Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Halloween in the Red Dirt

Can I just start out by stating that I am conflicted about Halloween?

We actually had a peaceful Halloween. We carved and painted jack-o-lanterns Monday night. Our porch is decorated with one string of Halloween "tacky lights" that we had originally purchased to hang on our trailer (it's hard to explain tacky lights if you've never camped at an RV park). Also hanging is a pumpkin windsock that I bought on clearance for $1 in 1994. We have a lot of pumpkins, because I love pumpkins and fall, and having pumpkins on our stoop all October has made me very happy. In addition to the jack-o-lanterns I lit several candles on the porch table.

We had a simple supper of beans, then the boys dressed in costume (same as last year, Darth Vader and a Storm Trooper) and Papa took them out. Girl Dog got to go too. I settled into the rocker on the front porch, working on a knit hat. After half an hour my hands were getting cold and I had yet to have any trick-or-treaters (we had about 10 right at 5 p.m.) so I went inside. I lit about 30 candles and did more knitting. The quiet and candles were both beautiful and peaceful, which was welcome after a full day of Halloween anticipation by the boys. I had 3 families come by in the hour and 15 minutes Papa and the boys were gone. We had about 5 more after they came home and that was it. The boys put on their pajamas, we watched It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and then I read them Sheep Trick or Treat and The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything before brushing their teeth and tucking them into bed.

Growing up, Halloween was simple. Most often it occured on a school day. We'd wear our costumes to school: hand-me-downs, Kmart specials, cobbled together "homemade" costumes. There would be a parade and a costume contest, which was always won by a child whose mother had spent 6 months designing and sewing his/her costume. I wasn't jealous; that's just not the kind of costumes we had. I didn't feel like my mom had to compete with anyone.

We would come home from school and carve our pumpkin (only one), which had been purchased at the grocery store, probably the day before. Pumpkin carving was easy in those days; we kids were trusted to use the knives, we did the design and carving, and no one ever lost a finger. We didn't have pumpkin carving tools and stenciled designs; Martha Stewart had yet to turn pumpkin carving into an art form.

My mother would roast the pumpkin seeds in plenty of margarine (we were a margarine house, the cheap stuff) and salt them well. This was the one time each year that we had pumpkin seeds. The pumpkin seeds sold in convenience stores (David brand) held no allure, and pepitas were yet to become a gourmet food item.

We had an early dinner, probably macaroni and cheese, and then my dad would take us out to trick-or-treat. Mom stayed home to pass out candy; she loved seeing the children come to the door in their costumes. She still does.

Our "treat bags" were pillowcases. The local newspaper didn't send a slick plastic bag with Sunday's newspaper, with a full-color advertisment of the lastest children's movie to hit DVD. We didn't carry Longaberger baskets or light-up pumpkin buckets. Some children did have pumpkin buckets, but they were basic models picked up at Kmart for less than a buck.

(Growing up we had Kmart. Target didn't arrive until I was a teen, and Walmart hit the scene after I was married.)

We trick-or-treated in our neighborhood. We didn't cruise the streets in a minivan, looking for the most happening streets. Going up and down the street the neighbors knew who we were, because we played in our front yards, tossed baseballs in the street, and roller-skated up and down the sidewalks.

We'd come home, pillowcases heavy, and we'd sort the candy according to our favorites. Miniature Snickers bars and bags of M 'n Ms topped my list. We'd eat as much as we wanted, right then, before bed. If we were lucky CBS might be showing It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We didn't own it on VHS or DVD, ready to play at a moment's notice.

Halloween is different now. We actually don't get a lot of trick-or-treaters, because we live about 2 blocks from the best place in the red dirt to go for trick-or-treating. It is so chaotic out there that they have to block off the streets. People drive from all over to take their kids to this neighborhood. Some of my own neighbors told me that they were going to skip passing out candy on our block and just head over to the other neighborhood. Indeed, many of the hosues on our street were dark.

Something about this just seems wrong. Instead of visiting their neighbors people take their children where they will get the most (and most expensive) candy. It makes me sad. Our first Halloween in this house came the month after we moved in, and taking T-Guy out was a great way to meet the neighbors (Papa stayed home with the J-baby). We talked to the elderly woman who walked her dogs past our house everyday, and the man across the street whose family had bought the house when it was first built; he was born in that house. I'll never forget the older man who had just lost his wife; he invited us in to see his house, to get a glimpse of her, although she was gone. The rug she chose, her antiques, the kitchen. Some of those neighbors are gone now, however I still enjoy taking a few minutes to catch up with everyone as we walk up and down the street. Time passes, we get older and the children grow bigger. People die, and babies are born. Families move out, new families move in.

Why the conflict? Halloween is fun. My boys look forward to it for months. But it is so commercial now. Halloween decorations go on sale the day after the Fouth of July. The amount of plastic junk sold each year is staggering, most of it is made in China, and destined for the landfill after just one season. People can buy pre-carved "pumpkins" made of foam. Not only is that not fun, it is toxic. Really, if you can't carve a pumpkin yourself due to arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome, why not invite a neighborhood child to carve it for you?

People need to make connections. Don't drive 20 minutes to go to another neighborhood to trick-or-treat...go out and meet your own neighbors. Think about the earth; wear a costume more than once, buy second hand costumes, offer and accept hand-me-downs. Make costumes out of your dress-up clothing; when J-Baby was 3 he wore his brother's firefighter rain slicker, a pair of rain boots, and a fire helmet he had received as a party favor. If you want to decorate think about pumpkins and natural materials, which degrade into compost. Make a banner out of wool felt and use it year after year. Make your own garlands out of paper. Whatever you do, don't buy fake plastic "candles" for your pumpkins; the plastic and batteries are both environmentally unfriendly. You can use real candles and be safe; make sure the candles are in glass holders and don't leave them unattended. Place the jack-o-lanterns away from where little ones in costumes are walking.

Perhaps I am less conflicted that I thought. I realize now that I made the holiday exactly what we wanted it to be. The boys had a great time. The big difference? After today all of their candy gets sent to work with Papa, to share with his co-workers. I had better see if I can find a miniature Snickers bar before then....

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