily accepting candy from strangers. The sun always set nice and early in late October, and it got dark really quickly. The glow from street lights, porch lights, and jack-o-lanterns guided us children in our quest to obtain truly massive amounts of free sugar.

The city gave us only a few hours to collect all the candy we could, so we moved quickly, tennis shoes flashing under our cumbersome costumes and layers of clothing. It was always exhilarating, rushing through the clear, cold night, catching glimpses of twinkling stars up above our heads. The porch lights shone like tiny lighthouses in the darkness, guiding us to the next stop on our adrenaline-fueled expedition.

When my sister and I were little, we wouldn’t venture very far from home, and we would just make one trip with one of our parents while the other stayed behind to hand out candy. When we got a little older, we’d make two trips, dropping off the candy collected with one parent on the first trip before heading back out into the night with the second parent in tow. When we got even older, my sister would tag along when I’d go trick or treating with a few people I was on somewhat friendly terms with from school. Those trips would end early, and we’d go back out with one of our parents for the real bulk of our Halloween haul.

When we finally decided to call it a night and go home, we had another tradition that lasted as long as we went trick or treating. My sister and I would set up at opposite ends of the kitchen table and dump out our entire haul of candy. Then we’d go through it with our parents, ostensibly to check for anything dangerous that might be hidden amongst the goodies, but really to see what kind of candy we’d gotten, how much of our favorites we had, how many people had given us nasty cheap stuff, to give Mom and Dad whatever we didn’t want, and to trade jokes and stories about the night’s activities.

Once we’d finished going through the whole lot, we’d stuff the sweets back into our jack-o-lantern shaped trick or treat buckets and weight them on the bathroom scale. If I recall correctly, the biggest haul I ever got weighed at least twelve pounds altogether and was the result of three separate trips and an incredibly rushed dinner.

After the ceremonial weighing, we could finally start actually eating the candy. Halloween was the one night we didn’t have any candy restrictions, so my sister and I were free to eat until we felt pleasantly ill.

The night was still somewhat young yet, and when I was younger there was still one more treat in store for us. Halloween and New Year’s Eve were the only two nights of the year that the TV show The Addams Family was broadcast in our area. As a naturally morbid and occasionally creepy child myself, I always enjoyed watching it. Thankfully, the rest of my family agreed that it was television worth watching, so after the candy sorting we would all plunk down on the couch to stay up late and watch a few hours of it , even if the next day was a school day and we had to get up early. Unfortunately, this tradition did not last long, as the network that did the special broadcasts stopped doing so after a few years. They’d show Halloween episodes of other old TV shows, but The Addams Family sadly never returned to the air.

Finally, it would be time to go to bed. My sister and I would set our candy-filled buckets on the kitchen counter and blow out the candles in our jack-o-lanterns before trudging upstairs. We’d wipe off our make-up, change into our pajamas, and practically collapse with exhaustion. We’d quickly fall into deep and dreamless sleep and wake the next morning still sleepy, but still happy from the previous evening’s fun. Halloween may have been over, but its influence kept us content enough to keep us from being at each others’ throats.

Halloween was always a busy day, and it did always leave us tired. Despite our weariness, however, it was one of those rare occasions when our family as a whole almost always got along. Voices were rarely raised, and we all worked as a family to wring the maximum possible amount of fun from the day. This could be a welcome respite from typical tensions and conflicts. It was as if the night really was magical, and gave us a few precious hours to forget our disagreements and enjoy ourselves. The fond memories I have of Halloween will always be a treasured part of my childhood.

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About Ellen P. Petri

  • That pumpkin looks like something you’d see in a UK dentist’s waiting room.